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Ford engineers design with comfort in mind

Ergonomics team members don suits that simulate the ninth month of pregnancy to get ideas on how to make vehicles easier to operate.

August 06, 2003|Jim Mateja | Chicago Tribune

The assignment, the boss insisted, was simple:

Undergo an "ergonomics awakening."

So off we set to Northwestern University, where Fred Lupton, a Ford Motor Co. ergonomics engineer, was spending the day sharing his knowledge with budding engineers.

Ford's ergonomics engineers must ensure that features and systems on new vehicles are easy to use.

The first venture in helping the engineers serve their customers in designing cars was the Third Age Suit, coveralls that came with ankle, knee, back, neck, elbow and hand braces to restrict movement; rubber gloves to limit the sensation of touch; and goggles tinted to magnify glare and blur vision to simulate old age.

That suit made young designers and engineers empathize with and adopt changes to equipment for older customers to whom the act of reaching to adjust mirrors or fasten safety belts could be laborious.

As a result of research using the suit, Ford added sonar sensing to its 1999 Windstar minivan, which beeps to alert drivers that an object is in its path when backing up. The suit also contributed to a decision to move fuel-filler door and trunk-release levers from the floor to an easier-to-reach location on the instrument panel in 2000 on the Ford Focus.

Next up is the "empathy belly" to ensure that the ergonomics engineers recognize the needs of pregnant women when designing features for new vehicles. That's why Lupton was at Northwestern to update tomorrow's engineers on tools of the trade not found in textbooks.

Before the class, he led us to a room for an up-close-and-personal example of how the empathy belly, more commonly called the pregnancy suit, worked.

The pregnancy suit is a canvas vest designed for fathers to wear to more fully appreciate the trials and tribulations that mothers go through during pregnancy. The pregnancy suit is now a staple for Ford ergonomics engineers after a young staff member encountered it while attending a Lamaze class with his wife. Ford bought two.

The thinking is that if engineers are going to make systems and controls easy for the pregnant woman to use, they first must spend a day in her shoes.

Ergonomics engineers apply their skills while wearing the pregnancy suit, which simulates the ninth month of pregnancy. To understand what the engineers go through, I submitted to the suit. The suit is a vest with built-in breasts, a slide-in 13-pound water bladder in the stomach pouch to simulate a fetus and two 7-pound lead weights to torture the bladder.

Before strapping it on, you must have your rib cage wrapped in a wide strip of Velcro cloth to ensure that if the 13-pound water bladder and 14 pounds of lead weights don't get you thinking of the plight of the pregnant woman, the lack of oxygen will.

With the straps, ties and weights in place, Lupton slipped a smock over my head to cover the hardware "so that you don't look silly" in walking out of the building to the waiting Lincoln Navigator to try the suit.

It takes the suit about five seconds before the weight brings on back pains, about six seconds before the Velcro corset has you gasping for breath, about seven seconds before you waddle rather than walk and about eight seconds before celibacy starts to sound good.

When I reached the Navigator, the automatic running board that slips out for entering or exiting and retracts when the door is closed was just what I needed to get into the front seat. Lupton smiled. One example of how the suit prompted changes to relieve a chore. But the two primary vehicles benefiting from the suit are the 2004 Mercury Monterey and Ford Freestar (formerly Windstar) minivans.

Using the suit resulted in the addition of grab handles over the doors, power adjustable brake and gas pedals, driver's seat vertical height adjustment and adjustable steering wheel so pregnant women can enter and exit and fit comfortably in the seat. Also, thanks to the suit, second-row seats will fold out of the way with a pull of a lever, and third-row seat backs will fold flat with a simple pull of a strap.

A power lift gate that opens and closes by means of the key fob will be a new option to minimize the chore for the pregnant woman, though the fact that Chrysler now offers power lift gates on its vans probably influenced that too.

Young and non-expecting motorists also benefit from a vehicle designed with pregnant women or the older motorists in mind.

"When you design for one segment of the population, you aid all the population," Lupton said. "When you make instruments easier to read for older people, you make them easier to read for the young too. When it takes less effort for a pregnant woman to fold seats, it takes less effort for everyone to fold seats."

Lupton said the pregnancy suit is going to be used "in designing our family haulers -- vans, SUVs and, now, with the refocus on cars, our sedans," including the Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego for '05 and the Ford Futura replacement for the Taurus for '06.

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