Ford is using two four-legged robots leased from Boston Dynamics at its Van Dyke Transmission Plant in early August to laser-scan the plant, helping engineers update the original computer-aided design.
The robots can be deployed into tough-to-reach areas within the plant to scan the area with laser scanners and high-definition cameras, collecting data used to retool plants, saving Ford engineers time and money.
The 70-pound quadruped robots (named Fluffy and Spot) are bright yellow and easily recognizable. Equipped with five cameras, the robots can travel up to 3 mph on a battery lasting nearly two hours.
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.
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.—Mark Goderis, Ford’s digital engineering manager
The old way also was expensive—it cost nearly $300,000 to scan one facility. If this pilot works, Ford’s manufacturing team could scan all its plants for a fraction of the cost.
In time, Goderis says, the intent is to be able to operate the robots remotely, programming them for plant missions and receiving reports immediately from anywhere in the country. For now, the robots can be programmed to follow a specific path and can be operated from up to 50 meters away with the out-of-the-box tablet application.
The robots have three operational gaits – a walk for stable ground, an amble for uneven terrain and a special speed 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. They can handle tough terrain, from grates to steps to 30-degree inclines. If they fall, they can right themselves. They maintain a safe, set distance from objects to prevent collisions.
At times, Fluffy sits on its robotic haunches and rides on the back of a small, round Autonomous Mobile Robot, known informally as Scouter. Scouter glides smoothly up and down the aisles of the plant, allowing Fluffy to conserve battery power until it’s time to get to work. Scouter can autonomously navigate facilities while scanning and capturing 3-D point clouds to generate a CAD of the facility. If an area is too tight for Scouter, Fluffy comes to the rescue.