DEARBORN, MI – Ford Motor Co.’s upcoming ’09 Flex cross/utility vehicle in North America and its Kuga CUV in Europe are the first vehicles to be designed from the ground up utilizing the auto maker’s virtual manufacturing technology.

The technology, based on Siemens AG product-lifecycle-management software, allows designers and engineers to collaborate at the onset of a product program using computer-aided design data to digitally piece together the vehicle and optimize the eventual final assembly process in what is called a “virtual-build arena.”

Vehicles typically undergo the virtual design process about three to four years before actual production, Ford says.

The technique was adopted from Mazda Motor Corp., 33.4% owned by Ford, says Dan Hettel, chief engineer-vehicle operations.

Mazda was really the leader in the digital pre-assembly process, so we took what Mazda has done and we’ve built on it,” Hettel tells Ward’s during a demonstration of the technology here.

Citing data from a study it commissioned by market-research firm RDA Group, Ford says the process helped improve quality 11% last year in the U.S., far outpacing the industry average of 2%.

“The goal of our virtual manufacturing tools is to drive compatibility between the product design and the assembly plant process,” Hettel says. “We validate each assembly process virtually to ensure that it can be completed with quality. The quality results of our recent launches show the virtual process is working.”

Indeed, Ford says early builds of the Flex and upcoming Lincoln MKS flagship sedan had 80% fewer manufacturing feasibility issues than prototypes developed without the system.

Ford currently operates several virtual-build arenas, including two in Dearborn and one in Cologne, Germany. Labs also are being constructed in Mexico and South America, Hettel says, noting eventually all Ford vehicles worldwide will be designed virtually.

While many auto makers employ similar virtual manufacturing technologies, none have a motion-capture lab like the two operated by Ford.

The labs utilize technology similar to that employed by the film and videogame industry to create virtual humans, or “avatars.”

More than simply digital representations of people, the Ford avatars boast skeletal and muscular structures that emulate real humans. To bring an avatar to life, a person is dressed in a suit covered with reflective balls. As the test subject moves, digital cameras pick up the motion of the balls and the movement is translated to the computerized avatar – which Ford calls Jack or Jill depending on gender.

In the case of heavy components that must be installed by assembly plant workers, Ford uses avatars to formulate the best range of motions for the task in order to reduce injuries and fatigue.

This task falls to technical specialist Allison Stephens and her team.

Stephens, considered one of the world’s top ergonomics experts, uses data provided by the Occupational Safety and Health Admin. to measure the stress incurred on workers during various assembly tasks.

In many cases, Stephens recruits actual assembly line workers to assist in the lab work, because they tend to provide the most useful feedback.

She says her team will be called in to play if line workers complain of having trouble with a particular task.

“(But) we also aggressively go after something we call ‘high hurts,’” Stephens says, noting the term describes jobs that have a history of producing injuries. “We’ve always been interested in where we can improve things, so we’ve always used our medical data. But we never had the capability to look at it this early (in the process).”

Ford is the leader in using virtual technology to prevent assembly line injuries, Stephens says. In fact, competitors such as Toyota Motor Corp. have contacted the auto maker for advice on how to design their own avatars, she says.

Ford also works closely with General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC through the U.S. Council for Automotive Research, a collaborative research organization.

While sharing data with GM and Chrysler is the purpose of USCAR, some may consider sharing data with Toyota heresy. But Stephens says it’s the right thing to do, noting that Ford is willing to go only so far.

“Morally, it’s a good thing to do,” she says. “We’re talking to (competitors) on how to improve the (avatar) model, not how you use the model.”

Collaboration also helps to defer costs, Stephens says, noting each motion-capture lab can run about $200,000.

Ford, which has been utilizing the technology in one form or another since 2000, continues to advance its approach by collaborating with the University of Michigan, the University of Iowa and the U.S. Department of Defense.

The DOD is working with Ford to create a virtual soldier – an avatar it has dubbed Santos – to study the fatigue rates of troops in the field, Stephens says.