Putting a Computerized Avatar to Work at Ford

By Ford Social Member

What does the U.S. military and Ford have in common? One thing is a virtual person. Santos is the name of a highly realistic virtual worker who simulates motion, records the actual physical strains of reaching, lifting and stretching. He can execute tasks autonomously. He can walk, talk and answer questions. And he’s now in the testing phase at Ford, performing actions in the virtual world to allow Ford to improve quality, safety and ergonomics in factories before an assembly line is built.

Originally created for the U.S. Department of Defense at the University of Iowa as part of the Virtual Soldier Research (VSR) program to help reduce physical strain on soldiers, Santos has been heralded by ergonomists as a breakthrough in digital modeling.

Santos' move from the virtual battlefield to the virtual assembly line is the latest step in Ford's efforts to improve ergonomics at its manufacturing plants.

"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 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.

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

Predictive dynamics uses general rules of human body movement combined with complex mathematical models and robotics to enable Santos to provide feedback on fatigue, speed, strength and torque, even as the parameters of the virtual environment change, said Tim Marler, a VSR senior research scientist.

Santos is still in the testing phase, Stephens said, but when he comes on board, he will help Ford continue to move forward in the field of ergonomics.