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Ford's renovated development center

Thanks to a US$43 million renovation of Ford's Dearborn Proving Ground, blue oval engineers are now less than five minutes from everything they need for state-of-the-art testing


On a recent June afternoon, Jerry Holmes was speeding around a test track in Dearborn, Michigan, analyzing the steering dynamics of a Ford prototype. 

As an engineer with Ford's vehicle dynamics testing team, Holmes' job is to test vehicles for the company's design, manufacturing and engineering teams. Besides Ford, Lincoln and Mercury, Premiere Automotive Group and Mazda vehicles will also be put through the paces.

Collecting this data, in the past, often meant driving to Ford's Michigan Proving Grounds in Romeo, some 90 minutes away. Now, thanks to a US$43 million renovation of the Dearborn Proving Ground, Holmes and his team are less than five minutes from everything they need for state-of-the-art testing.

"We can go right out of the lab and onto the track," says Holmes. "It saves us more than three hours a day, and that makes a big difference in our productivity."

Rechristened the Dearborn Development Center (DDC), the site has had several incarnations in the past 60 years - from an airport, to a test track, to its new role as a development tool for the 14,000 Ford employees and engineers who work at the adjacent Ford Research and Engineering campus.

"To my knowledge, it's the first development center anywhere in the world that's located within the confines of a major OEM headquarters," states Mark-Tami Hotta, Ford's chief engineer for worldwide proving grounds. "This center is all about product creation with engineers driving, testing and evaluating vehicles."

To make way for the DDC's new role, Ford moved its routine procedure testing, such as fuel economy data and government certification tests to the 4,000-acre Michigan Proving Grounds.

"Up until now, the Dearborn Proving Grounds was congested much of the time because many of those procedure-based tests are very long," explains Hotta. "Now an engineer can come out here, assess a procedure and get instant feedback."

Renovations to the 365-acre facility include 70 miles of new test roads, designed to duplicate the variety of road and weather conditions Ford customers drive in every day.

"We want a controlled environment so we can repeat those conditions over and over as we make changes to the product," says Kevin Markham, DDC coordinator. "But we want to do it quickly, efficiently and safely."

Included in the new facility is a 55-acre vehicle dynamics area. The flat asphalt surface allows engineers to set up different courses for testing high-risk maneuvers and includes a 12-acre "wet area" that is irrigated for simulating wet and icy conditions.

A new 2.1-mile steering and handling track has been added to develop steering precision and handling prowess. By making it nearly identical to Ford's Volvo Arizona Proving Grounds in Phoenix, engineers will be able to develop vehicles in Dearborn in warm months and continue the same work in Arizona during the winter.

"It's a big asset for us to have separate sites with very similar skid characteristics, curves and undulations," states Robert Mull, Ford's executive director of vehicle evaluation and verification. "It saves time because drivers won't have to learn a new track; their focus can be totally on the vehicle."

For detecting squeaks, rattles and leaks, the DDC has a special events area that simulates various road surfaces from around the world, including the cobblestone streets of Europe, the freeways of Los Angeles, and the potholes of Detroit.

The DDC has designed new guardrails, run-off areas and a control tower with 360-degree vision and radio contact to every vehicle on the site. To use the facility, a driver must call the tower, which in turn notifies other users and clears the driver to go.

"It makes it very simple to get people on and off the surfaces quickly, and we can watch what they're doing to make sure they're safe," says Markham.

A new 10,000-square-foot Product Review Center will host marketing and media events and will also be a site where program teams can convene for vehicle evaluations, right next to the test track.

"We have stuffed a lot into a small area," says Hotta. "But as a state-of-the-art development center, we'll now be able to test our vehicles to the limit right here in Dearborn."

August 11, 2011


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