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Ford experiments with four-legged robots at its Van Dyke Transmission Plant in to scout factories more efficiently.

30 Jul 2020 | International News : U.S.A

Ford is tapping into four-legged robots at its Van Dyke Transmission Plant in the U.S.A in early August 2020 to laser scan the plant, helping engineers update the original computer-aided design which is used when getting ready to retool the plants.

The bright yellow and easily recognisable 32kg quadruped robots with distinctly dog-like mobility are part of a Ford manufacturing pilot programme designed to save time, reduce cost and increase efficiency.

Fluffy navigates the plant with a high-tech laser scanner on its back to scan Ford's facilities
Equipped with five cameras, the robots can travel up to 5km/h on a battery lasting nearly two hours. They are suitable for deployment into tough-to-reach areas within the plant to do 360-degree scans of an area with laser scanners and high-definition cameras, collecting data used to retool plants, and saving Ford engineers time and money.

The robots have three operational gaits - a walk for stable ground, an amble for uneven terrain and a special speed for stairs. They can handle tough terrain, from grates to steps and even 30-degree inclines. If they fall, they can right themselves. They also maintain a safe, set distance from objects to prevent collisions.

Fluffy, the name given by the robot's handler Paula Wiebelhaus, is one of the two models Ford is leasing from Robotics company Boston Dynamics.

The other Ford robot is named Spot after the product's actual name. 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. Should an issue occur, Wiebelhaus' control device features a safe stop that stops it from colliding with anything.

Paula Wiebelhaus, Fluffy's handler, controls her robot through a gaming-like device that allows her to remotely see the camera view
When a plant is designed and built, changes are made over the years that rarely get documented. By having the robots scan the facility, engineers can view the layout and build a new engineering model. That digital model is then used when the need to retool the plant for new products arises. Without Fluffy, the updating process would be far more tedious.

Previously, the process required stopping at multiple locations throughout the facility, with each stop taking up five minutes for a laser placed on a tripod to scan. The old way took two weeks and cost nearly $413,000 to scan one plant.

With Fluffy's help, the process now only takes half that time. If this pilot works, Ford's manufacturing team could scan all its plants for a fraction of the cost. In time, Ford intends 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 50m away with the out-of-the-box tablet application.
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