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The interior of the Ford Motor Company Robotics Building at the University of Michigan.
The Ford Motor Company Robotics Building at the University of Michigan gathers all of the school’s robotics programs into one central hub, to accommodate robotics research, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and an industry/education collaboration with Ford.
Ford Motor Company

Robotics Research Aims to Close Societal Gaps

U-M facility strives to create more equitable robotics, advanced mobility devices

MaryBeth DiDonna

Robotics and autonomous systems are gradually becoming a bigger part of all walks of life, with more human interaction than ever before. Automation systems are utilized to improve safety, increase standardization, and free up lab staff’s time for other important tasks. Robots that can do everything from fly to walk to swim are being developed to improve people’s lives and make society more equitable, with advancements such as exoskeletons and intuitive prosthetic devices for people with mobility disabilities, robotic assistants that can help combat wildfires or enter collapsed buildings to perform searches, and autonomous shuttles that can assist areas underserved by public transit.

The University of Michigan’s Ford Motor Company Robotics Building is at the forefront of robotics research, housing a robust educational program offering master’s and PhD degrees to students from a variety of backgrounds, including mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science. To accommodate these programs and the unique issues related to noise, vibration, access, and privacy that might compromise the functionality of the robotics program, the U-M Board of Regents approved the College of Engineering's new robotics building project in 2016—making it one of the few universities with a dedicated robotics facility. The university made the announcement about the Ford Motor Company Robotics Building’s name in 2017, in recognition of a $15 million gift from the Dearborn, Michigan-based automotive company. 

The four-story, $75 million, 134,000 sq. ft. complex is located on the school's North Campus in Ann Arbor. “The University of Michigan wanted to co-locate its growing robotics program, which had previously been spread out across campus. The university’s roboticists now have a hub which is a showcase for leading robotics research, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and an innovative industry/education collaboration,” says Jack Bullo, AIA, LEED AP, principal and designer with HED, who worked as architect on the project. 

Design features

The Ford Motor Company Robotics Building was designed to achieve three overall objectives—flexibility, collaboration, and innovation. The building will meet the common needs of each research discipline while accommodating custom spaces for individual teams, such as a three-story fly zone for autonomous aerial vehicles, an outdoor obstacle course to test walking robots, and a high-bay garage space where self-driving cars are developed. 

Mike Cooper, PE, LEED AP, managing principal with HED, served as engineer for the project. “As technology, and specifically robotics, continues to become more integrated into our daily lives, this facility—and the important work being done within its walls—will draw increased attention from U-M students and the general public looking for answers to the question, ‘What’s next?’” says Cooper. “The building is designed with outreach in mind.”

Digit, a bipedal robot, is tested in the Ronald D. and Regina C. McNeil Walking Robotics Laboratory in the Ford Robotics Building at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI. Robots are tested in a variety of situations to allow for a variety of bipedal and quadrupedal robots to function in various environments.
Joseph Xu / University of Michigan Engineering, Communications and Marketing

To promote transparency and knowledge transfer, the design plan includes large, open areas and a startup-style collaboration zone. This shared research and support space is intended to encourage collaboration and cross-pollination between those who work and study in the facility. The lobby also promotes visibility, as it is designed as a large atrium lined with glass-walled labs so that passersby and visitors can see research in real time. The design team utilized unique planning tools to create the facility’s eventual look. 

“HED’s team provided all the robotics researchers with a simple, easy computer program that allowed them to have a hand in designing their own lab spaces. Premade components including workstations, work counters, storage units, open floor robot testing areas, and collaborative areas could be organized in any way they desired,” says Bullo. “We used these studies to inform the lab design and allow us to understand the level of flexibility needed for the spaces…which led to all the infrastructure/power/data to be delivered from above. Strategically placed simple overhead garage doors allow two or three individual labs to become one in a very economical way.” The completed building is now pursuing LEED Silver certification.

Building partnerships

The first three floors of the Ford Motor Company Robotics Building house custom U-M research labs for robots that are able to fly, walk, roll, and enhance the human body. Classrooms, offices, and makerspaces are also located on these floors. Through a unique agreement, the fourth floor is home to Ford’s first robotics and mobility research lab on a university campus, where 100 Ford researchers and engineers test their robotics. 

Ford is one of the largest employers in the state of Michigan, and the significance of a Big Three automotive company working with U-M cannot be understated. “The ability that Ford and U-M now have to tangibly link robotics theory and practice will positively impact both organizations and drive innovation. The co-located, collaborative research approach will enable Ford to influence academia toward the needs of the industry, while developing practical production solutions to real world problems,” says Cooper. “Likewise, the approach will enable U-M to further scientific discovery with robust industrial data, while effectively preparing their students for success after completing their education.” 

“Taking on the challenging issues society faces today requires a collaborative team science approach. Both academic and corporate partners need to be a part of today’s research activity to address these more complex challenges,” adds Bullo. “The robotics building’s design has the flexibility and framework to accommodate both academic and corporate partnerships. Its positioning and organization of research space and its network of collaborative opportunities achieves the necessary privacy needs while promoting interaction and chance encounters, the foundation of all innovation.”

Additionally, U-M and Ford are working with Morehouse College and Spelman College, two prominent Historically Black colleges based in Atlanta, Georgia, in an arrangement that will allow their students to enroll remotely in a U-M pilot robotics course.

Improved infrastructure leads to success

The development of the Ford Motor Company Robotics Building has allowed U-M researchers from 23 buildings and 10 Top 10 programs to gather together in a shared space, to share their knowledge and collaborate on ideas. The new infrastructure gives robotics researchers the opportunity to build and test their creations using state-of-the-art equipment and specially developed testing labs—with everything from an obstacle-laden treadmill running at 30 miles per hour, to an AI-designed “robot playground” with stairs, to “earthquake platforms” with force-feedback plates that will help develop lightweight robots with more stable prosthetic legs. Ford engineers plan to analyze how their upright, human-like Digit robots can work in human spaces, and to try out their autonomous vehicles using U-M’s proving ground just down the road.

Engineers demonstrate the capabilities of the Boston Dynamics Spot robot.
Ford Motor Company

“Strong design responds to three core elements of space—form, function, and experience,” says Cooper. “Form relates to the aesthetic and the facility’s ability to enhance the image/brand of the stakeholders. Function addresses the important work occurring within the facility and the need for a productive and efficient environment, one that fosters innovation. Experience is about the people, those who work in the building, as well as those visiting, and creating a satisfying, inspiring, comfortable, and enjoyable place to be. My hope is that others engaged in the study of robotics would recognize this facility as having succeeded in all of these areas.”

Bullo adds that the Ford Motor Company Robotics Building’s interdisciplinary setup is crucial to the mission and goals of the school’s robotics program. “The building’s organization requires that all researchers enter the research labs through a shared team collaboration space, all but insisting that researchers collaborate, interact, share, and create connections. Given the wide variety of disciplines involved in robotics (computer science, mathematics, mechanical, and electrical and structural engineering), this ‘forced interaction’ approach that the design creates is very specific to the robotics field and should be one of the primary reasons for its success. Also, the creation of highly desired, more social collaborative spaces draws researchers out of their labs and into an environment that promotes conversation, emotion, and dreaming.”