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Ford recruits 'virtual soldier' for ergonomic tests

Originally created for the Defense Department, a virtual avatar named Santos is helping Ford test the ergonomics of its auto factories in a safe, virtual environment.

Ford's newest employee has moved from the army to the assembly line. But since he's virtual, that type of job change shouldn't pose a problem.

Designed to test the safety of Ford's auto factories, Santos is a virtual avatar that can mimic and record all the physical strains and pains that plague us poor humans. By reaching, lifting, and stretching in his own virtual world, he can provide feedback on how those activities might affect an actual person.

Initially created for the U.S. Department of Defense to help find ways to relieve physical strain on soldiers, Santos is now working at Ford testing the ergonomics of assembly lines. His job is to perform the same physical tasks that a factory worker would perform when building a car to gauge their impact on the human body. The automaker's goal is to improve the quality and safety of its factories before assembly lines are even created.

Santos on the virtual assembly line.
Santos on the virtual assembly line SantosHuman

Santos, who's now going through a test period at Ford, joins the company's other digital avatars known as Jack and Jill in simulating strenuous tasks on the job.

"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," Allison Stephens, ergonomics technical specialist with Ford's Vehicle Operations Manufacturing Engineering, said in a statement. "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."

But Santos isn't just a body. He's got brains too. He can walk, talk, answer questions, and work autonomously. Santos was born at the University of Iowa as part of the Defense Department's Virtual Soldier Research (VSR) project. Before giving him life, his creator, SantosHuman Inc., spent many years studying modeling, robotics, and multi-body dynamics--which analyzes how parts of the body move and react to different forces.

Santos comes with a virtual but complete biomechanical set of muscles to offer feedback on fatigue, speed, strength, and torque. As such, he's subject to the same laws of physics that affect us in the real world.

"This software is a new experience--you can get feedback," Tim Marler, a VSR senior research scientist, said in a statement. "You can see body strength in real time. You can see fatigue. When you have that ability to see motion, to predict motion, you can work that into your designs and programs."

The Defense Department has been working on the virtual solider project with the University of Iowa since 2004. After learning of Santos, Ford then stepped in three years ago.

Stephens has collaborated with GM and Chrysler to share some of the cost. Each automaker has spent $500,000 on the project over the past three years, while the federal government has kicked in around $10 million toward development.

Though Santos is still in the testing phase, Stephens believes it will ultimately help Ford advance in making its factories more ergonomic.

"The human body is amazing, and we're always learning something new," Stephens said. "The better we understand the human body, the better we can create a safer, ergonomically correct workplace."