THE BIG INTERVIEW: How Ford’s blueprint for drones is keeping its factories safe

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Automaker Ford is using UAVs to perform inspections at its engine plant in London in a move that is delivering sizeable benefits from a safety and efficiency point of view.

Machine production manager Pat Manning, who is spearheading the project, explains what it has taken to develop an in-house drone strategy and reveals how the blueprint it conceived in Essex is now being rolled out to Ford plants across the world.

Pat, tell us what led you to consider introducing drones to the Ford Dagenham Engine Plant in the first place?

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We operate robot gantries over our CNC machines, which vary from 10 metres up to 60 metres and the actual robot pulls all the communication cables, hydraulic cables and pneumatic cables along on a track behind it. In 2017 in Windsor plant in North America one of these tracks dismounted from the beam and came onto the floor and narrowly missed hitting some employees. There could have been the potential for fatalities. We have seen at least five of those incidents prior to that one in various plants around the globe, including here in Dagenham. And each time the failure was due to worn parts on the track. The root cause of getting to that was that we weren’t doing enough preventative maintenance, monitoring and checks. For us to do these checks we have to stop production, get specialist equipment in, scaffolding, mobile elevated platforms, bespoke steps, and we have to send our maintenance guys up there working at height, which is always a risk. When this incident happened in Windsor, the Ford Global Safety Department asked every plant to stop and check all their gantries because it didn’t want to see another one of these incidents and possibly have a fatality somewhere.

So the complexity and time involved in carrying out those inspections got you thinking about ways to make that process more effective?

Yes. In Dagenham we have around 160 gantries that we needed to check and we estimated it would take 120 hours per line and up to 12 people doing the inspections, so we are talking three weeks of intense examination. During production that is impossible — we just haven’t got a non-productive time to do it, so we had to come up with a different way. We started using static cameras, where we placed a camera at various points along the track and let the track pass by the camera, but again that wasn’t sufficient. We weren’t covering all the areas we needed to, it was time-consuming and people still had to work at height. The images we got were pretty good but not where we needed to be. One of the guys that worked for me said, ‘why don’t we use a helicopter and latch a camera to it and fly it over?’ and I said, ‘well, aren’t you talking about a drone?’ and that’s where the idea came from.    

Pat Manning, machine production manager

Developing a drone process from scratch must have been quite a daunting prospect…

It was totally new to me. I had seen them but never actually considered flying one or the health and safety implications of doing so within a manufacturing environment. Can we have people walking underneath it? Can we have people in the vicinity of it? What happens if it loses power and crashes to the floor? As a company we have developed safety guidance for flying drones within Ford facilities and the Global Safety Team has issued that now. It has taken us around five months to develop the process.

What sort of things do those guidelines entail?

There are certain rules we have about drones — we carry out risk assessments and we carry out method statements for every single flight that we do. We have a flight plan that we have to follow, so that involves things like cordoning the area off to ensure that nobody is underneath the drone while it is flying. We always have two people — the pilot and a banksman. It means you have got two pairs of eyes on what’s happening because sometimes the pilot is looking at the controls or the screen and isn’t always aware of what is going on. It is part of our safety system of work that we have two people at all times operating the drones.  

Once you realised that the operation would benefit from utilising drones, how did you go about choosing a technology partner?

One of my operators has got a Yuneec drone and he put us in touch with them. They came in, we described the applications and they gradually worked with us to develop the drone and the training with us. They’ve advised us on safe working and CAA regulations, supplied us with the drones and gone to the other EU plants in Cologne, Romania and Valencia to demonstrate their capabilities. There are plans for them to go to Bridgend, too. Yuneec has got outlets in various countries across the world, including the US, Japan and Germany, and they are using their partners in those countries to go into Ford plants to do the same work and advise on the same processes that we are using.


What roles does the drone play in collecting the data you need?

We capture images of the tracks and we have thermal imaging cameras attached to the drones where we can monitor gear boxes, motors and different areas of the track, but we haven’t just stopped there. We are now using this across the plant for a variety of different applications. We are doing high level gear box and motors, we are doing high-powered cables, we are doing junctions of high-powered cables which we periodically have issues with and the thermal cameras pick up the heat traces. We are doing boiler houses, steampipe work and even confined spaces where we would normally have to send a maintenance guy to do checks. If you take one of our robot cells, it is completely enclosed in a guarding section and sometimes we have to stand a maintenance guy in there to see what is going on because we can’t physically see what the issue is from the outside. That is a last resort but sometimes we have to do it — however with the drone we don’t have to do that anymore. We can just fly the drone in there while it is operating, see exactly what we want to and come up with a solution to the problem a lot quicker and a lot safer.

You must have amassed quite a significant reference library since you introduced drones…

Yes, we can look at the condition of a gantry track, for instance, and then check it again three months later to see if there are any deterioration rates, any wear rates, or if there is any difference in the images. Then we will make a decision on what repairs and actions we need to take. As I said, before the drones the only time we could do that was during our three-week shut-down period in July and if it didn’t happen then it didn’t happen throughout the rest of the year. With drones now, we are now planning to do a visual check every 12 weeks to identify any analomies. From a safety point of view, we are not putting people at heights for inspection or putting them in confined spaces.  And when I say confined spaces, in Dagenham we have got steam tunnels where steam pipework runs and we have to send maintenance guys down inside those to do checks. They are dark, they are cramped, they are hot and it is a risk for them to go in there. We have now put the drone down those without any risk and it has been a success. We have now launched this around the globe in Ford.


What sort of challenges have you had to overcome when bringing drones into the business?

There were some challenges to using a standard off-the-shelf drone with GPS and other anti-collision software in it because it lost signal inside the building. We have got drones on an indoor mode where certain systems are disabled so that we can fly them close to the machines because the frequencies that our machines operate at clashed with the frequency that the drones is operating to. That was the first challenge that we had to overcome. We have also has got an anti-collision shield on the drone now so that if it comes into contact with anything it just basically bounces off the component it hits, which protects the drone but also protects the component or the piece of equipment we are monitoring as well.

The nature of the work sounds like it requires skilled pilots. Are you investing heavily in training?

Yes, we have got some really intensive training going on with the pilots to ensure that they are capable of flying them, and nobody flies a drone unless they are signed off to a training package that we have developed with a local supplier.

How many drone pilots do you have for the Dagenham plant?

We currently have six people from our preventative maintenance team being trained as pilots right now and we have three drones. That will enable us to carry out inspections around the clock as they work a three-shift, 24-hour shift pattern.

It’s interesting to see the approach that large corporations take towards UAV operations. Some prefer to outsource the entire process and others like to build it in-house. What was behind your thinking?

It was always going to be in-house for us. We see the value of that as we have got our own maintenance people. They know the equipment, they know what to look for when they are looking at the images, and we can do it more frequently with our own people. We can also do it off the cuff. If I have an issue with a gantry today and we suspect it is something to do with the linkage, I will just get one of our maintenance team over with a drone before I send somebody up there on a scaffold. It takes 10 minutes to get it in the air and we are seeing images immediately. The difference with using an outside provider is that we would have to wait for that person to come in, whereas we have got the resource and skills on site.

It is clear that using drones will save you significant time and resource. Will the structure of your team change now because there are so many processes you don’t have to carry out manually?

No, it is incorporated into our current preventative maintenance plan. There is no additional resource, there is no additional time required and there is no additional cost involved.


You talked about inspecting in very confined space and using the drones to look for deficiencies in plant and equipment. Are the drones as good as what the naked eye would be able to spot?

They are better. The images are fantastic and we can zoom in and really get up close and personal with what we need to see. And the image doesn’t lie. You can get variation in skillsets with people and one person’s opinion might be different to another, but by taking these images and recording them we can put them on a desktop PC or an iPad and look at them more closely.

You said you have six pilots and three drones. Are those numbers sufficient for the size of the plant or do you see yourself having to increase them?  

We are reviewing that at the moment, but six pilots is enough coverage for what we currently do. Dagenham engine plant comprises two areas – we have got the engine plant here and then we have the Diesel Design Centre within the estate, so we are also looking at the content of work we need to do over there. Their assembly lines are slightly different so we are just working with the two DDC teams to see how much work needs to be done and looking at timings. If that can be trained over here then great, but if not we will train them up to do it themselves and we will get them their own drones.

Have drones delivered any benefits or surprises that you didn’t envisage at the beginning of the project?

Well, we always thought that it would deliver what we envisaged it would, but we have found some significant things that we wouldn’t have seen if we didn’t have the drones. Using the thermal imaging camera we were able to detect a motor that was over-heating at around five metres in height. Now, the first sight we would have seen of that normally would have been when the motor failed. It could have stopped inside a machine, it could have caused damage and it could have caused us endless hours of downtime. It would have taken four to five hours of downtime to repair and an assembly line would have been stopped. By using a drone we could detect that this motor was hovering around 71°C and that allowed us to plan to change it during a non-productive period. We are seeing those types of examples coming through all the time. It is increasing productivity by detecting failures earlier.

It sounds like it is delivering benefits far beyond just the convenience of being able to send drones up to inspect an area instead of a person…

I think when we first started this, there was a feeling out there that we were just buying some toys to play with. But these are not toys — these are part of our maintenance operating system now. They are a key part of our plan and if this prevents the catastrophic failure we saw in the Windsor plant and we have seen in Dagenham years ago then the value is in that. The value comes from preventing that kind of accident from happening and also not having to put people at risk by working at height.  

Finally, what’s next for Ford Dagenham and drones?

The next level we want to go to is where we map the route and set the drones off without a pilot. Externally you can obviously fly these things over buildings and they will go off and do the route and film as they go along. We are challenging the supplier to see how we might be able to do that inside the building. We will always need somebody to manage it, but we won’t need to have the intense pilot-banksman interaction that we have currently. It would speed things up as well, so that is the next stage that we are challenging the manufacturer of drones to supply us with.

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Alex Douglas

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