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Ford Uses Leading-Edge Virtual Lab To Deliver Increased Comfort, Visibility And Quality


DEARBORN, Mich. – An exclusive suite of powerful virtual design tools is helping Ford Motor Company cost effectively shave months off the product development process, while improving the quality, comfort and customer appeal of its cars and trucks.

Ford product development is anywhere from eight to 14 months faster than it was as recently as 2004. That acceleration is due, in part, to Ford’s leadership in combining the most advanced virtual and digital tools available.

“We’re really competitive in terms of time to market thanks in part to our digital capabilities,” said Derrick Kuzak, Ford group vice president of Global Product Development. “Using the technologies at hand to continue accelerating the development of quality products that customers want and value is an essential part of this company’s success going forward.”

Many of the industry-exclusive virtual tools being utilized by Ford engineers and designers are housed inside the Immersive Virtual Review (iVR) lab at the Product Development Center in Dearborn. Here, designers and engineers can evaluate early vehicle designs against a backdrop of virtual conditions and literally experience a vehicle from someone else’s vantage point before it is built, helping create Ford, Lincoln and Mercury products that provide the “perfect fit” for almost all customer body types.

“Ford is the industry leader when it comes to melding state-of-the-art motion capture and immersive virtual reality tools to yield a number of impressive results,” said Elizabeth Baron, Ford’s VR & Advanced Visualization Technical Specialist. “They include better visibility, quality and comfort for vehicle occupants, not to mention faster-to-market product delivery for Ford and overall cost savings that benefit everyone.”

In Their Shoes
In days gone by, Ford designers and engineers would don suits to simulate mobility issues associated with aging, or even pregnancy. That’s all a thing of the past, according to Eero Laansoo, a Ford Human Factors Engineer.

“One of the questions I often get asked is, ‘Do engineers really wear pregnancy suits?’ and the answer is, ‘We used to.’ There is no better way to get to know the customer than by walking a mile in their shoes. What was so effectively measured by wearing the suits – such as the difficulty you may have with finding a comfortable seating position – is now done digitally.”

Within the iVR lab, anthropometric research gathered by engineers like Laansoo is studied to ensure vehicle designs can accommodate the broadest range of customers. Items evaluated range from the obvious such as reach and roominess, ingress, and egress, to examining door-handle location.

Such design considerations are increasingly important as U.S. demographics show a population that is growing older as well as larger. Census statistics show that:

* Nearly one in three Americans now meets the American Medical Association’s classification of “obese.” The same data shows that 30 percent of all adults over age 20 have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or greater.
* Approximately 51.2 million people say they have a disability; for 32.5 million of them, the disability is severe.
* Thirteen percent of the total population is 65 and older. The number of people 85 and older is 5.5 million.

“The iVR lab gives us a compelling competitive advantage because as a vehicle design is developed in the digital world, it can also be quickly and cost-effectively evaluated for optimal form and function in the iVR lab using real-world customer data,” said Baron.

The specialized tools within the iVR lab that make such wide-ranging customer evaluations possible include a Cave Automated Virtual Environment (CAVE), a Programmable Vehicle Model (PVM) and an open-volume immersive station.

CAVE utilizes advanced motion-tracking equipment and computer software to generate virtual vehicle interiors and exteriors at actual scale, reducing the need to build physical prototypes.

Within the CAVE, designers can evaluate the ergonomics of the interior, exterior craftsmanship and clarity of views. The evaluator, for example, can look over his or her shoulder to judge whether the 2nd row headrest would obscure a driver’s view or to determine if the package tray under the rear window is too high.

“The CAVE offers a wide field of view with peripheral vision,” said Baron. “Virtually anything you can see on a vehicle can be duplicated, from the A-pillar to the underbody.”

Before the digital explosion, an interior design team would build a stationary three-dimensional physical buck to evaluate items such as seating positions, headroom and steering wheel angle. This buck lacked the flexibility to accommodate multiple design iterations during the evolution of a vehicle program – meaning that each round of design changes required either modifications to the existing buck or the construction of a new one, adding time and cost to a product’s development.

Ford’s PVM is a sophisticated computer-controlled, adjustable physical device that can instantly take on the dimensions of the full-size interior of any product so engineers can evaluate multiple design options against a number of criteria, including reach, blind spots, reflections, headroom and steering wheel angle, just to name a few.

Ford is the first in the industry to mesh a PVM with sophisticated motion-capture technology to recreate a realistic virtual vehicle and driving experience that features passing cars and pedestrians.

Evaluators simply enter, for example, the Flex-dimensioned PVM, put on a headset and gloves and become totally immersed in a digital Flex drive. In this virtual world, they can interact with the Flex’s steering wheel, centerstack controls and instrument cluster while moving through a virtual town.

According to Baron, the PVM coupled with virtual simulation allows engineers to see how their designs are affected by the physical placement of the components. “With the physical touch-points of the customer represented in the PVM, we can effectively simulate the comfort of the beltline, the ease of reach for the shifter and other key areas,” said Baron.

PVM simulations on the Flex lead to several important design changes. Flex’s seats, for example, were moved closer to the door openings for smoother entry and exit, and the rocker panels were concealed, a unique Flex feature that provides customers an unexpected surprise-and-delight benefit. “Hiding the sill [rocker panel], removed the need to lift your legs over a potentially muddy surface, greatly reducing your chances of rubbing dirt onto your pants, skirt or dress,” said Laansoo.

Open-Volume Station
In the open-volume station, an operator, outfitted with a special headset and gloves, can immediately be immersed in a computer-generated virtual vehicle interior or exterior environment – complete with accurate depth perception – and be asked to perform certain tasks such as closing a liftgate or decklid.

The operator’s actions are then captured by sophisticated cameras that track the movement of the sensors on the headset and gloves and can be loaded into a computer program for further scaled studies.

In the case of the Lincoln MKS, the open-volume station was used to test multiple iterations of the sedan’s centerstack at varying eye points, looking for the best possible placement of controls and displays for visibility, obscuration, find-ability and reach-ability.

According to Baron, the open-volume virtual simulation allows engineers to see how their designs interact with people of different statures. “We can simply and quickly scale an evaluator to another person’s stature so they can perform the same task at a different physical dimension – a 4’9’’ woman can become a 6’3’’ man or vice versus,” said Baron.

Pat Schiavone, a Ford design director, notes that such testing was critical to creating appealing and functional designs for vehicles like the Lincoln MKS and Flex. “For an automobile to truly have good design, it can’t just be aesthetically pleasing, the design also needs to be user friendly and safe. These new tools allow us to quickly and accurately ensure, during the development process, that we are achieving our goals.”

Ford Motor Company
Ford Motor Company, a global automotive industry leader based in Dearborn, Mich., manufactures or distributes automobiles across six continents. With about 229,000 employees and about 90 plants worldwide, the company’s core and affiliated automotive brands include Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Volvo and Mazda. The company provides financial services through Ford Motor Credit Company. For more information regarding Ford’s products, please visit


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