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A Tale of Two Bridges

At automaker Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, Mich., Alan Baumgartner discusses digital manufacturing in the context of two bridges.

Alan Baumgartner
Alan Baumgartner

One bridge involves the flow of information between manufacturing engineering and the plant floor, says Baumgartner, who is technical leader for manufacturing PLM and computer-aided process engineering in Ford’s Office of Technical Fellows, Information Technology. This bridge today carries virtual simulation data to specific plant floor devices, and “falls into an area of digital manufacturing that I think most people would call virtual commissioning,” he notes.

While there is “a certain amount of glamour” surrounding this technology, the biggest challenges involve the second bridge, which carries plant floor operations data back to manufacturing engineering and product design, Baumgartner observes. The world of 3D virtual simulation is “relatively neat,” with no oil and grime being modeled, and most things reliable and repeatable. But the information that comes from the real-world factory floor is “polluted with all kinds of noise,” says Baumgartner, ranging from a machine that is down because of a disconnected power cord, to differing machine states, adjustments made by operators and maintenance personnel, or equipment being moved or reconfigured. Yet the information that conveys an exact view of what is happening on the factory floor is precisely the information needed by engineering departments to drive more manufacturing-friendly product and process designs.

Finding the data

“There is no magic bullet” for obtaining this information, notes Baumgartner. But what is exciting, he says, is that multiple sources of information do exist in the factory that could be useful, including maintenance systems, asset tagging systems and multiple other databases sprinkled about that are associated with specific equipment. Laser scans of plant floor spaces can also be taken to provide 3D images for use in engineering models. The challenge lies in transforming the variety of information available into a functional specification that is useful to engineering.
Ford has instituted projects driven by core vehicle personnel to develop ways to characterize the current state of the company’s assembly plants, short of doing constant physical audits, says Baumgartner, with an eye toward developing the kind of information needed to send across the second bridge. Among other things, the automaker hopes to use the data to aid in developing more accurate and reusable assembly process designs, based on actual plant floor situations.

“We think we have pretty good models of three assembly plants at the moment,” says Baumgartner, “and we expect to be using that information on upcoming vehicle programs that are being targeted for those plants.”

To view the Feature Article, "Digital Manufacturing:Chasing the Vision", go to

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