Crash-test dummies smartening up
Plymouth-based company supplies test devices to OEMs all over the world.
In a far corner of a lab, 170-pound middle-age male waits silently for an 81-pound steel battering ram to slam into his back at 10 miles per hour. Nearby, a worker digs into a 3-year-old's back to tinker with wires and sensors around the child's spine. Others of varying sizes have broken or detached pelvises, legs and skulls.
Welcome to the not-so-glamorous life of a crash-test dummy.
"They take a beating every day, but at the end, the difference is they're saving lives," said Chris O'Connor, president and CEO of Plymouth-based Humanetics Innovative Solutions.
Since 1952, nearly every dummy that's been smashed, burned, crushed or rolled over by a Michigan automaker in the name of vehicle safety has come from the Plymouth-based company. About once a year, they return to the firm's Metro Detroit lab to be re-certified and re-equipped with new limbs and electronic innards.
For the past 30 years, Humanetics has offered different size and age variations from its Hybrid III dummy "family," but recently has expanded its offerings.
Next year it will start selling an obese 273-pound model to reflect a population with an increasingly larger waistline, and it recently began offering a more technically advanced one that can measure more crash analytics, called T.H.O.R.-M.
The dummies are anything but dumb. Each is equipped with dozens of sensors that record everything from spinal contusions to pressure on skulls, legs and ribs. They go for $60,000 to $500,000, and Humanetics sells 25-30 per month.
"It's a very complex business," O'Connor said. "Most people underestimate the complexity. They think of a mannequin in a store ... but they're obviously much more complex and take years to develop."
Despite the high price tag, O'Connor said the dummies turn out to be a bargain, since they can be used over and over for decades.
"It's an expensive piece of test equipment that brings a long-term value for our customers," O'Connor said. "If at the end of the day you can save a life by using it, how can you put a price on it?"
Humanetics sells to the military and transportation industries like rail and airlines, but 70 percent of its business comes from the automotive industry. It sells to every automaker and many suppliers, and about 75 percent of its business comes from outside the U.S.
All of its dummies are made at a factory in Huron, Ohio, but tests and fixes are done at its Plymouth technical center.
To envision the center, think mechanic's garage meets doctor's office, except these "doctors" are working with vinyl, steel and wires instead of skin, bone and organs.
"Everything comes apart, for the most part," said Brian Lukas, technical service manager.
The dummies must be inspected and go through about seven tests to confirm whether or not all their sensors and body parts respond properly to crashes. The center gets anywhere from two to seven in for service per week.
Humanetics sends workers out to local automakers to pick up their dummies, and they often roll upright into the technical center on specially designed chairs. Out-of-towners disassemble them and send them in packing crates, and the Army sends some in steel coffins.
Many come in broken, with injuries ranging from shattered kneecaps and pelvises, to skinned faces and bent fingers.
"You're working on a puzzle a lot of the times when it comes to fixing things that are broken and testing them," said Michael Gratopp, who works on the damaged equipment. "Every day is a new challenge."
Core principle: Saving lives
As Humanetics enters its 63rd year in business, both the inside and outside of its offerings are changing. The obese dummy that will go on sale next year is meant to mimic a heavier population.
In 1980, just 15 percent of the population was obese. Today, it's 40 percent, and they are more likely to die in a crash, O'Connor said. The fat dummy is based on a person with a body mass index of 35, a weight of 273 pounds and a height of 6-foot-2. A standard dummy weighs about 170 pounds.
"Our core principle is saving lives," O'Connor said. "We can't just save perfect-sized people; we need to look at obese-sized people because it's a significant part of the driving population."
O'Connor said the company is also considering making an elderly version with a curved spine and more vulnerable organs.
Each dummy, no matter the size, comes equipped with sensors and data recorders. Many have bundles of wires that run out of their backs and plug into computers and data-collecting devices, although O'Connor said most can now go wireless.
Despite the changes, he said the company's goals haven't changed since 1952.
"We measure the value of our company on saving lives," O'Connor said. "Every safety attribute on a vehicle, whether its with seat belts or air bags, I think is all based on the crash-test dummy."