Innovating the future

Taking risks and not being afraid to fail has helped Ford Motor Co. prepare as it embarks on its next century

3D Dirt Detection - Paint

At the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Mark Fields, president and CEO of Ford Motor Co., described broad ranging concepts that would help propel Ford into the next millennium. Delivered from the same stage where eight years previously he had announced Ford’s automotive communications platform, SYNC, Fields outlined the Ford Smart Mobility program.

That program included 25 global experiments – eight in North America, nine in Europe and Africa, seven in Asia and one in South America – designed to help Ford best understand customer needs. The experiments were meant to address four trends: population growth, an expanding middle class, air quality and public health, and changing customer attitudes and priorities.

“We see a world where vehicles talk to one another, drivers and vehicles communicate with the city infrastructure to relieve congestion, and people routinely share vehicles or multiple forms of transportation for their daily commute,” Fields told the audience. “The experiments we’re undertaking today will lead to an all-new model of transportation and mobility within the next 10 years and beyond.”

The experiments were aimed at capturing data – and lots of it. The garnered data would be translated into how users drive their vehicles and how vehicles communicate with the driver and between other vehicles, in an effort to improve the customer experience.


A red F-150 at Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant goes through Ford’s dirt detection system to digitally identify the smallest of paint and surface imperfections.

Using big data

Clearly, Ford has sets its sights on the use of big data. That commitment was again seen in the opening of a Research and Innovation Center in Silicon Valley in January 2015 to improve its products in terms of fuel consumption, safety, quality and emissions.

As for data, Ford isn’t lacking in that department. The company gathers information from more than 4 million cars, including some 200,000 driven by Ford employees that feature in-car sensors and remote application management software to gather information such as how the car responds in different road and weather conditions. Ford is also installing numerous sensors in its cars to monitor driver behavior, including sonar, cameras, radar and accelerometers.

After the customer data is collected, engineers develop ideas that are placed in front of customers to gather feedback.

“The new F-150 [truck] is an interesting case study because we took an iterative design approach with rapid prototyping and lots of experimentation,” said Parrish Hanna, Ford’s global director, interaction and ergonomics, in a paper on Human-Machine Interaction. “It was almost a guerilla attempt to get feedback on everything that we were doing.”

He added that for the F-150, new technologies were showcased at rallies and auto shows, where researchers could gather immediate reactions about the vehicles.


Employee ideas

In addition to customers, the company has turned to its employees for great ideas. Stephanie Brinley, an automotive analyst with IHS Automotive, who has covered Ford and the car industry for two decades, says that while other automakers have taken this approach, Ford has been one of the most successful in developing this “innovation culture.”

“To create an innovation culture you have to encourage employees to constantly look at new and better ways to do things,” she says. “They can be small things or big things, but it’s a mindset of constantly saying, ‘Okay, this process is doing really well for us, but where can we improve it?’”

Brinley adds that this is an organic process, fostered throughout the company. “There are different ways to create this culture,” she says. “Maybe all kinds of employee motivation methods can help move that along, but if it’s not driven from a top-down management level, part of something that you encourage out of every employee, then it’s very difficult to achieve.”

For Ford, the culture appears to be growing.

A few years ago, according to the Washington Post, other major automakers were granted nearly twice as many patents as Ford. But that has changed. The company implemented a number of internal initiatives, from altering its financial incentives for inventors to creating company-wide innovation challenges. As a result, Ford earned more U.S. utility patents in 2016 than were granted to any other automaker.

Ford employees earned approximately 1,500 U.S. patents, which was a 25 percent increase versus 2015. Worldwide, Ford employees submitted 8,000 new inventions in 2016 – a 40 percent increase over 2015 and a 90 percent jump over 2014. More than 5,500 Ford employees put forth ideas in 2016, including about 2,200 first-time inventors, the company reports.

In a company statement, Raj Nair, Ford’s chief technical officer, said, “We are living the innovation mindset in all parts of our business across the globe. Our employees are delivering exciting new technologies for our customers at record levels.”


Ford’s prototype On-the-Go H2O system collects, filters and pumps water directly to a faucet hanging over a car’s cupholders.

App approved

Not all these ideas are patented, but some are already paying dividends. One example is found in Ford’s manufacturing facility in Valencia, Spain, where Ford production manager Ramón García proposed the use of a wearable device connected to a smartphone app that enables production line workers to make faster and more accurate quality checks during the assembly process.

Ford, in partnership with local software company Visia Solutions S.L., developed the Android-powered app to replace a paper-based system that involved workers walking back and forth – more than one kilometer daily – to access information on desktop PCs. Now, the device allows the workers to make specification and quality checks using a wrist-worn “Portable Quality Assurance Device.”

The Bluetooth-enabled device recognizes the exact quality inspection requirements for each vehicle that passes along the assembly line. These are displayed on the touchscreen of the wrist-worn device, and team members are able to instantly follow up and approve the assembly or halt production if necessary. The new system has helped to reduce human error by 7 percent while at the same time making each vehicle check seven seconds quicker.


A Ford Dearborn Truck Plant employee finishes paint imperfections spotted by Ford’s dirt detection technology.

Dirt detector

Further initiatives aimed at improving overall manufacturing efficiency include sophisticated image analysis to identify and eliminate dirt particles smaller than a grain of salt on vehicle paint surfaces. The system uses high-resolution cameras and reflected light to digitally identify surface imperfections and cue operators where to polish and buff out imperfections.

According to a company press release, by using dirt detection technology, Ford improved paint quality and reduced customer complaints of vehicle surface finish by 82 percent within one year, as measured by customer warranty data for F-Series models produced at the company’s Dearborn Truck Plant.


Ford’s dirt detection technology takes microscopic scans of each painted vehicle surface and then alerts final assembly operators if repairs are necessary. In the past, paint and surface inspections were based on human-eye examination. The 3-D imaging system applies varying degrees and angles of light while scoping the paint surface of vehicle bodies to identify dirt in paint and other irregular paint conditions.

The system captures 3,150 high-resolution images in just 15 sec. for every vehicle made. These images are spliced together for a full 3-D image that is digitally compared to a perfect computer model.

These are just some of the wide-ranging innovations being implemented at Ford. In other parts of the world, robots and humans are interacting, weight is being reduced by use of lighter materials, and the bio-material Agave is even being used to create new plastics. The changes, both little and small, are vast, but according to Fields they won’t be the last of them.


“As we drive innovation in every part of our business, we are determined to learn, to take risks, to challenge custom and question tradition, and to change our business going forward,” Fields told shareholders. “We have given our engineers, scientists and technologists a challenge. We have asked them to use innovation not to just create better products. We have asked them to innovate to make the entire transportation experience easier, to make people’s lives better and, in doing so, to create a better world.”

Ford Motor Co.

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