Fluffy and his friend Spot have a very important job to do for Ford.
Delivering a new twist on the proverbial "canary in the coal mine," Ford is sending robotic dogs into its Van Dyke Transmission Plant in Sterling Heights, Michigan next month. Its mission: scan each and every square inch of the facility to create a highly detailed three-dimensional map for Ford to use when it comes time to retool.
The robotic dogs don't actually belong to Ford. Instead, they've been leased from Boston Dynamics - the engineering and robotics company spun off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early '90s. You might know them from their viral internet videos depicting automatons with eerily life-like movements and impressive mobility, whether on two legs or four. The pair of quadrupedal robots that Ford has secured are bright yellow, each weighing 70 pounds, and loaded to the gills with sensors.
The robots, which have been dubbed "Fluffy" and "Spot", are each outfitted with laser scanners and five high-definition camcorders, which work in concert to capture colored, highly-detailed digital 3D maps. They'll be let loose in Ford's Van Dyke Transmission Plant in August to produce a complete, thorough scan of the facility in its current state so that engineers can update their existing CAD models, which are crucially important to planning retooling projects to build new parts.
"Over the years, changes are made [to the plant] that rarely get documented," explains Ford Digital Engineering Manager Mark Goderis. "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."
Fluffy and Spot each have enough onboard battery capacity to go for nearly two hours, at a travel pace of up to 3 mph - about the same speed as the typical adult human walks. To conserve power, the robots sometimes hitch a ride by sitting atop a small, almost Roomba-like autonomous robot called "Scouter", which serves as a quick transport to starting points throughout the plant.
The upsides of all this for Ford are twofold: time and money. Updating plant CAD models the "old" way involves parking a tripod at countless points throughout the plant and waiting five minutes for it to complete a laser scan in all directions. That method costs nearly $300,000 per facility and takes as long as two weeks. "With Fluffy's help, we are able to do it in half the time," Goderis says, largely because the robots are more compact and agile than a tripod.
Most recently, Ford's Van Dyke Transmission Plant was engaged in the production of six-speed automatic transmissions for a range of products, built the company's first in-house-produced hybrid car transmission, and produced high-torque eight-speed automatic units for the Ford Edge ST.