Quantifiable Design Data Drives Ford Quality Efforts


We all talk about quality but sometimes find it hard to define. It was that difficulty that drove Robert M. Pirsig over the edge of sanity in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Elusive though the definition may be, quality is a concrete goal for engineers who need to base their designs on quantifiable data.

In a media release, Ford Motor Co. expressed the challenge as follows: “The sense of touch and intuitive understanding of quality are innately human characteristics, but how do you measure them?” Ironically, it finds the answer for the ultimate measure of human-machine interaction not in a human being but in another machine.

For Ford, the best predictor of human comfort in its car is a robot named RUTH, an acronym for Robotized Unit for Tacility and Haptics.

RUTH assesses the texture, feel, and reach built into the design of a car’s interior to improve quality. RUTH doesn’t look like what many of us picture as a robot, because it is essentially just an arm with detachable fingers. The arm’s function is to poke, turn, and push at the knobs and buttons, interacting with the car as a human driver would, to come up with what drivers want and expect.

The way it works begins with data already obtained. Ford engineers program in what humans prefer. RUTH then refers to that data when taking measurements to analyze which aspects are too hard, too soft, too hot, too cold, or just right for Ford customers. The data-driven assessment eliminates subjective predispositions, though that doesn’t mean that you get robotically objective data either. Ford said it takes into account human expectations of what something should feel like. For example, as people expect what looks like metal to have a cooler feel than plastic or wood-like materials, it must adjust the temperature accordingly.

Mark Spingler, Ford technical expert for vehicle interior technologies, reported the results of RUTH’s readings as very impressive. Normally Ford would expect something in the neighborhood of 80 percent accuracy but got 92 percent on its recommendations for steering wheel preferences, for example. Getting these things right depends not only on having the right size and shape but also on the right feel. Spingler explained: “When measuring friction the challenge was to model human skin, so we developed a friction finger with an underlay to monitor the feel of softness and the friction of the surface.”

In the media report, Luke Robinson, Ford metrologist and RUTH technician, explained, “Before RUTH, many engineers had access only to hand-held measuring tools, and no means to test the interiors” other than approximate trial and error. In contrast, putting RUTH in a car can give engineers the data they need clearly and quickly. Watch RUTH in action for yourself:

Ford has had this technology in an advanced research center in Europe since 2009. This summer marks RUTH's arrival in North America, where the technology is applying its data advantages to the 2013 Fusion models. In the media item, Eileen Franko, Ford craftsmanship supervisor, said data from RUTH gives Ford the ability to provide a level of comfort in the Fusion that's comparable to that of a high-end luxury car. “I might be biased, but RUTH isn’t,” she said. And that assures that the standards for the car “are the best in the world.”

Well, even the best may not please all of the people all of the time, but if Ford gets a satisfaction rate of 92 percent, it's done really well in applying data toward achieving quality.

Ariella Brown,

Ariella Brown is a social media consultant, editor, and freelance writer who frequently writes about the application of technology to business. She holds a PhD in English from the City University of New York. Her Twitter handle is @AriellaBrown.

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Re: Quantifiable Design Data Drives Ford Quality Efforts
  • 8/22/2012 10:24:14 AM
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The idea behind providing data faster and more objectively than the standard auto tester is great quality effort from all aspects. Being able to test the interiors in a manner that resembled in-vehicle scenarios is very forward driven move from Ford.

Re: Creature comforts
  • 8/13/2012 10:29:53 AM
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@Noreen I guess you're easy to please. Actually, if you calculate the difference in price, you'd probably cover quite a few of the "free" drinks. Perhaps airlines should run analytics about what component tempts people to pay more for their trips.

Re: Creature comforts
  • 8/13/2012 9:54:50 AM
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I want first class for the free drinks. If I get them in coach, too, well I'd probably be happy, despoite the higher odds of getting a seat next to a fussy toddler.

Re: Creature comforts
  • 8/9/2012 2:52:18 PM
NO RATINGS

@kicheko Yes, so long as it's the feel rather than the look that one is after. I've heard people say they never wanted to fly coach after flying first-class because it was so much more comfortable. So from that standpoint, if they were offered coach seats that were equally comfortable, they may go for them, so long as they are not interested in any snob appeal associated with first-class.

Re: Creature comforts
  • 8/9/2012 2:35:22 PM
NO RATINGS

Ariella, - You have a point there illusion may be the negative word.....at the end of the day its the comfort though. If the level is good then one who is not able to buy a luxury car will still be happy.

Re: Creature comforts
  • 8/9/2012 2:24:30 PM
NO RATINGS

@kicheko I'm not sure I would go so far as calling it an illusion. If you're objective in buying a luxury car is not the status symbol but the extra level of comfort you get, then you get a better value in a lower cost car that delivers a comparable level of comfort. However, most luxury car buyers are very status-conscious, something that is associated with higher end brands than Ford.

Re: Creature comforts
  • 8/9/2012 12:42:46 PM
NO RATINGS

It about the illusion i guess...they'd want to give the feel of equal comfort. Its the concept of offering someone something cheap without making them feel cheap. In the end though the difference is felt once you step into the high-end car, but in the mean time the illusion of being just as good keeps every man happy.

Re: Creature comforts
  • 8/9/2012 12:38:43 PM
NO RATINGS

@Data Diva First off, I have to compliment you on your choice of profile pic.

What you suggest is an idea that would be applicable to any industry that finds regional differences that would warrant making specialized adjustments. I get the impression that Ford has the data on its customers in general. Another thing they would have to adjust for regional customization is anticipation of how many cars each region would demand before they produce them. They probably already do have data on that, but in the case of customization, they would have to bank a lot more on getting those numbers right for each area rather than just producing the total number of cars they expect to sell.

Re: Creature comforts
  • 8/9/2012 10:47:06 AM
NO RATINGS

I love RUTH, even if my mother-in-law does share her same name!  Just kidding...

Seriously, I would think that Ford could also use RUTH to make tweaks country by country to meet different consumer definitions and expectations.

Re: Creature comforts
  • 8/8/2012 4:26:48 PM
NO RATINGS

@Beth of course. But they would be happy to have customers feel their standard car compares to their competitors' luxury line. 

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