Ford creates virtual factory to simulate assembly-line process

A virtual factory that simulates the full assembly-line process is being developed by Ford.

In a statement, the company said the facility would help improve quality and cut costs in real-world manufacturing plants by creating and analysing computer simulations of vehicle production procedures.

‘We have already started work on our virtual factory project so that we won’t have to go to the real assembly line to conduct tests or research possible plant upgrades,’ said José Terrades, simulations engineer at Ford of Spain.

‘Virtual factories will enable Ford to preview and optimise the assembly of future models at any of our plants, anywhere in the world. With the advanced simulations and virtual environments we already have at our disposal, we believe this is something Ford can achieve in the very near future.’

In 1997, Ford was the first car maker to use computer simulations to plan vehicle assembly at facilities worldwide. Computer simulation is now integrated into Ford’s development processes.

‘The final assembly process simulations we use today allow us to do much more than simply plan our build sequences,’ said Nick Newman, implementation manager at Ford of Germany. ‘We can piece together complete cars in a virtual environment and assess the construction down to the finest detail, and we plan to implement this even more widely in the future.’

Ford uses cameras to scan and digitise its real-world manufacturing facilities to create realistic 3D virtual assembly environments. The company’s Valencia plant, in Spain, is taking the lead in developing virtual factory environments, which could enable remote evaluations.

Projectors and polarising motion-sensing glasses are used to create interactive 3D virtual-reality manufacturing scenarios.

The actions required by real-life assembly-line operators are simulated inside these environments to help Ford ergonomics experts eliminate strenuous postures and optimise individual aspects of the assembly process.

Ford’s ergonomics experts in Cologne, Germany, use the computer simulations to scrutinise the fitment process for even the smallest components and to determine what is required to make the task as straightforward as possible for the assembly-line operator.

Ford’s virtual employee ‘Jack’ can simulate the actions of male and female assembly-line workers to test and evaluate processes in fine detail, right down to the movement of the operator’s fingers within an enclosed space. Jack’s software evaluates the demands on the real-world operator and uncovers 80 per cent of ergonomics issues at the simulation stage.

Virtual operative 'Jack' busy at work