Ashley Buchner uses some of the tools of the virtual world to help automaker FCA US LLC get production of new models off to a smooth start in the real world.
Buchner leads the Virtual Assembly Group within the automaker’s manufacturing organization. Her team comes up with digital simulations for assembly processes as the company prepares to bring out new and redesigned vehicles.
For example, her team uses motion capture suit technology. A user dons the suit, which has sensors that generate data for computers to produce a “virtual” person as part of the digital simulations. Buchner once demonstrated a motion capture suit in front of a group of 500 manufacturing employees.
Motion capture suits are a tool used in movies and video games that utilize computer-generated effects. Buchner’s team uses such a suit with a more down-to-earth intent.
“We are able to create these simulations of the operator,” she said. “You are able to more accurately depict what the operator will be doing…It’s a more complete and more accurate simulation. You are now that operator who’s in the computer.”
“Application of the motion capture suit included developing custom scripts with software suppliers,” wrote Marc Banning, manager of ergonomics and virtual assembly for FCA who nominated Buchner for 30 Under 30. Buchner “developed a quick simulation process to visualize manufacturing operations at a station level. During this time the number of simulations progressed from 25 to over 600 for a new vehicle program.”
Buchner joined FCA US in 2011 as a contract employee and became a direct hire in 2013. The auto industry runs in her family. Her parents, Raymond and Sharon Ellerbe worked at General Motors Co. (Her mother still does).
“I had the car bug in me,” Ashley Buchner said. “I’ve always been intrigued by putting things together and taking things apart to figure out how things work.”
Buchner graduated from Oakland University (Rochester, MI) with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering.
Joining FCA US gave Buchner more appreciation for the production process of vehicles.
“I’ve always liked cars from the outside,” she said. “It wasn’t until I got into this field of manufacturing” that she realized “there is this big picture a lot of people don’t see…There are thousands of people who work to put one thing together.”
Buchner’s job calls for travel to factories where FCA is preparing to start production of new models. She may work at a factory in the Detroit area or she could journey to Mexico, depending on the project.
“For me, a typical day starts at 7 in the morning, sometimes 6:30 in the morning,” Buchner said. “I like to know my job is complete. My day could be an eight-hour day, it could be a 10-hour, 12-hour day.”
Buchner’s responsibilities have expanded over time.
“Ashley and her team are in the midst of building a virtual assembly lab, which will allow innovative interaction with product engineering, process engineering and hourly employees,” Marc Banning, her boss, wrote in his nomination letter. The lab, he wrote, will boost quality and productivity “as well as significantly shorter ramp-up curves.”
“A lot of people think we play with video games,” Buchner said. “But it’s in a manufacturing setting. It’s a cool and powerful tool, that’s for sure.”
This article was first published in the July 2016 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Read all of the 2016 30 Under 30 Profiles as a PDF.