Ford has developed what it claims is the world's first fully mobile aeroacoustic wind tunnel, an innovative, patent-pending test system that allows for sources of unwanted wind noise in early production vehicles to be identified faster and solutions developed sooner. Customers receive cars designed with a quiet interior essential to delivering a refined vehicle experience. 

"This project was born from a desire to be the best when it comes to controlling and limiting the cabin noise customers are so sensitive to," said Bill Gulker, the automaker's wind noise core supervisor. "And our new mobile wind tunnel saves our engineers time and increases productivity. It's a fine example of the innovation mindset we are trying to incorporate into everything we do."

The new wind tunnel made its debut at Flat Rock assembly plant in Michigan – joining a growing fleet of mobile testing facilities including three environmental evaluation chambers.

Full-sized aerodynamics labs, such as Ford's main wind tunnel in Allen Park, Michigan, are outfitted with the latest in sensitive measuring and analysis equipment. These office building-sized facilities are specialised for advanced aerodynamic and aeroacoustic development work on future models, with each facility costing about US$50m. Due to the specialised instruments and cost, running time for these machines is precious.

The new mobile wind tunnel costs a fraction of what a full-sized lab costs. Because testing requires only a steady stream of highway-speed wind, many of the large and sensitive instruments of a full aero lab are not required. But high-tech, in-cabin sensors like the Aachen head and noise vision can still be used.

With an on-site wind noise facility, factories can pull more sample vehicles directly from the line and test them with no delay – eliminating the time and complexity of shipping vehicles back and forth across the country.

Issues requiring assembly process refinement can be detected and resolved earlier, since everybody involved is on hand.

"Now, we are able to detect even the most subtle noises," said Gulker. "We can identify an area in need of improvement, have key people gather, communicate quickly, and resolve the issue without delay."

Similar in concept to a full-scale wind tunnel laboratory, the heart of the mobile facility is built inside two 53-foot shipping containers. Each includes aeroacoustic vanes and internal ducting to provide smooth, controlled air-flow at the nozzle end of the machine, while two 16-bladed, six-foot-diameter ducted fans – each powered by a 250hp electric motor – deliver a maximum blast of 80mph wind. A series of doors around the containers ensure the sections remain secure during transport or storage.

The machine consists of the two main containers fastened together side by side on flat, level tarmac. In between, two roll-up doors are lifted, while doors on the front and back ends are opened to create the air intake and outlet nozzle. A third, 40-foot container – housing a small office, power distribution and controls – is placed nearby, and data and power cabling are connected between the containers.

The entire operation can be broken down within a day, shipped to any North American assembly facility via truck, then reassembled at the new site and ready for testing within hours.

The ability to perform wind noise testing at the plants means the main wind tunnel in Allen Park is now freed up to concentrate on product development work for future models. This can lead to more time spent on each new vehicle, shortened development times and, ultimately, not only quieter cabins, but better fuel economy.

The development directly benefits the company's wind noise engineers both personally and professionally. They can now work more efficiently, as they no longer have to spend so much time away from their families, travelling to and from plants and the main facility.