Ford Motor Enters Digital Era With Its Advanced Manufacturing Center

(Image source: Ford Motor Company)

Industrial Evolution

From the initial development of machinery and processes, through to mass production, then the integration of computers and automation, the first three industrial revolutions pushed the boundaries of our manufacturing capabilities to new levels.

The fourth industrial revolution or Industry 4.0 is currently underway, and builds on those technological leaps. Through cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, cognitive computing, and other technologies, Industry 4.0 has been connecting machines to one another with digitally enabled technology, to create a more seamless manufacturing environment.

Download this FULL CASE STUDY for free as a PDF

Industry 4.0 represents a major shift in outlook and operations for all businesses involved in the manufacture of products, and its technology is being adopted by organizations across the globe. In the tradition of its founder whose visionary ambition was to “put the world on wheels,” teFord Motor Company has embraced this new reality, and created a hub for innovation in its brand-new Advanced Manufacturing Center (AMC).

Reinventing The Assembly Line For A Connected Future

In an effort to accelerate manufacturing innovation, Ford Motor Company has brought advanced engineering expertise and technology together in a single location - an incubator for prototypes, before tested innovations can be rolled out to auto plants across the globe. The 135,000-square-foot facility was opened in the summer of 2018.

Ford's new facility is located in the manufacturing heartland of Redford, Michigan, and represents an investment of around $45 million. The Advanced Manufacturing Center has a workforce bolstered by over 100 manufacturing technology experts, and is home to a host of specialized equipment.

Ford was responsible for the innovation that heralded the Second Industrial Revolution: the creation of the first moving assembly line - a development which changed forever the way that vehicles would be mass-produced. With its new Advanced Manufacturing Center, the company looks to extend its tradition of innovation even further.

As Joe Hinrichs, Ford's President of Global Operations puts it: "Today, we are reinventing tomorrow's assembly line - tapping technologies once only dreamed of on the big screen - to increase our manufacturing efficiency and quality."

(Image source: Ford Motor Company)

Enhancing Production Through Additive Manufacturing

Wasteful traditional methods of manufacture rely on cutting components out of native materials (steel, wood, etc.) - then throwing away the excess. This takes a toll not only on the environment, but also on the enterprise, as much of this waste material can't be reclaimed or reprocessed, and translates into lost revenue.

Additive manufacturing eliminates this wastage by creating components out of layers of material, which are fused together to form a cohesive whole. Precise amounts of material may be used in making each layer, and these layers - which often have extremely intricate and complex shapes - can be accurately designed using computers.

3D printing is the most widely recognized and accessible form of additive manufacturing - and Ford Motor Company has been a trend-setter in this field, since its acquisition of one of the earliest 3D printers back in 1988.

Though the technology was initially focused on the techniques of "rapid prototyping", additive manufacture and 3D printing are now being used for more than just the simple production of concept models. With the development of new materials and processes, additive manufacturing is emerging as a valuable tool to assist in production applications, and to act in support of mainstream production.

(Image source: Ford Motor Company)

Ford currently has almost 100 additive manufacturing machines spread around 90 global locations. Of these, 23 are located at the Advanced Manufacturing Center.

The materials used in 3D printing tens of thousands of parts include, steel, sand, carbon, and nylon powder. Most of these components are created for products which are currently at the prototype stage. It's expected that they will play a key role in the development of new automobile technology - and to this end, Ford has partnered with 10 3D manufacturing companies to maximize the gains of its advanced manufacturing initiative.

Harold Sears, the Technical Leader of Additive Manufacturing Technologies at Ford, identifies two key areas where 3D printing is making an impact on the company's manufacturing operations: The first is in supporting current production processes with more efficient tooling, jigs, and fixtures. And the second lies in actually using these improved processes in the manufacturing space.

Product development processes have accelerated, due to the ability of designers to make 3D printed models of several different designs, which can then be tested by engineers simultaneously. This saves the company money in not having to make several iterations of the same design, and greatly reduces a component's time to market.

The practical benefits of additive manufacturing are already being felt. For instance, the new Shelby Mustang GT500 has 3D-printed brake-bracket parts - an innovation which has enabled the super-performance muscle car to claim the title of the fastest street-enabled Ford Mustang ever. Unveiled in January at the North American International Auto Show, the 2019 Shelby GT500 uses 420mm (16.8 inch) two-piece brake rotors - the largest of any American sports coupe.

(Image source: AUTOCAR UK)

Additive fabrication methods have also contributed to the design of the 2019 F-150 Raptor, a pickup truck that features an instrument-panel spotlight-switch blanking plug which was designed and 3D printed specifically for the Chinese market.

(Image source:  Ford Motor Company)

Besides motor parts, in-house 3D printing technology is also used to generate production line tools for engineers and assembly line employees. At an individual level, this makes it possible to design and fabricate tools ergonomically, to match the specific physical requirements of each worker such as hand size, or grip strength.

In production, it's possible to design and print tools which are tailored specifically for certain projects. For example, at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant five different 3D printed tools are used in constructing the Ranger pickup. The custom tools fabricated prior to the launch of the Ranger removed weeks from an already tight production schedule - and ensured that quality was consistent and inherent in every vehicle that rolled off the assembly line.

On the production line floor, workers can collaborate with advanced manufacturing experts to identify ways in which additive manufacturing techniques can save the company time and money. This includes the design, specification, and printing of 3D replacement parts that can keep production lines running, rather than having to wait days or even weeks for parts to be ordered or fabricated elsewhere.

(Image source:  Ford Motor Company)

Ford's collaboration with 3D manufacturing partners has allowed the company's experts to develop a range of applications with different materials. One of those currently under development has the potential to save the company more than $2 million. It's anticipated that, as 3D printing becomes more affordable, 3D parts will become more widespread - throughout the enterprise, and in the industry at large.

This growth in additive technologies is expected to fuel a demand for new staff recruitment and training methods, to enable organizations to source the skills necessary for 3D printing operations and other Industry 4.0 enabled tasks. Ford has begun addressing this need by training employees to use Design for Additive Manufacturing (DfAM) methodologies. These methods require trainees to take a more wide-ranging view of the design process - one that encompasses the production process, software, and hardware. Taking Design To New Planes With Augmented And Virtual Reality

Industry 4.0 technology also has an impact on the conceptual phase of automobile production, and the Advanced Manufacturing Center uses augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies at the design stage. The digital environments enable Ford's engineers to create virtual production lines, run test case scenarios, identify potential hazards, and fine-tune the manufacturing process long before the first vehicle is ever assembled.

Ford experts use specialized gaming equipment to configure virtual reality production lines with the real-world potential to make millions of vehicles - all from within the Advanced Manufacturing Center. Augmented reality overlays and virtual reality simulations allow them to identify potentially hazardous maneuvers and fine tune production workflows, long before the assembly lines are constructed.

(Image source:  Ford Motor Company)

With internet connectivity, the design process can be made both collaborative and global. Augmented and virtual reality spaces accessed via the internet empower Ford manufacturing teams around the world to collaborate on training or assembly techniques, simultaneously sharing the same virtual experience.

These technologies compress production timetables, enable technicians to unlock solutions in real time, and allow Ford to optimize its manufacturing workstations for each location globally.

Humans And Machines, Working Together In Harmony

Robots have been part of the production line ecosystem for some years now, and in the Industry 4.0 era Ford has developed a particular interest in collaborative robots - or cobots, as they are familiarly known. These machines are designed to operate alongside human workers, and the company has installed over 100 of them across 24 of its facilities.

Having a smaller footprint and often a greater degree of mobility than robots of previous generations, cobots are designed for safety, removing the need to enclose them in expensive and hard to access protective cages. They can also operate in conditions that would be hazardous to humans - and work for longer time periods. For example at Ford's Livonia Transmission Plant, a cobot is used to perform ergonomic tasks which health and safety concerns only allow a human worker to attempt for one hour at a time.

(Image source:  Ford Motor Company)

Specialists at the Advanced Manufacturing Center are investigating the use of cobots to identify any potential challenges before they are deployed in factories around the world. Monitoring the performance of cobots at the Advanced Manufacturing Center allows the company to identify and address potential production issues before the automated machines are installed in Ford's other facilities.

One of the biggest issues that the use of robots has traditionally raised is its impact on human employment. It's been estimated that robots may hold nearly 40% of all American jobs by the early 2030s. This has become particularly relevant as, according to research by Loup Ventures 34% of the industrial robots sold by 2025 will be collaborative - and the industrial robotics market is expected to grow by 175% over the next decade. The primary focus of that growth is expected to be on collaborative, assistive platforms.

(Image source: Loup Ventures)

The automotive industry is set to lead this trend, with adoption being driven by advancements in computer vision, artificial intelligence (AI), and motion sensing capabilities. In future, it's believed that the rise in low-cost collaborative robotics technologies will increase access to automation technology across a range of new applications, which will drive adoption across a new set of verticals.

(Image source: Loup Ventures)

Technology aside, robots are viewed as very much a complementary part of Ford's manufacturing ecosystem, rather than any form of replacement for its human workforce. Collaborative robots need people to work alongside the machinery - and they also need human workers dedicated to their maintenance, development, and operations.

In the words of Joe Hinrichs: “While we are increasing our use of collaborative robots, we strongly believe there is a need for both people and robots. People are better at doing certain jobs, while robots are able to perform certain tasks, including those that are ergonomically taxing for people.”

Humans And Machines, Moving Forward

The interaction between humans and machines that's being promoted by the Ford Motor Company extends beyond the factory floor to the design ethic and functionality of its new breed of automobiles. In addition to its 3D printed components, the F-150 pickup truck is serving as a flagship model for the use of Industry 4.0 digital technologies in enhancing the driving experience.

Ford's Global Director of Interaction & Ergonomics, Parrish Hanna heads the team that's steering Ford and the F-150 toward the cutting edge of human machine interaction (HMI). He oversees the work of over130 researchers, engineers, and designers who are discovering new ways to incorporate digital technology into the F-150 - from instrument panels through to lighting, acoustic design, in-car entertainment systems, and other features.

To understand and establish that the technologies being placed in the F-150 are useful and desirable, the team employs specialists in human culture who ride along in the back seat as unbiased observers, looking for patterns, interactions, and new behaviors surrounding the vehicle technology. New technologies are tested at "hotspots" such as truck rallies and auto shows, where researchers can get grassroots opinions from passionate truck people about what works, and what doesn’t.

The feedback loop involves analysis of the resulting customer data, and the presentation of those findings in the form of revised concepts which are floated to actual truck users to assess their reactions.

This methodology has led to the development of My View, an on-board configuration system which allows F-150 drivers to customize the content and order of the truck’s driver cockpit screens – and to access them with the touch of finger. Personalization options like this are part of a fresh and far-reaching approach to human machine interaction and technology integration, which Hanna describes as: "A much more holistic system, including new disciplines and other groups within Ford, such as advance research, design and marketing.”

The (Connected) Road Ahead

With its commitment to cutting edge technologies like collaborative robots, 3D printing, augmented and virtual reality, Ford has firmly established itself as an important innovator in the field of connective automotive manufacturing - both now, and into the future.

In the Advanced Manufacturing Center, the Ford Motor Company has created a formidable testing ground where the latest Industry 4.0 technology can be put through its paces, before it rolls out to global factories.

Ford Motor Company's Chief Engineer for Advanced Manufacturing, Michael Mikula, will be speaking at Connected Manufacturing Forum 2019, which will be held in July at the Hilton Austin, Austin, TX.

Download this FULL CASE STUDY for free as a PDF

Return to Blog