Issue: Dec 2009


Ford Engineers Imitate Human Touch Through a Robot Named RUTH



by John Larkin

Human touch is highly subjective and complex, making it difficult to replicate in a lab. So designers of vehicle interiors have historically relied on direct feedback from customers to determine which visual and tactile interior environments pleased most people. However, the results were unscientific and sometimes resulted in customers feeling unsatisfied and uninspired by their driving experience.

To energize dull, lifeless interiors, Ford Motor Company has developed a secret weapon: A robot known as RUTH - short for Robotized Unit for Tactility and Haptics. RUTH enables Ford engineers to refine various touch points around the vehicle's interior to objectively meet a wide range of subjective customer preferences. Ford is the world's first automaker to use a robot to scientifically test the feel and appearance of switches and surfaces.

Engineers at Ford's European Research Center in Aachen, Germany used the robot in developing the interiors of the European models of the new Focus and Fiesta, versions of which are coming to the United States in 2010.

RUTH brings a scientific, three-dimensional approach to touch. Friction, force, roughness, softness and temperature are among the parameters measured throughout the vehicle's interior. The measurements taken are then compared and correlated to consumer feedback on what is perceived as having a high-quality appearance and feel. The output from this research is helping engineers generate measurements for the "Ford DNA" - a consistent signature look and feel - for different parts of the interior, such as the armrest or steering wheel.

The advantage RUTH has over a human is its higher perception resolution. For example, Ford engineers can take a consumer's perception of soft or cool and then establish scientific measurements that meet those characteristics.

"Instead of telling our suppliers we want a certain surface soft, we can give them the data curve for a particular softness requirement based on RUTH's calculations," said Mark Spingler, Vehicle Interior Technologies engineer for Ford of Europe. "This means a characteristic like soft is no longer a subjective input. We can provide our suppliers with objective data so that the final product is so precise that we practically eliminate the need for numerous iterations to get what we want."

Unlike some automakers that test components or materials in a lab setting, apart from the actual vehicle application, RUTH assumes the role of the driver and can feel components inside three-dimensional spaces, such as a design prototype. RUTH mimics complex human movements, from pushing knobs to adjusting the air vents, just as the customer experiences it. Other systems have only linear or rotary measurements, which typically fall short when it comes to replicating customer operation.

Some examples of RUTH's uses include:
-- Measuring the resistance of pushing buttons and turning knobs to make
sure they don't feel too loose or have too much resistance. The robot
also compares the different buttons and knobs to one another, to
ensure they have a uniform feel.
-- Determining softness, hardness and texture of surfaces like the
dashboard to ensure they fall within limits consumers have shown they
prefer.
-- Taking the temperature of components so materials match expectations.
For instance, a metallic-colored knob should feel cool, while a wooden
trim piece should feel warm in order to be perceived as high quality.
-- Measuring the spaces between pieces to minimize gaps for a tight look
throughout.



"All of these little measurements add up to a much greater sense of quality from the moment you sit down inside a Ford," said Spingler. "We're leading the way in measuring touch so that high quality interiors can be delivered in affordable cars, not just expensive luxury models. We're able to convey in numbers exactly how something needs to feel and build exactly to those specifications. It takes the guesswork out and replaces it with science."

Ford modified the robot - typically a model used to package consumer products in manufacturing plants - for its specific scientific purposes. Besides the new Fiesta and Focus, Ford engineers have used RUTH to refine the interiors of Ford of Europe's Mondeo, Galaxy, S-MAX and C-MAX. It's been in use for about four years, with its work is now being reflected in Ford production models around the world.

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