Have you heard about the new guy at Ford Motor Co.? He’s not quite like you and me. Working the assembly line, he is an inexhaustible tough guy with impeccable military and academic credentials. Santos is a highly realistic virtual worker who doesn’t just simulate motion; he records the actual physical strains of reaching, lifting and stretching. He can execute tasks autonomously. He can walk, talk and answer questions.

Now in the testing phase at Ford, Santos is a computerized avatar that performs actions in the virtual world that can allow Ford to improve quality, safety and ergonomics in factories before an assembly line is built. He is designed with a complete biomechanical muscular system to provide feedback on fatigue, speed, strength and torque.

Originally created for the U.S. Department of Defense at the University of Iowa as part of the Virtual Soldier Research (VSR) program to help reduce physical strain on soldiers, Santos has been heralded by ergonomists as a breakthrough in digital modeling.

Santos’ move from the virtual battlefield to the virtual assembly line is the latest step in Ford’s efforts to improve ergonomics at its manufacturing plants.

“Creating the safest and most ergonomic way to build a vehicle is a trial-and-error process. In recent years technology has allowed this process to happen in the virtual world,” says Allison Stephens, ergonomics technical specialist with Vehicle Operations Manufacturing Engineering. “Santos takes this to a new level. He can perform a task and tell us whether over months and years it will cause back strain, for example, and we can make adjustments until we find the optimal way to get the job done.”

When Stephens heard about the research being done with Santos in the VSR program, she was immediately intrigued. “The same issue is at work at Ford as in the military-how to analyze human limits with dynamic motion. Santos, with his capability in predictive dynamics, will aid in increasing efficiency as well as safety and quality.”

Over the years we’ve seen technology make our jobs easier and even make some jobs obsolete, but this technology takes it to another level. Do you see an avatar replacing you or your job in the near future?

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