Digital humans and trucking

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"This software is a new experience – you can get feedback. 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.” -- Tim Marler, a senior research scientist with the Virtual Soldier Research (VSR) program

This may seem a little weird, at first: using “digital humans” to test everything from tanks to cars, trucks, even earthmovers.

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You may also rightly tell yourself, “Hey, real humans do things very differently in the real world” when compared to what occurs in so-called “virtual reality” programs.

But here’s the thing: a whole slew of industries, along with the U.S. Department of Defense, are looking to use digital re-creations of human beings to perform much more detailed analysis of equipment and job functions – long before said equipment or jobs become “real.”

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The reason is pretty simple: more “bugs” can worked out of a variety of things at a far lower cost if they are subjected to what amounts to “real world” testing without using the real world, per se.

“Creating the safest and most ergonomic way to build a vehicle is a trial-and-error process – but in recent years technology has allowed this process to happen in the virtual world,” noted Allison Stephens, ergonomics technical specialist with Ford Motor Company’s vehicle operations manufacturing engineering.

“’Santos’ takes this to a new level,” she said. “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.”

“Santos” by the way is the digital human created by the Defense Department’s Virtual Soldier Research (VSR) project, created with the aid of the University of Iowa.

The VSR program is designed to help reduce physical strain on soldiers by having “Santos” do a lot of physical grunt work for them; maneuvering and operating tanks, humvees, etc., long before they are actually built to see if they can be improved from an ergonomic perspective.

[Here’s a video that explains the VSR project and how “Santos” works. It’s pretty cool stuff. You’ll note towards the end of this clip that one of his primary functions is to test out the interior of military vehicles, to make sure switches, knobs, and other control functions are located in good ergonomic positions.]

Now “Santos” is stretching his legs in the civilian world, now about to be employed by Ford to build on its previous use of digital avatars – dubbed “Jack” and “Jill” – that help the automaker test ergonomics and safety on the assembly line in the virtual world. Santos goes further by allowing Ford to understand the true strain on the body when performing actions on the job, noted Stephens.

“It's very cool in the ‘ergo world’ that we can evaluate these types of movements, these lifts where you're using acceleration, or momentum - what we call the dynamics of a lift,” she said. “The same issue is at work at Ford as in the military - how to analyze human limits with dynamic motion. ‘Santos,’ with his capability in predictive dynamics, will aid in increasing efficiency as well as safety and quality."

“Santos” is the culmination of years of study in modeling, multi-body dynamics and robotics, noted Jay Johnson, CEO of SantosHuman Inc., which works in conjunction with the University of Iowa. "Our software uses a physics platform,” he said. “We can change things and see the effect; that's what predictive dynamics brings to the table.”

Predictive dynamics uses general rules of human body movement combined with complex mathematical models and robotics to enable Santos to provide feedback on fatigue, speed, strength and torque, even as the parameters of the virtual environment change, added Tim Marler, one of the VSR senior research scientists work in “Santos.”

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I think it’s pretty clear how such a “digital human” could help take truck design and engineering to a new level. As we all know, trucks are being re-shaped to get better fuel economy, while a host of new functionality is being added for the driver’s use. All that requires careful design, to make sure the driver doesn’t suffer from repetitive motion strain trying to reach certain controls. Using “Santos,” in this context, could surely be helpful.

However, it should be noted that “Santos” isn’t quite “reality yet. The Defense Department has been working with the University of Iowa since 2004, while Ford began working with the university just three years ago. Stephens said Ford collaborated with General Motors and Chrysler to share funding, with each automotive group paying $500,000 over the past three years to develop “Santos.”

Meanwhile, the federal government has put in approximately $10 million toward development of “Santos,” Stephens added.

Santos is still in the testing phase, she said, but when he comes on board, he will help Ford continue to move forward in the field of ergonomics.

“The human body is amazing, and we're always learning something new," Stephens emphasized. “The better we understand the human body, the better we can create safer, more ergonomically correct workplaces and vehicles.”

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