Fluffy to the rescue!

Fluffy to the rescue!

Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa pays tribute to some four-legged dog-like robots – on World Dog Day, August 26 – which are helping Ford to save time, reduce costs, increase efficiency and to keep engineers safe.

Theses 30 kg quadruped robots, with distinctly dog-like mobility, can sit, shake hands and roll over – but their main function is to perform 360-degree camera scans during a Ford manufacturing pilot programme.

Fluffy, the name given by the robot’s handler, Paula Wiebelhaus, is one of the two models Ford is leasing from Boston Dynamics, known for creating mobile robots. The other Ford robot is named Spot, after the product’s actual name.

The robots, which Ford is piloting at its Van Dyke Transmission Plant in Michigan, are bright yellow and easily recognisable. Equipped with five cameras, the robots can travel up to 5 km/h on a battery lasting nearly two hours and will be used to scan the plant floor and assist engineers in updating the original Computer Aided Design (CAD) that is utilised when Ford gets ready to retool its plants.

“We design and build the plant. After that, over the years, changes are made that rarely get documented,” says Mark Goderis, Ford’s digital engineering manager. “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.”

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

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 US. For now, the robots can be programmed to follow a specific path and can be operated from up to 50 m away with the out-of-the-box tablet application.

The key to the robots’ 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, her control device features a safety stop that stops it from colliding with anything.

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.

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

She adds that Fluffy is an amazing manufacturing tool. “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.”

Watch these dogs in action:

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