Detroit Goes Digital: Inside Ford’s Virtual Manufacturing

detroit goes digital inside fords virtual manufacturing preassembly lab

A Ford factory worker toes up to the bumper of a Ford Fiesta, dips down over the engine compartment, and clips in one lead coming from a multi-headed hydra of wires leading back to the car’s brain – the ECU. It’s only one in thousands of steps required to turn a pile of steel, plastic and leather into the Fiesta that will eventually drive off the assembly line under its own power, but remarkable because the connector doesn’t actually exist.

Neither does the ECU. Or the manifold he’s plugging it into. Or, for that matter, the 2014 Fiesta he’s working on, which is three years ahead of the 2011 model the public has only recently laid eyes on.

At Ford’s digital preassembly lab in Dearborn, Michigan, workers simulate not just the parts and design of upcoming vehicles, but the physical labor needed to put them together by thousands of workers in factories across the United States. Using motion-capture technology borrowed from Hollywood, actors studded in motion-capture points like miniature ping pong balls simulate building virtual cars on a skeletal aluminum mockup, while computers capture their every movement from 15 different cameras. Ford compares the data from the actors to existing biomechanical models to determine whether workers will strain too much to put a car together, then they modify the design to compensate. Working nearly two years out from first production means the changes take place with keystrokes, rather than recasting thousands of parts and scrapping the old ones.

It’s a level of foresight, refinement and complexity you would expect from some sort of hyper-advanced alien race engineering starships – or maybe the Japanese. But they’re here. In the United States. Applying it to what might be your next rental car.

Ford’s embrace of digital technology to redefine the traditional way of building cars stretches from digital drafting boards and design juries right down to driving and in-car simulators that attempt to predict – and account for – how drivers will react to different cues on the road. And the digital age has had some interesting products: A 305-horsepower Mustang that tears away from stoplights with authority but gets 31 miles to the gallon on the highway. An economy car with a six-speed automatic transmission that delivers all the fuel economy of a manual. A whole line of cars that literally park themselves.

Follow the links below to check out our other articles on Ford’s new technology and find out how the age of digital design is changing the hunk of steel and rubber in your driveway for the better.