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Ryan E. Day

Customer Care

The Quiet After the Storm

Ford employees brainstorm manufacturing solutions for quieter auto interiors

Published: Wednesday, May 4, 2016 - 15:51

Ihave never been accused of being an early adopter of cutting-edge technology. On the other hand, I don’t dance the Luddite jig, either. True to my own type, I hung on to my old M-1A tank, aka a Motorola flip phone, for as long as I could, but was pleased as punch when circumstances led me to adopt a true smartphone. I even splurged on a Bluetooth earpiece so I could combine business calls and commuting. I soon discovered that the decibel level inside a pickup truck rolling down I-5 far exceeds the capabilities of a personal Bluetooth device.

Major auto manufacturers have been offering Bluetooth-integrated sound systems for a few years now, but I suspect cabin noise presents problems for that option as well. I also suspect wind noise engineers at Ford Motor Co. have been hip to this for quite some time.

Working on the inside from the inside

Ford has long encouraged its employees to imagine—and develop—inventive solutions. One such innovation is manifesting in its core manufacturing business to make quieter automobile cabins. Hallelujah and pass the Bluetooth!

Ford’s wind-noise engineers came up with a patent-pending mobile facility that reduces testing cycles from weeks to hours, yet is advanced enough to detect even the subtlest issues that may otherwise not be tracked. Hence, the innovative system is enhancing customer satisfaction and refining the driving experience when customers are inside the vehicle.

“The wind-noise reduction team deals with all aspects of the design process—from the very earliest stages all the way to the assembly plant,” says Bill Gulker, wind-noise supervisor and technical specialist at Ford. “Because we had to ship production sample vehicles to and from the static wind tunnel facilities, we used to joke about having a wind tunnel at every plant. We came to Ford management with an idea to build a mobile aeroacoustic wind tunnel that would allow for real-time communication on the assembly line and streamline how we identify and counteract wind noise. Not only does Ford foster an environment of innovation, but it trusted our team to develop this technology and truly respected our expertise.”

If the car can’t be on the highway...

As consumers demand quieter cars, cabin quietness has become a leading consideration in purchasing an automobile.

“Over the 15 years we’ve had the big aeroacoustic tunnel, our vehicles are basically 30-percent quieter than they were before,” says Gulker “We talk about ‘draining the swamp’ in terms of cars getting quieter and quieter because as the ambient noise is reduced, other more subtle noises become apparent. The launch event on a brand new model has to be just right more than ever.”

To deliver product commensurate with demand, engineering test facilities have evolved into office building-sized facilities built for advanced aerodynamic and aeroacoustic development work on future models. Some facilities cost up to $50 million. The caveat to these highly specialized systems is the cost to use them for production refinement purposes. The large sensitive instruments housed in large permanent buildings are perfect for design engineering, but once production begins, their use becomes problematic: The test facility may be in Michigan, whereas the production plant may be in New York.

Ford’s solution is to bring the test facility to the car rather than the other way around. As a lesson in lean, the entire operation can be broken down within a day, shipped to any Ford North American assembly facility via truck, then reassembled at the new site and be ready for testing within hours.

Having an onsite wind-noise facility is a game changer. Ford factories can pull more sample vehicles directly from the assembly line and test them with no delay—reducing the time, cost, and complexity of shipping vehicles back and forth across the country.

“After experiencing what a huge benefit our big aeroacoustic chamber [in Michigan] was, we thought combining some of those capabilities with a smaller size would help alleviate some of the frustrations we experience with new vehicle launch,” says Gulker. “Now we can identify an area in need of improvement, have key people gather, communicate quickly, and resolve the issue without delay. We’re actually using this to ‘tune’ the assembly process as much as anything else. We can describe something and send objective data, but there‘s nothing like having a team member sitting in a vehicle and hearing a problem to get him interested in solving that problem.”

‘Tiny houses’ debut in Flat Rock, Michigan

In order for Ford to translate the mobile facility from concept to creation, it had to rethink what actually constitutes a wind tunnel. Like the “tiny house” phenomenon, Ford utilizes metal shipping containers for the structure. Two 54 ft containers are fastened together with the ends acting as air intake and outlet nozzles. A third container is placed nearby and houses a small office, power distribution, and controls. The core capabilities of a wind tunnel, however, still have to be met.

“We have to have up to 80 mph airspeed in order to aggravate the noise phenomena, we need a large enough volume of moving air to engulf the vehicle in order to simulate driving conditions, and it has to be quiet enough to allow us to position the vehicle just one meter downstream from the nozzle,” explains Gulker “We needed a noise-attenuation strategy for the design so that what you hear inside the car is wind noise and not the machine.”

So they built a “tiny house” equipped with twin 250 horsepower fans requiring 800 amps of electricity.

“It’s interesting to find a suitable location at the assembly plant itself for a facility generating an 80 mph jet of air that blows out into the open,” quips Gulker. “During the initial phases of talking to people about this project, we did encounter questions like, ‘You're trying to do what?!’ We heard plenty of extension cord jokes.”

Fast facts about Ford’s industry-first mobile wind tunnel
• Maximum sustained wind speed: 80 mph
• Maximum system power: 500 horsepower
• Diameter of each ducted fan: 6 ft
• Facility capability: 24-hour-a-day operation by two workers
• Enormous power distribution cables weigh 10 lbs per foot, each plug weighs 40 pounds; in total, each 100-ft cable weighs approximately 1,080 lbs
• Despite the machine’s huge power, it registers just 75 decibels at a distance of 6 ft from the test area—roughly equivalent to a telephone dial tone

Some conclusions

Innovation like this is always exciting and can provide multiple lessons.

“The biggest challenge may have been balancing the cost of an efficient design that would meet our performance needs, and that could also be moved and set up quickly,” says Gulker. “That's probably why we haven’t done it until now. I always think back to high school, building a wind tunnel out of styrofoam in physics class, and now we’re doing it here at Ford. It’s actually pretty cool to think about that.”

There are several takeaways that occur to me, one of them being this: Ford’s penchant for taking a humble idea—scaling a wind tunnel to match a specific need—and letting its people run with it is inspirational. No doubt this model can be adapted to many issues within our own organizations. Look to employees to identify a specific area for improvement, encourage them to provide a solution, then provide the necessary resources for them to make it work.

Another takeaway is the hope that I may soon be able to jump in a car and have a coherent conversation on my phone while I get out of Dodge.


About The Author

Ryan E. Day’s picture

Ryan E. Day

Ryan E. Day is Quality Digest’s project manager and senior editor for solution-based reporting, which brings together those seeking business improvement solutions and solution providers. Day has spent the last decade researching and interviewing top business leaders and continuous improvement experts at companies like Sakor, Ford, Merchandize Liquidators, Olympus, 3D Systems, Hexagon, Intertek, InfinityQS, Johnson Controls, FARO, and Eckel Industries. Most of his reporting is done with the help of his 20 lb tabby cat at his side.


SERIOUSLY?I have owned


I have owned various Ford vehicles since 1988. Starting in 2004 the vehicles became more tech savy and sophisticted EXCEPT for the heater/AC fan. I truly believe that Ford borrowed the fan from the engine of a Boeoing 707. Since 2012 I have to turrn the environmental control way down before the built in blue tooth recognizes a command. Why would you build a sleek car, test it for road and wind noise and put in a fan that sounds like take off at O'Hare Airport?