Ford Motor Co. has adopted the phrase “Factory of Tomorrow” to describe its vision of the future, which includes in part a plan for the automaker to transform into “a truly digital operation.”
The phrase is a little deceiving, however, once you hear what Ford is doing in the way of advanced technology today—because it’s already doing quite a lot.
In his Dec. 3 keynote address during IndustryWeek’s Manufacturing & Technology Virtual conference, Mike Mikula, global chief engineer in Ford’s advanced manufacturing organization, shared some of the company’s advances in areas such as additive manufacturing, collaborative robots, extended reality and even exoskeletons. And more.
For example, while Ford has been using additive manufacturing since the 1980s, today’s deployments go far beyond simple prototyping or cosmetic flourishes. Mikula described how the company is both designing and fabricating, via additive manufacturing, parking brake brackets for the Mustang GT 500.
“This is a very important structural component of the vehicle. It is required to meet all of the crash test worthiness standards, and as a result we’ve learned as a company how to apply additive manufacturing into components and subsystems that historically people have been skeptical that additive manufacturing can meet the requirements,” Mikula said.
“We’ve not only demonstrated that, but we have very convincingly done so, and as such we are aggressively working with our product development team to explore other parts of the vehicle and vehicle subsystems that could be converted to additive manufacturing,” he added.
In another example, Mikula discussed the use of an extended reality solution for the assembly of its 10-speed rear wheel drive transmission. An integrated wireless tool and prompting from “intelligent” projected lights can help assure that operators are both using the correct tool and using it in the correct location, the chief engineer said.
“We want to be able to have a factory that helps employees stay safe, helps employees perform the work they are expected to perform and do it in a way that … meets or exceeds the customer expectations.”
Mikula says the extended reality solution can act as a coach, helping employees stay safe and make sure the work is performed properly.
Two additional examples from Mikula highlight the focus Ford has placed on safety, and the help provided by advanced technologies to meet that challenge. Ford employs collaborative robots and exoskeletons in many instances to either help operators perform work that is ergonomically difficult for humans or, in the case of the robots, perform the difficult task in the place of human operators.
Mikula's talk did not end with these technologies. Digital twin, IIoT and more peppered his talk and pepper Ford's digital vision.
At Ford, the future of advanced technologies is here today.
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