• Ford betting on futuristic technology to help speed manufacturing innovation at its new centre in Redford, Michigan
  • Automaker will ramp up prototyping including 3D printing, augmented and virtual reality, robotics before bringing tested innovations to auto plants across the globe
  • $45 million investment co-locates approximately 100 advanced manufacturing technology experts and their specialised equipment in one open space
VR in use at the new centre

VR in use at the new centre

Inside Ford's new Advanced Manufacturing Center, an engineer stands in front of a 3D printing machine churning out brake parts for the soon to be introduced Shelby Mustang GT500. Across the room, two team members strap on virtual reality headsets to design and simulate production lines, while another is working alongside a collaborative robot, programming a safer way to install a vehicle part.

These are critical tools and technology to improve the complex and demanding task of building cars and trucks. And this is all happening every day under one roof at the company's new $45 million Advanced Manufacturing Center in Redford, Michigan.

"More than 100 years ago, Ford created the moving assembly line, forever changing how vehicles would be mass-produced," said Joe Hinrichs, president of global operations.

"Today, we are reinventing tomorrow's assembly line to increase our manufacturing efficiency and quality."

Approximately 100 people work at the development hub for cutting edge manufacturing technologies, including 3D printing, augmented and virtual reality, robotics and digital manufacturing.

3D Printing

Ford claims to be driving the future of 3D printing in the automotive industry. The Advanced Manufacturing Center has 23 3D printing machines and is working with 10 3D manufacturing companies. This allows engineers to develop applications with different materials – from sand to nylon powder to carbon. One application currently under development has the potential to save the company more than $2m.

There already are 3D printed parts in the manufacturing and production of vehicles. The upcoming Shelby Mustang GT500 has two 3D printed brake parts while the F-150 Raptor built for China includes a 3D printed interior part. As 3D printing becomes more affordable, 3D parts will become more prevalent.

Three-dimensional printed parts also help employees improve vehicle quality. Assembly line workers at Michigan Assembly Plant, who build the Ranger pickup, use five different 3D printed tools. These tools played a critical role in the launch of Ranger, removing weeks from an already tight timeline and ensuring quality is built in – from the first vehicle that rolled off the line.

Ford, which purchased the third 3D printer ever made in 1988, now has 90 3D printers globally producing parts and tools. On the shop floor, workers team with advanced manufacturing experts to identify ways to save the company time and money, including how to 3D print replacement parts to keep lines running instead of waiting for parts that can take weeks to be fabricated.

Augmented and Virtual Reality

Ford is banking on augmented and virtual reality to help it simulate and design assembly lines to build millions of vehicles. Engineers don specialised gaming equipment and configure a virtual reality production line without ever leaving the centre, allowing them to identify potentially hazardous manoeuvres and fine tune workflows long before an assembly line is constructed.

They also develop specialised experiences in augmented and virtual reality to allow manufacturing teams to work collaboratively in plants around the world. This enables people on different continents to work in the same virtual experience simultaneously. For instance, if a vehicle is intended to be produced globally, teams can work together to design optimal manufacturing workstations for all continents. This is advantageous because the technology allows teams from around the world to design a workstation for vehicle production as if they were standing in the same physical space.

Collaborative Robots

Ford has made significant advances during the last few years with collaborative robots – also known as cobots – with more than 100 of them in 24 plants globally.

These robots are smaller and can work safely alongside people, without protective cages. In Livonia Transmission Plant, a cobot performs a job that was so ergonomically difficult for employees that they could only do that job for one hour at a time. The cobot was a welcome addition to the production line. These cobots also help reduce costs by eliminating the need for expensive safety cages that larger robots require for safety reasons. Utilising cobots in the Advanced Manufacturing Center allows the company to identify and address potential production issues before the cobots are installed in plants.

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

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