The Rise of Digital Humans in Auto Manufacturing

May 15, 2007

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With Chrysler selling off 80 percent of its assets and Ford Motor Co. considering a similar deal according to analysts, where does the American car industry go from here? You do what any self-respecting car exec would do to irritate the workforce further: invest in ergonomics research!

The United States Council for Automotive Research (USCAR), an organization composed of DaimlerChrysler, Ford Motor Company and General Motors Corporation, recently joined the Virtual Soldier Research (VSR) program partnership at the University of Iowa with a $1.5 million contract for manufacturing ergonomics research.

To be fair, $1.5 million really isn't much of an investment for such a large organization. But the implications of what the research is set to determine certainly raises a few questions about where automotive manufacturing is heading and the implications this might pose for the common worker. Here's how the $1.5 million breaks down:

• A study of the strength and fatigue limits of automotive manufacturing plant workers.

• The development and integration of ergonomics tools into "Santos" — VSR's computer representation of a human.

• The advancement of the field of predictive mathematics, also referred to as "Predictive Dynamics," to enable Santos to predict such variables as his own walking speed and direction while carrying various loads and while mathematically predicting various postures.

While futuristic creations like "Santos" are primarily concerned with predictive analytics, the notion of a robot, virtual or otherwise, conjures images and scenarios right out of Blade Runner, or even worse, I, Robot. Yes, these are extreme, perhaps absurd, examples, but with the VSR program we are starting to see real-world examples of how robots and "digital humans" can and will change people's lives. Just consider the objectives of VSR:

To develop a new generation of digital humans comprising realistic human models including anatomy, biomechanics, physiology, and intelligence in real-time. VSR's philosophy is based on a novel optimization-based approach for empowering these digital humans to perform, un-aided, in a physics-based world. Our objective is to test digital mockups of products and systems before they are built, thus reducing significant costs and time associated with making prototypes.

Obviously, everyone involved with the VSR program couldn't be happier with the idea of saving a few employees, er, bucks:

"We are excited to be partners in innovation with the Virtual Soldier Research program in pursuing a better understanding of the human component within automotive manufacturing," said Allison Stephens, chair of USCAR's Ergonomics Task Force and technical specialist in Ford's Vehicle Operations Manufacturing Engineering Department.

Robots in Western automotive plants often do welding work that blue-uniformed workers in, say, Liuzhou, China, do by hand. It makes sense in places like Liuzhou, where labor costs, including benefits, are well less than the $9 an hour GM says it pays in Shanghai.

But human component? Is that what Ford is calling its workforce these days? Sheesh.

Anyhow, stay tuned for next week's IMT newsletter, which will cover, among other topics, smart machines in manufacturing and artificial intelligence in robots.

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