Building a 3-D physical buck to evaluate a future production vehicle interior is virtually history at Ford Motor Co. now that designers and engineers are relying on near-reality.
Stepping inside the Immersive Virtual Review (iVR) lab at Ford's Product Development Center in Dearborn, MI, is akin to stepping out of the 20th century way of doing product development.
"The Ford Flex really was the last program to do a physical buck, which was done for verification. But since then, we really haven't done any physical bucks at all," said Eero Laansoo, Ford Flex Human Factors Engineer.
Evaluations of the 2009 Flex relied on the iVR lab's offerings, such as the CAVE (Cave Automated Virtual Environment), which uses advanced motion-tracking equipment and computer software to generate a 1:1 scale virtual vehicle interior or a virtual exterior.
Product development specialists used the CAVE to find the optimum location of the Flex's navigation screen as well as the vehicle's center stack. CAVE evaluations meant designers could experience potential ergonomic issues. "A small team of designers could see that a particular concept wasn't going to work exactly as it wanted it to work. It understood the problem and was able to go back and make changes," said Laansoo.
The iVR lab's Open Volume Station enables an engineer or a designer or a consumer—when outfitted with a special headset and gloves—to be immersed in a computer-generated vehicle environment. "You can actually get out of the [static] seat and walk around the vehicle and do various things, like look inside the trunk or open the hood. We're finding new uses for this [open volume] station all the time," said Daniel Orr, Ford Craftsmanship Digital Build Mechanic and Virtual Reality Technician.
Changes can occur quickly inside the lab's Programmable Vehicle Model (PVM), an adjustable physical device that can assume the dimensions of any full-size vehicle so that its occupant—when fitted with special headgear and gloves—can evaluate a slew of human-machine factors as well as blind spots and reflections. Ford is the first automaker to mesh a PVM with motion-capture technology to create a virtual vehicle and an accompanying driving environment.
Designers, engineers, and supplier representatives recently studied different instrument clusters via the PVM station. "They were able to do a series of evaluations in a two-day time span. Before with the physical buck, the time and cost needed to make all the changes would have been significant. It's just so much more compact to do it virtually," said Elizabeth Baron, Technical Specialist in Virtual Reality and Advanced Visualization for Ford Product Development.
Digital tools help Ford designers, engineers, and other stakeholders make decisions with confidence. "If engineering and design and marketing is confident that we've made the right decisions with this (suite of virtual reality) tools, you can't even put a number to the time and money saved. I would never consider going back to building (physical) bucks," said Patrick Schiavone, Design Director for Ford North America Truck and SUV.