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.

Cars

From cars to computers: How data is transforming F1 racing

After a single weekend of racing, a Formula 1 pit crew typically pulls around 2TB of data from the car. Everything, from tire pressure to the temperature of the track, is recorded and analyzed in the name of boosting performance -- and not…
Cars

Ford’s born-again Bronco off-roader will soothe your 1990s nostalgia

Ford confirmed it will bring the Bronco back to American showrooms in 2020. We haven't seen the truck yet, but dealers who got a preview of it during a private event say it's a true off-roader aimed directly at the Jeep Wrangler.
Cars

Autonomous shuttle rides coming to New York City via Optimus Ride

Workers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in NY City will soon be able to make their way around the 300-acre industrial park in Optimus Ride's self-driving shuttles. The tech startup says it's the first trial of its kind in the state.
Emerging Tech

The U.S. Army is building a giant VR battlefield to train soldiers virtually

Imagine if the U.S. Army was able to rehearse battlezone scenarios dozens, or even hundreds, or times before settling foot on actual terrain. Thanks to virtual reality, that's now a possibility.
Cars

Protect yourself and your ride with our favorite dash cams

Dashboard cameras can assist drivers in car accident claims, settle speeding ticket disputes, and even catch glimpses of incoming meteors, among other things. Here, we've compiled a list of the most noteworthy offerings available.
Cars

Tesla revives its referral program with chances to win a Roadster

Tesla has revived its referral program that ended in February because of cost pressures. This time around the perks aren't quite as diverse, though it does offer regular chances to win a Roadster or Model Y.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Robotic companions and computer-aided karaoke

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it's fun to gawk!
Cars

Tesla ends scheduled servicing because electric cars need less maintenance

Tesla will longer offer scheduled maintenance plans, switching to an "as needed" model. This reflects the fact that electric cars need less regular maintenance than gasoline or diesel cars.
Cars

The go kart-like Mini Cooper will soon add zero emissions to its resume

Mini is in the final stages of developing an electric version of the Cooper. The 2020 Cooper SE will receive powertrain components from the BMW i3, including a 181-horsepower electric motor and battery technology.
Product Review

By adding features, tech, and all-wheel drive, Mazda puts the 3 in a class of one

Since its introduction in 2003, Mazda’s compact Mazda3 has been a mainstay of the brand’s driver-oriented strategy. Mazda now plans to move upmarket, and the all-new 2019 Mazda3 offers some clues about how that’s going to work.
Cars

Tesla Model 3 vulnerability exposed at Pwn2Own; hackers take home the car

A Tesla Model 3 vulnerability was exposed at the Pwn2Own hacking competition. The hackers, who were able to display a message on the electric vehicle's internet browser, won $35,000 and took home the car.
Cars

Is this electric car startup the next Tesla, or will it go the way of Coda?

The electric car startup formerly known as EVelozcity has changed its name to Canoo. It also announced a lineup of four cars including a commuter-friendly model and a lifestyle-oriented car. Its first electric vehicles will begin to appear…
Cars

Recall bounty hunters needed as millions ignore deadly Takata airbag recall

It's the recall campaign from hell and too many people aren't responding. Toyota Motor North America (TMNA) and Carma Project want to give financial rewards to people who alert family and friends to the deadly Takata airbag recall.
Cars

Keep your driving record squeaky clean with these top-flight radar detectors

Nobody likes getting a speeding ticket, but these gadgets can help. Check out our picks for the best radar detectors on the market, from the likes of Valentine One, Escort, and Beltronics.