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Ford offers virtual view of auto design; Simulator gives ECC students a real glimpse into vehicle manufacturing process

The virtual world familiar to fans of the movie "Avatar" and EA Sports' Tiger Woods video game is influencing how Ford Motor Co. designs cars.

The automaker brought a simulator to town on Tuesday to show Erie Community College students how virtual reality technology has accelerated production of new Ford vehicles, and at less cost. The technology takes the place of building costly prototypes, allowing engineers and designers to explore ideas long before a car reaches the production stage, said Marty Smets, a Ford ergonomics simulation engineer.

"Imagine the power of being able to make design decisions by sitting inside a vehicle and looking around in full photo-realistic quality, two or three years before any physical component of that vehicle is actually made," Smets said.

About 50 automotive technology students at ECC's Vehicle Technology Training Center in Orchard Park listened to Smets and Monica Jones, a Ford ergonomic specialist, explain the 3-D technology. Then they got a chance to try the system for themselves. Students sat in a mock-up of a basic interior of the front of a car, facing two screens displaying computer-generated images of a street scene. They donned a helmet and gloves that tracked the movement of their head and hands as they gripped the wheel and reached for a rear view mirror that wasn't actually there.

In designing a vehicle, the virtual version helps employees identify potential "blind spots" for a driver, or how easy it is to reach buttons on an instrument panel.

The simulator gave the automotive technology students a taste of everyday work inside the Ford Immersive Environment Lab in Dearborn, Mich. The automaker uses the same technology to help set up manufacturing processes that are safe for workers and efficient.

"What we've tried to do is piggyback on the hard work that the motion picture industry and the computer gaming industry has really laid the groundwork for, in terms of bringing motion capture [technology], making it accessible to everybody," Smets said.

Jones said she hoped the students would take away an appreciation of how much up-front work goes into vehicle design. "We do a lot of work as far as trying to get cycle time out of that product design cycle. We're eliminating the need for physical prototypes by immersing people into the virtual reality.

"So there's a lot of measures for quality and worker safety that are done three, five years out before something ever hits the assembly line and the actual distribution point as well," Jones said.

Tuesday's event spotlighted the 2013 Fusion, due to arrive in showrooms later this year. "Virtual reality was used a lot in the design and development of this vehicle," said John Schuldt, Ford's regional sales manager.

ECC students who attended the demonstration are enrolled in "asset programs," which combine classroom education with experience in service departments at Ford and General Motors dealerships as a pathway to a job.

"It's sort of bringing this virtual reality world, which is the entire world today, to the auto industry, and they get a sense of how, before the car is even produced, all the work that goes into the design," said Rick Washousky, vice president of academics at ECC.

Personnel from Ford's Buffalo Stamping Plant in Hamburg, including plant manager David Buzo, also attended Tuesday's program.