At one time, auto design was as hands-on as it gets. Stylists and engineers would first draw sketches, and then turn them into full-size clay models. If changes were needed, the design would literally go back to the drawing board, or at least require additional sculpting.
Foam and clay are still used for their unique 3D perspectives, but today, computers and high-tech programs are used for most of the design and engineering processes.
Ford recently demonstrated two of the technologies it uses at its Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Michigan: the Ford Vehicle Immersion Environment (FiVE) and its Studio 2000X program.
The FiVE lab makes its magic by combining computer-aided design (CAD) data into one program. That includes not just exterior styling or the dash design, but “every nut and bolt that’s in that model,” says Elizabeth Baron, the lab’s VR and advanced visualization technical specialist. This goes right down to the seat frames, wiring, and even the engine’s internal components.
Baron stands in the middle of the lab floor, wearing a virtual reality headset that shows a three-dimensional image of the vehicle to her. Using what’s essentially video game technology, along with an in-house bank of some 1,500 computer processing units, the program also broadcasts an image of what she’s seeing on a huge screen alongside, allowing others in the room to follow along.
By using special tools such as a pointer or a flashlight, which are connected to the program, Baron can highlight specific areas of the vehicle, or pinpoint light on them. She can open the door and step inside, sitting on a chair that becomes the car seat on the screen. She can even lie down on the floor to get a view of the vehicle’s underside. “I insisted on carpeting the lab floor, because I have to crawl around on it,” she says.
The program also provides cutaway views, which is where the nut-and-bolt data come in. The viewer moves virtually through the car, slicing through the engine and body. Meanwhile, the background can be changed to simulate the vehicle sitting under artificial lighting, or in natural light at any time of the day.
The purpose behind the program is to present the entire car, which is almost impossible to do at any other design stage—a clay model won’t have a driveline, for example—so it can be assessed for any changes. The program is used across Ford’s centres, and various teams can provide input on a design. “We can look at a car with designers in Australia, and they all see the same thing,” Baron says, adding that she believes Ford is currently the only automaker using this type of real-time design technology.
The program is used primarily in the earlier stages of the vehicle’s development, with new data added as each part is created. By working with the virtual three-dimensional model, the teams can design their components to integrate into the vehicle right from the start. It’s rarer to have to make a late adjustment, but Baron says that since 2014, any changes visible to the customer have to be done with the help of the FiVE lab.
Virtual reality is also the cornerstone of Studio 2000X, Ford’s in-house animation studio. Using programs and techniques similar to those of animation moviemakers, the studio can handle everything from initial vehicle design, right through to the realistic-looking movies that will be used to sell the car.
“Virtual reality was a game changer,” says studio design manager Jerry Kearns. “Designers can sketch in VR, and the lines float in space. Now, instead of two-dimensional sketches, they start in 3D.”
In addition to creating a drawing from scratch—the traditional “sketch on a napkin” approach to creating a car—some designers use the program for poly modeling. Starting with a formless blob shape, they push or pull at it on the screen, coaxing a vehicle design from it. Kearns says it’s faster and gives designers more opportunity to experiment.