As tests get tougher, dummies get smarter
Ford's Rouhana: Better accuracy for automakers.
The suburban Detroit headquarters of Humanetics Innovative Solutions Inc. is part office, part plant and part medieval torture chamber.
Specially calibrated tools perform sadistic tests: A catapult hurls dummy heads into a block of steel, a battering ram crushes rib cages and falling anvils flatten appendages.
But the tests -- and the hundreds of soulless eyes peering through packing plastic at the plant -- serve a higher purpose. They protect people in vehicle crashes.
Humanetics builds and calibrates crash test dummies for several industries, mainly automotive, and is developing technologies to keep us all in one piece.
Much of today's crash test dummy technology was developed in the 1980s, says Chris O'Connor, CEO of Humanetics. For those older than 30, these dummy models are recognizable as Vince and Larry, the singing dummies in the U.S. Department of Transportation's buckle-up campaign in the 1980s.
As regulators push for stricter auto crash tests, dummy makers develop advanced testing equipment.
"As cars advance, injuries change," O'Connor says. "With the adoption of restraint systems, you were no longer flying through the windshield, but now there were new injuries to the knee, chest and legs."
Now, airbags are standard and moving beyond the steering wheel to side curtain and elsewhere. These cause the body to move differently in different crashes, so new sensor equipment, with human characteristics, is required, O'Connor says.
Regulators continue to dictate tougher crash requirements, leading automakers and suppliers to develop safety technology, which also needs to be tested. Here, Humanetics capitalizes.
Every automaker "knows that safety sells," O'Connor says. "It used to be too easy to get a five-star crash rating. Now, the bar keeps rising. Regulation is good for us, but it's also good for drivers."
It's a low-volume industry. Humanetics, majority-owned by private equity firm Wynnchurch Capital Ltd., sells only about 25 dummies a month, O'Connor says. And the dummies are built to last several decades, he says. Prices range from $20,000 to more than $100,000 each, depending on the dummies' sensing capabilities.
Crain's Detroit Business, a sibling publication of Automotive News, estimates company revenue at about $90 million; Wynnchurch declined to release figures.
Humanetics employs 450, including 175 in suburban Detroit. It manufactures the sensor technology and test equipment, which it sells to customers. The dummies are built in Huron, Ohio, and the company has operations in Germany, Japan, China, India, South Korea, Australia, Brazil and Mexico.
Besides the auto industry, Humanetics makes dummies for the aerospace industry and the military.
Dummies are packed with sensors to measure a crash's effects on the body. The dummies come in several sizes: 50th-percentile male at 171 pounds, 95th-percentile male at 223 pounds, and female and child-sized models. They mimic, move and react similar to a human body. They feature six polymer-coated high-strength steel ribs, an aluminum cast skull, cable-connected articulating neck and rubber outer layer to protect the expensive sensing equipment.
Humanetics also sells individual body part models, including legs, torsos and heads.
"Every part is anatomically correct," O'Connor says. "A foot weighs and moves like a human foot; which is important in assessing damage in a non-life threatening crash."
Steve Rouhana, senior technical leader for safety, research and advanced engineering at Ford Motor Co., says advanced crash test dummies enable automakers to be more accurate in their crash tests.
Where older-model dummies could measure only 30 to 40 bits of data, current models can measure 80, and next-generation models will measure 200, he says. The next-generation dummies are in testing, including the World SID (side impact dummy), developed through the United Nations Working Party on Passive Safety, and THOR (test device for human occupant restraint), developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's r&d arm. Humanetics will make both.
Wayne State’s Bir: Cadaver research is key.
The dummy maker uses human cadaver research from Wayne State University and others.
As crash test dummies become more lifelike, it's important to know that their improvements in saving lives come from others dying, says Cynthia Bir, professor of biomedical engineering at Wayne State and regular guest expert on ESPN's Emmy-winning "Sport Science."
She says the technologies developed in the auto industry are adapting, and cadaver research is helping companies such as Humanetics develop smarter dummies.
"We want to make sure whatever innovation is being put in a vehicle doesn't create new injuries," Bir says. "We're now getting down to where we have hit all the major injuries, and dummies are becoming more sophisticated in injuries that aren't life-threatening."
A recent example is the testing of Ford's inflatable seat belt airbag, a belt designed to inflate to prevent injuries from the restraint in the event of a crash. Wayne State research led to adding sensors to the abdomen of new dummies, Bir says.
O'Connor says sensors are being placed in more representative areas of potential injury.
"We've come a long way from Vince and Larry," O'Connor says. "The dummies are becoming more and more representative of the human body, which makes us all safer."