Ford employs robot hounds for plant layout scanning duties

Fluffy the robot

Ford Motor Company is using four-legged robots at its Van Dyke Transmission Plant to help engineers in retooling their plants. The Ford manufacturing pilot program is designed to save time, reduce production costs, and increase efficiency

The 30-kilo quadruped robots have a distinctly dog-like mobility, with the ability to sit, shake hands and roll over. They also can perform 360-degree camera scans, handle 30-degree grades and climb stairs for hours at a time. 

Fluffy the robot

Fluffy, the name given by the robot’s handler Paula Wiebelhaus, is one of the two models Ford is leasing from Boston Dynamics, known for creating sophisticated mobile robots. The other Ford robot is named Spot, after the product’s actual name. 

The robots are equipped with five cameras and can travel up to 5 kph on a battery lasting nearly two hours. These bots will mainly be used to scan the plant floor and assist engineers in updating the original Computer Aided Design.

“We design and build the plant. After that, over the years, changes are made that rarely get documented. By having the robots scan our facility, we can see what it actually looks like now and build a new engineering model. That digital model is then used when we need to retool the plant for new products," says Mark Goderis, Ford’s digital engineering manager. 

“We used to use a tripod, and we would walk around the facility stopping at different locations, each time standing around for five minutes waiting for the laser to scan. Scanning one plant could take two weeks. With Fluffy’s help, we are able to do it in half the time.”

Before the robots, it cost Ford nearly $300,000 (Php 14.7 million) to scan one facility. If this pilot works, Ford’s manufacturing team could scan all its plants for a fraction of the cost. 

The key to Fluffy and Spot’s success is their agility, says Wiebelhaus, who controls her robots through a gaming-like device that allows her to remotely see the camera view. Should an issue occur, Wiebelhaus’ control device features a safe stop that prevents it from colliding with anything.

Fluffy the robot

The robots have three different walk settings: a walk for stable ground, an amble for uneven terrain and a special speed setting for stairs. They can change positions from a crouch to a stretch, which allows them to be deployed to difficult-to-reach areas within the plant. The robots can also handle tough terrain, from grates to steps to 30-degree inclines. If they fall, they can get up all by themselves. 

“There are areas in the plant that you might not want to walk into because they might be tough to maneuver. It’s easier and safer to send Fluffy back there. Fluffy is an amazing manufacturing tool,” said Weibelhaus.

“Yes, it’s interesting and new, but Fluffy should really be valued for his work and tenacity. He can do so much more than dance and roll over. We want to push him to the limits in the manufacturing plant and see what value he has for the company.” 

Photo/s from Ford

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