Sterling Heights

Ford to introduce four-legged robots to Sterling Heights plant

The future is four-legged. But not especially furry. Ford Motor Company plans to introduce two dog-like robots, nicknamed Fluffy and Spot, to its Van Dyke transmission plant in Sterling Heights this month.

The robots are designed to laser scan the plant, helping engineers update the original computer-aided design used when getting ready to retool facilities, and can be deployed into tough-to-reach areas within the plant.

Ford is leasing the two robots from mobile robot building company Boston Dynamics and the four-legged designs can sit, shake hands and roll over. They also can perform 360-degree camera scans, handle 30-degree inclines, and climb stairs for hours at a time. Ford hopes the pilot program involving the 70-pound quadruped robots will save time, reduce cost, and increase efficiency.

Paula Wiebelhaus navigates "Fluffy", the dog-like robot, through tough-to-reach areas within Ford's Van Dyke transmission plant.

Fluffy, a name given by the robot’s handler Paula Wiebelhaus, is one of the two models that will be seen roaming Ford's Van Dyke transmission plant early August, and with a bright yellow coat the machine is easily recognizable. Each robot has five cameras, and can travel up to three miles per hour on a battery lasting nearly two hours.

Mark Goderis, Ford’s digital engineering manager, says the robots are an important part of retooling the plant with new products.

“We design and build the plant," he says. "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."

Without Fluffy, the update would be far more tedious.

“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,” Goderis says.

“Scanning one plant could take two weeks. With Fluffy’s help, we are able to do it in half the time.”

The traditional method was also more expensive for the automotive giant as well, costing nearly $300,000 to scan one facility. If this pilot works, Ford’s manufacturing team could scan all its plants using the robotic dogs. 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 with a tablet.



The key to Fluffy and Spot’s success is their agility, says Wiebelhaus, who controls her robot through a gaming-like device that allows her to remotely see the camera view. The robots are designed to maintain a safe, set distance from objects to prevent collisions and Wiebelhaus’ control device features a safe stop that prevents Fluffy from colliding with anything.

The robots have three operational modes–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, and handle tough terrain. If they fall, they can right themselves.

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 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 computer-aided design (CAD) of the facility. If an area is too tight for Scouter, Fluffy comes to the rescue.

“There are areas in the plant that you might not want to walk into because they might be tough to maneuver,” says Wiebelhaus. “It’s easier and safer to send Fluffy back there.”

Although Fluffy is perfectly capable of rolling over, Wiebelhaus doesn’t see dog shows in his future.

“Fluffy is an amazing manufacturing tool,” said Weibelhaus. “Yes, it’s interesting and new, but Fluffy should really be valued for his work and tenacity. He can do so much more than dance and roll over. We want to push him to the limits in the manufacturing plant and see what value he has for the company.”



Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor says Ford’s implementation of robots to tackle specific and difficult tasks an example of an "innovative, high-tech business climate" in the city.

“Sterling Heights and Ford Motor Company share a rich history in skilled manufacturing which is a part of the traditional ‘blue collar’ economy,” says Taylor. “But we also share the fact that we have our feet firmly planted in the future, with a focus on innovation, which is a part of the ‘new collar’ economy."

"Companies like BAE Systems and General Dynamics Land Systems, and public-private projects like the Macomb County Robotics Collaborative and Steam Box located at the Velocity Center, truly showcase the existing skill set, dedication to workforce development and culture of innovation and continuous improvement that Sterling Heights embodies."

Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is a freelance writer and editor, currently based out of Detroit. Contact her at kate@wanderoff.com.au
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