Ford is introducing a ‘virtual soldier’ – originally developed by the US military – to improve assembly line ergonomics and boost quality.

Dubbed ‘Santos’, Ford says the computerised avatar is designed with a complete biomechanical muscular system to provide feedback on fatigue, speed, strength and torque and is now in the testing phase. It is claimed that Santos can perform actions in the virtual world that can allow Ford to improve quality, safety and ergonomics in factories before an assembly line is built.

Santos was originally created for the US Department of Defence as part of the ‘Virtual Soldier Research’ program at the University of Iowa; the military employs Santos to find ways to ease the physical strain on soldiers.

Ford says that Santos has been heralded by ergonomists as a breakthrough in digital modeling.

“Creating the safest and most ergonomic way to build a vehicle is a trial-and-error process – in recent years technology has allowed this process to happen in the virtual world,” said Allison Stephens, ergonomics technical specialist with Ford Vehicle Operations Manufacturing Engineering.

 “Santos takes this to a new level. He can perform a task and tell us whether over months and years it will cause back strain, for example, and we can make adjustments until we find the optimal way to get the job done.”

Santos builds on the company’s use of digital avatars – dubbed Jack and Jill – that help Ford test ergonomics and safety on the assembly line in the virtual world. Santos goes further by allowing Ford to understand the true strain on the body when performing actions on the job.

“It’s very cool in the ergo world that we can evaluate these types of movements, these lifts where you’re using acceleration, or momentum – what we call the dynamics of a lift,” Stephens said.

“The same issue is at work at Ford as in the military – how to analyse human limits with dynamic motion. Santos, with his capability in predictive dynamics, will aid in increasing efficiency as well as safety and quality.”

Santos is the culmination of years of study in modelling, multi-body dynamics and robotics, said Jay Johnson, CEO of SantosHuman Inc., which works in conjunction with the University of Iowa.

“Our software uses a physics platform,” Johnson said. “We can change things and see the effect; that’s what predictive dynamics brings to the table.”