Crash program: They're making smart dummies in Milan

MILAN TWP. Don't be fooled by their stoic appearance -- there's a lot of brain power behind those du
Annie Zelm
May 24, 2010

MILAN TWP.

Don't be fooled by their stoic appearance -- there's a lot of brain power behind those dummies.

Engineers at Denton ATD make it their mission to produce stand-in surrogates to take the hits for humans.

From the pillow-like models of the 1940s to today's sophisticated sensors packaged between layers of foam and vinyl, the industry continues to evolve.

To keep up with demand, officials plan to double the facility's size during the next year. A 56,000-square-foot building is in the works to open next summer in Erie County, though the new location has not yet been determined, said senior vice president Michael Beebe.

The proposed move would create at least 25 new jobs in specialized areas such as production and engineering during the next five to eight years, he said.

"Based on our production requirements, the increase in our staff (from 29 employees in 2000 to 75 today) ... we've simply outgrown this building," he said. "This world of crash dummies has been expanding quite rapidly in the last 15 years."

When Beebe entered the industry 25 years ago, only a few varieties of dummies existed, he said. Now the company manufactures more than 30 models in all shapes and sizes. In addition to supplying parts and whole dummies for automotive manufacturers, the company also produces equipment for aerospace, military and commercial industries that test everything from child seats to playground equipment.

Denton ATD's dummies are also on their way to stardom. The details behind the dummy business will be featured in June on the Discovery Channel. Brian Unger, who hosts the show How They're Made, visited the company several months ago for an in-depth look at how the dummies are molded, assembled, machined and tested.

This and other television episodes focused on Denton ATD give viewers behind-the-scenes tours of the Milan Township facility.

Stepping beyond the front office is a bit like stumbling upon a shop of horrors.

Shelves are lined with decapitated torsos and rubber legs dangle from work tables, waiting to be trimmed and polished. A worker turns a crank to loosen a vice-like mold that grips a freshly hardened head.

Beebe said the company manufactures some 150 full dummies a year and thousands of spare parts.

Because each is uniquely designed for a specific purpose, a full adult dummy can take up to two months to design and manufacture from start to finish, said Mark Brown, a spokesman for the company.

The bodies alone can cost up to $30,000 -- a price tag that more than triples once sensors are added to calculate the impact of a crash.

Beebe said the process begins with cold molding -- where rubber is cured at room temperature. The softer flesh is produced as hot molds, which consist of liquid poured into aluminum molds and cooked in ovens at 350 degrees. After the vinyl skins are cured, they are filled with liquid foam that must meet specific weight criteria.

"What we're doing here is real similar to what you did when you were a kid making Creepy Crawlers with a mold and a 60-watt bulb," Beebe said.

Once cured, the parts are assembled according to a blueprint detailing the type of dummy and the locations of each sensor. Some are designed solely for side impact, rear impact or frontal impact, while others, such as the facial impact dummy, measure seven areas of the face to test the effectiveness of military helmets.

By the time each dummy begins to take on more life-like characteristics, they are taken to the testing laboratory, which Beebe affectionately calls the "torture chamber."

"We do all kinds of things to the dummies here," he said. "We'll hit them in the ribs with a 51.5-pound pendulum, smash a probe into their knees, hang their neck up and swing it forward."

If they pass the tests, they are given bright yellow tags to wear around their necks -- a medal, of sorts, for surviving the ordeal.

"We don't get too many that are rejects," Beebe said.