By Sara Castellanos
Every so often, Ford Motor Co. maps the layouts of its plants so that staff can redesign and repurpose the facilities to manufacture different parts for new cars.
It can be time-consuming and costly, involving engineers who could be focused on other tasks.
To help make the process faster and cheaper, Ford recently sought the help of a four-legged robot dog made by Boston Dynamics, a subsidiary of Japanese conglomerate SoftBank Group Corp.
"It's a huge breakthrough for us," said Mark Goderis, digital engineering manager at Ford.
The robot, nicknamed "Fluffy" by one of Ford's digital engineers, weighs 70 pounds and is equipped with five cameras that give it 360-degree vision, letting it observe what's in front of it and avoid obstacles. It can climb stairs and stabilize itself on slippery surfaces and metal grates using optimization algorithms. It can also access hard-to-reach areas within the plant, as long as they are at least 2 feet wide.
The robot dog, officially called "Spot" by Boston Dynamics, costs $74,500. Ford has leased it.
The device is being tested at Ford's 2-million-square-foot Van Dyke Transmission Plant in Sterling Heights, Mich., which manufactures front-wheel-drive transmissions. The plant occasionally needs to be redesigned when new products need to be made, meaning the company needs an accurate scan of its layout, Mr. Goderis said.
In tests that began in late July, the Fluffy robot sits atop another rectangular-shaped robotic device on wheels, nicknamed "Scouter" and made by an undisclosed vendor. Both devices can capture scans of the plant but Fluffy is deployed only when it needs to climb stairs or access hard-to-reach areas, because its battery lasts 90 minutes.
Scouter is autonomous, though Fluffy isn't. A digital engineer walks alongside Fluffy to control where it can go. By mid-October, Ford engineers expect that Scouter will be able to communicate with Fluffy. "They'll go through and navigate the facility, and when Scouter encounters a tight area, it deploys the 'hound,'" Mr. Goderis said.
The robot-enabled scans are eventually meant to replace an existing process in which a Ford employee stands in different areas of the manufacturing plant holding a tripod with a laser attached to it, waiting about five minutes for the laser to capture between 60 and 80 scans an hour. Scanning a 2-million-square-foot plant that way would normally take about three to four weeks at a cost of $300,000, Mr. Goderis said.
The robotic method could scan a plant in about half the time, capturing 120 to 160 scans an hour at a fraction of the cost.
"It is very mundane, so we want to take the engineer that's collecting that information and use their time in a more valuable way," Mr. Goderis said, such as having employees use computer-aided design techniques to reconfigure a plant's layout, he said.
In 2017, SoftBank Group agreed to acquire Boston Dynamics from Alphabet Inc.'s Google. Other companies also develop robots for industrial use, including Pittsburgh-based Aethon Inc., whose robots can carry up to 1,400 pounds of equipment, and Salt Lake City-based Sarcos Corp., whose machines can navigate hazardous terrain and help humans lift heavy objects.
The Boston Dynamics robot "isn't the only game in town and not the only approach, but it's the most viral and charismatic approach," said J.P. Gownder, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc.
The robot became commercially available for purchase in June, after an eight-month early-adopter program with select customers. Since September, Boston Dynamics has sold or leased more than 250 Spot robots, said Michael Perry, vice president of business development.
The device is being used in areas such as construction and energy. Spot was also recently used at a hospital's emergency department to help assess patients believed to have less-severe cases of Covid-19.
Spot uses laser scanners and image detection to collect data about building sites to give general contractors information about the status of construction projects, Mr. Perry said.
In the electric utility industry, Spot is used to inspect nuclear power-generating facilities. Typically, human-led inspections would require such facilities to be shut down for as long as three days, which could add up to millions of dollars in lost revenue, Mr. Perry said.
"Spot can go into those environments because we're not worried about it being electrocuted," or being exposed to radiation, Mr. Perry said.
Write to Sara Castellanos at firstname.lastname@example.org