Des Moines Register: Ford Enlists U of I Virtual Man for Research

Monday, June 7, 2010

By David Elbert
Des Moines Register

A virtual soldier created on University of Iowa computers to test military armor has been hired by Ford Motor Co. to improve the ergonomics of automobile assembly lines.

The job is the first private-sector employment for the avatar called Santos, whose creators say future possibilities range from space travel to the design of amusement park rides.

Santos will help Ford design machinery to produce its 2014 line of cars and trucks, said Allison Stephens, a Ford ergonomics specialist.

"He has a job on the assembly line," she said. "We just have to get him there."

Santos and others like him could soon be creating high-end jobs in Iowa City, too, for engineers and research scientists. More jobs will come as the College of Engineering expands its virtual soldier research program, said Steven Beck, a research and development manager at the U of I Center for Computer-Aided Design.

The Santos story began in 1998 when biomedical engineering professor Karmin Abdel-Malek established a Digital Humans Laboratory, where graduate students could experiment and create computer-based interactive, predictive models of humans.

The first body part that Abdel-Malek's students created was a digital hand.

The effort got a big boost in 2003 when it received a $2.75 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to create a virtual soldier. Since then, more than $25 million in grants have been received, mostly from the government, but also from private industry groups, including auto and heavy equipment manufacturers.

The idea, said Beck, was to create a digital human that would replicate human movements. It would have a skeletal and muscular system that would be driven by complex mathematical equations.

That goal has been met.

Now, Beck said, new mathematical models are being created to replicate fatigue and other physiological indicators that will make Santos even more valuable as a digital design tool.

Without going into specifics, he said, researchers are using a "unique approach" and expect to have the new model completed by the end of the year.

The new version of Santos will be huge, he said. For digital designers, "it's going to be a game-changer on the order of the iPhone.

Keeping workers healthy can save companies millions

Computer-aided design eliminated the need to build prototypes of equipment, creating a new problem for manufacturers, Ford's Stephens said.

"If you eliminate the prototype and do all your design inside the computer, how do we assess injury risk to workers?" she said.

Workers' health and safety are huge concerns for manufacturers, she said. Back, wrist and other injuries that occur on assembly lines cost the auto industry millions of dollars each year

To lower those costs, Stephens said, Ford started looking at the design process. The company asked if somebody had a digital hand that could be inserted into designs to see whether specific pieces of equipment would cause repetitive stress injuries to wrists and hands.

"We investigated universities in Japan and all over the United States looking for research that would allow us to do these risk assessments in a virtual environment," Stephens said.

Ford found two possibilities.

One was in Japan.

The other was a U of I website that featured the hand that had been created by the Digital Humans Laboratory.

The team focused on the Iowa research, Stephens said, after "we discovered that this guy wasn't just a hand, he had a whole body attached."

The Japanese version was an arm, she said.

There was a second "aha" moment, she said, when Ford discovered the military had provided most of the money for Iowa's digital human.

"In terms of injuries, it made sense that the Army would be interested in the same things we would," she said.

Long-term demand high for digital humans

A year ago, the U of I signed a licensing agreement with SantosHuman Inc., a private company created to find markets for digital humans in the real world.

"The long-term value proposition is huge," said Jay Johnson, chief executive of SantosHuman.

But it will take three to five years to know how quickly that market will develop, he said. Possibilities range from "we will grow fairly rapidly in the next couple of years," to "we will become the default standard for human modeling globally.

Johnson has traveled to South Korea, a hub of auto manufacturing, and Brazil to meet with aerospace manufacturers. He's also talking with U.S. companies that make automobiles, heavy equipment and motorcycles.

In addition to the full-bodied Santos model, professor Abdel-Malek's digital hand model "is of particular interest to people who make consumer electronics," Johnson said. That includes makers of cameras, cell phones "and anything that has a hand-held controller in it.

"The hand model that we are creating is the most biofedelic and accurate hand tool available," he said, meaning that the movements of its fingers and joints are the most realistic available in a digital model.

Like Santos, Johnson said, SantosHuman will be more of a virtual company than a traditional manufacturing or marketing company. It will partner with existing businesses that will put Santos to work in the computer-aided design programs of real companies, such as Ford.

The benefit to Iowa City, Johnson said, will be twofold.

One is that the licensing agreement with SantosHuman should produce significant sums of money that the university can spend on a variety of research and educational programs.

Second, to stay ahead of manufacturers' needs, the Santos model will require new research and development that will result in additional engineering and scientific jobs at the university.