Video: Ford shows off 2011 Explorer air leak and panel gap tests

2011 Ford Explorer goes through air leak testing – Click above to watch video after the jump

Today's vehicles are quieter than ever, and while that's partially thanks to new computer modeling techniques, it also has plenty to do with repeated testing of each and every vehicle seal. For every door, hatch and window, some engineer has slaved tirelessly to make sure everything fits together just as it should. Ford has been kind enough to roll out a couple of videos showing that exact process on its forthcoming 2011 Explorer. The company uses some pretty high-tech equipment to take accurate measurements on panel gaps and detect potential air leak issues before the vehicle even goes through paint.

Watching the engineers play with their toys is entertaining and all, but we were most interested in what engineer Matt Machala had to say about just how much more stringent Ford's standards have grown over the past three years. It may mean boatloads of extra work for the company's employees, but from what we've seen of their product of late, there's no denying the impact those hours have had on the company's finished product. Hit the jump to see the videos for yourself. Hot tip, Sam!

[Source: Ford]

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* Ford scrutinized every inch of the new 2011 Ford Explorer throughout the development – even when the design existed only on a computer screen – to ensure the vehicle delivered top-notch craftsmanship
* Ford utilized specialized high-tech equipment, from laser wands to aluminum bodies, to ensure the Explorer met the toughest craftsmanship standards
* The all-new Explorer had a devoted team assigned to ensure it had top-notch craftsmanship

DEARBORN, Mich., July 1, 2010 – When designers at Ford's product development center sat down to sketch out the new 2011 Explorer, the team had a clear objective: Deliver a sleek, modern package, while maintaining the rugged looks of an SUV. But no matter what direction they took the new design, there was one thing that could not be compromised: craftsmanship.

"Every detail of the new Explorer was scrutinized," said Peter Bejin, Ford craftsmanship supervisor. "Craftsmanship – the look, the style, the feel of a well-built vehicle – is a critical step in the design process. It is the key differentiator in a competitive and crowded marketplace."

It's so important that Ford formed a dedicated group of product designers and engineers to focus solely on craftsmanship. The Global Craftsmanship team, based both in Europe and the U.S., worked to ensure that every part, seam, button and dial is perfectly matched so that the vehicle is well crafted, aesthetically pleasing and functional.

The new Explorer's craftsmanship invites its customers to perceive the vehicle with their senses. A consistent and harmonious combination of visual, audible and olfactory characteristics must exceed customers' expectations.

"It's like an orchestra, where many instruments make up the harmonious whole, the precise and pleasant sensory elements in a Ford vehicle work together to create a holistic balance," said Bejin. "This was our mission statement as we developed the new Explorer."

The craftsmanship process begins very early in the vehicle's development. Designers start upstream by looking at all their data in the virtual world on a computer screen long before the vehicle is seen in its full form as a prototype.

Closing the gap

When the vehicle body is first built in a prototype phase, quality tests begin. On the Explorer, engineers used a highly accurate laser wand to check the placement and measurement of more than 500 connection points on the vehicle body to make sure the full physical design of the body matched the virtual computer version.

"In the prototype phase, we examine and scrutinize every touch point on the vehicle that our engineers have deemed important to quality," said Matt Machala, tooling/dimensional control engineer. "This is so we can trace any quality issues before the vehicle leaves the body shop."

Machala and his crew also measure the pressure and sealings on the vehicle doors, making sure they open and shut firmly and correctly. They measure the margin of fit of the body panels, assuring that the seams and gaps where parts come together are no wider than 3.7 millimeters or about the width of two stacked nickels, Machala said.

"That's the kind of thing that customers really notice," Machala explained. "It's not just about aesthetics; they want a vehicle that's put together well."

No air leaks means a quiet ride

A key aspect of perceived quality is sound, or the absence of sound. A noisy interior cabin caused by wind or other external disturbances upset the sense of sound. Ford has gone to great lengths to minimize wind noise by using high-tech devices that can pinpoint noise from wind and other sources entering the vehicle.

One unsung hero in this process is an air leakage test performed at different stages throughout the production of the new Explorer. Eliminating air leaks begins with virtual design checks on the computer and then continues with validation tests after the body has been built.

To test for air leaks, engineers must first remove air from the vehicle's interior cabin. A test vehicle is randomly selected and pulled from the assembly line after it's been through the paint process, but before its trim parts are added. All of the openings to the interior cabin of the vehicle are sealed with sheets of Plexiglas that match the shape of the opening to create an airtight seal. A vacuum-like machine with hose attached is secured to a hole in the Plexiglas through which air is either suctioned from or pumped in to the cabin, depending on the test.

Engineers then crawl through the cabin using a stethoscope type listening device to check for air coming in or out of the vehicle's cabin. They also use a mini-camera on a cord that enables them to look into spaces otherwise inaccessible. This process is repeated once more once the vehicle is fully assembled.
"Reducing air leaks helps us deliver that quiet ride that today's customers expect and deserve," said Jason Griffin, air leakage noise, vibration and harshness engineer. "So we use our ears and our tools, and we look and we listen to make sure we have a tightly sealed passenger cabin."

Taking the process a step further, the team even has developed an innovative new weapon in its arsenal against air leakage –thermal camera photography teamed with heated air, which pinpoints the exact location the air leak is occurring.

"Typically, we would pump air into or evacuate air out of the vehicle, and then listen for air coming in or out, and that's how we detect the issues," Griffin said. "But recently we devised a method where we can heat the air, so when we blow air out of the cabin with our vacuum, a hot spot appears on the camera pointing to the leak in the sheet metal."

Engineers also perform air leakage tests on vehicles in their finished state with all the interior, exterior, chassis and powertrain components installed to further ensure a quiet ride for customers.

Perfect parts, perfect body

The craftsmanship checks continue as Explorer moves forward in its development process. At Chicago Assembly Plant, where Explorer soon will roll off the assembly lines, operators and product engineers work together with suppliers to conduct a test known as the trim coordination build.

To ensure that all of the new Explorer's trim parts from suppliers match Ford's specifications, engineers use a dimensionally-correct aluminum version of the vehicle, called an environmental cube or "e-cube," to attach all of the trim parts onto like a puzzle. Inside and out, each individual part that makes up the style, shape and look of the new Explorer is attached to the e-cube such as the grille front, bumper fascias, instrument panel and other parts are hung onto the test sheet metal to make sure each fits perfectly.

"What we're doing is making sure that all of our trim parts fit correctly early in the process," Bejin said. "So you have your fascia, your scuff plates, your headliner, your seats, your carpet – everything. You can build the whole thing out like a life-sized puzzle. We're making sure that each part is what it needs to be dimensionally on a mock model before it's considered a good part for assembly on the real product."

That means it fits well – to within a razor-thin 1/10th of a millimeter of the computer design – ensuring tight-fitting trim parts with no unsightly gaps.

"We want all the fits on our vehicle to be world-class," Bejin said. "We want our craftsmanship to be a part of our showroom competitiveness."

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