His bare buttocks rest on the cold steel shelf; the smooth, hairless skin has a ghastly pinkish-orange hue. His toeless feet lie nearby, alongside his head, rib cage, arms, hands, and legs. Could this be the grisly scene of some ritualistic slaying?
Not quite. A white-coated technician enters the room and transports the body parts to a wooden workbench. He takes an Allen wrench and screws the feet to the legs, the hands to the arms, and then the limbs and head to the torso. When he's finished, another Hybrid III midsize adult male anthropomorphic test device has begun to come to life. Or at least what passes for life for a crash-test dummy.
This Hybrid III is the handiwork of Denton ATD, a 170-employee company with facilities in Michigan and Ohio that manufactures some of today's most advanced crash-test dummies. These human surrogates simulate how a real person's body would respond in a car crash and help ensure that a new car's seat belts, air bags, head and armrests, structural frame, interior padding, and other elements provide good protection.
In a few days this new Hybrid III unit will be instrumented with force, torque, and acceleration sensors and then shipped to an undisclosed automaker in the Detroit area. There he'll be placed into brand-new cars and endure a torturous range of injury and insult: head-on collisions, rollovers, rear and side crashes--all to certify that the carmaker's vehicles can protect their human occupants in the event of an accident.
The dummy's ordeal, in other words, could someday save your life. But you'll probably never get to meet this electromechanical marvel. He doesn't even have a name. In the records that register the dummy's parts, his crash-test history and, ultimately, his retirement date, he'll simply be known as No. 0200-137.
This past summer, I visited Denton to see how the company makes its extraordinary dummies. Denton's assembly plant sits amid cornfields just outside the picturesque town of Milan, Ohio (population 1445), birthplace of Thomas Edison.
When I step inside the company's unassuming building, the first things I see are body parts--everywhere. ”Here's a thorax,” says Mike Beebe, a senior vice president at Denton and one of the world's leading experts on the art and science of making dummies. ”There's a spine box, with all the different pieces. That's an abdomen. Those are arms. Legs. Heads.” I try to mentally arrange a full body out of the disordered parts, but what springs to mind is something alarmingly Picasso-esque.
Beebe points to a photo showing a group of dummies. ”Family portrait,” he quips. The family includes the most widely used dummy, the Hybrid III 50th-percentile male, meant to represent the average North American man. He weighs 78 kilograms and is 1.75 meters tall--or would reach that height if he could stand, which he can't, because he's in permanent sitting mode. Hybrid III has a petite wife (Hybrid III 5th-percentile female), three kids (Hybrid III 10-year-old, 6-year-old, and 3-year-old), and an oversized cousin (Hybrid III 95th-percentile male), who tips the scales at 100 kg--the ”big guy,” as Beebe puts it.