Short Story of Intangible Design

Automotive OEMs, besides nurturing its brand’s recognition, have always faced two significant challenges: the ever extending design processes and ever shrinking time-to-market. In a marketplace where a total design offer changes faster than any planned product obsolescence, design innovation is the commodity most sought-after. A means of putting new designs onto the assembly line quickly is therefore constantly high on the agenda. This is where Design and Execution dynamically fuse into a holistic product design approach.

This story, by analyzing the current car-design landscape, as well as the historical breakthroughs that have shaped it, sheds new light on digital modelling in the context of a contemporary design challenge. What is of interest is a cause and effect relationship between the innovative use of technologies, project performance and the brand’s success.

 

The gears that shaped the car markets

Throughout time, vehicle design methods have migrated from coachbuilders to automobile manufacturers, and from hand sculpted clay models to digitally conceived designs. These changes have both expressed new design trends and contributed to significant booms in the car market.

The expansion of the automotive market and a grasp of how the market works at present can sometimes be taken for granted, but some of the preceding developments – such as, for instance, the introduction of the concept car in the late 1930s as both a tool for design process and a clever marketing device – are still resonant in current design culture, and indeed, in our purchasing habits. Equally, “planned obsolescence”, a notion that affects the brand’s strategies at present, descends from early “auto design” heritage.

 

Shift in car design style via technology

In the early days, while car bodies had been fitted on a separately produced chassis, vehicles were bodied by independent coachbuilders. Some of them, such as Bertone, Pininfarina, or Zagato, have found their own workstyles, contributing to a number of timeless automobile designs. Their abilities to develop both aesthetic and functional innovation has helped them transcend coachbuilding to become renowned design houses. The arrival of unibody construction, however, made custom car bodying impossible. It channeled the art of automobile design towards the modern compact car. New unibody offered increased vehicle safety, weight reduction, improved space utilization, and ease of manufacture. It helped arrange faster assembly lines and considerably reduced the time-to-market. Subsequently, carmakers brought the bodying skills in-house, which allowed them to gradually raise their own design and development abilities.

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Shift in design performance via CAD

Curiously enough, a major shift in performance in the mid-1970s coincided with the advent of computer aided design (CAD). CAD made what is possibly the biggest impact on current design technologies. The Bezier surface algorithms, for example, spawned a vast array of methods appearing in all kinds of non-automotive industries: from design of toys through to animated movie characters, racing games and space shuttles. Even so, design concepts at that time were still sculpted in wood, plaster or clay, and body in white (BIW) structures were developed through manual drafting, using a descriptive geometry methodology. While the manual process prevailed, vehicle development required massive resources and extensive development time, though the looming CAD capacity was about to change all of that.

 

Birth of virtual design

Following a pioneering research on the curve and surface algorithms by Paul de Casteljau and Pierre Bézier around the late 1950s, effective inclusion of CAD tools into OEM operations started in the mid-1970s and gradually thrived; first as a means of digitizing all company components and then as a surface modelling functionality.

Due to further advances in 3D computer graphics, another significant change in design process had occurred around the mid-1990s. Emerging CAD modelling and visualization techniques had given rise to better tools and caused an upswing of digital design skills within the OEM brands. The OEM’s operational structures have grown, creating both the need for streamlined styling (CAS) practices and room for smaller digital modelling players to work in the extended areas of design.

CAS has not always been synonymous with Digital Modelling. Until recently, CAS meant “provision of rough concept volumes at early design stages”, whilst Digital Modelling stood for creative development, covering the process from the concept phase through to the release for production. These procedures however, currently merge into a holistic approach.

 

Riding the digital design wave

The development of digital modelling techniques thrived using Alias and ICEM Surf software – tools that help produce quality surface models fast and which open an environment for enhanced creativity. 

From a creative standpoint, the development of modelling techniques, in both Alias and ICEM, followed two utterly different routes: A reproductive path that consisted in copying and fitting the shapes from scans, and a creative approach that aimed at fashioning a design concept quickly and which primarily focused on design briefs, the brand’s design qualities, the emotional message, and the big picture.

While the reproductive path could easily open a line of communication between Clay Modeling and CAD and contribute to a process fragmentation, a creative line – though it required an assessment in physical properties at a point in time – helped generate new design ideas. It would induce flair in the design and give it a touch of feeling right from start. It’s a path that leads to shorter design cycles.

Both aptitudes, although varying slightly in pitch and the advantages they afford, have been in coexistence for a while. Both deliver high quality design data. Now, the question is: what might the next influential step in Design processes look like? Artificial intelligence still seems too far. A design modelling software driven purely by thoughts? Perhaps someday. But what is at our fingertips in the near present?

The existing creative potential in Digital Design is built on talent and artistic feeling, but there seems to be a missing link between the greater scope of a design mission and the resourceful use of technologies. Bridging that gap might just be a matter of time. Today, however, time is a luxury – and one that is in short supply.

 

Reducing the costs per unit

The pressure to rapidly deliver vehicle innovations and support an ever-growing product range spreads into entire product development and manufacturing. While the customer’s expectations for a new and trendy design is increasingly higher, compressing the design cycles and reducing the unit costs are crucial for maintaining the competitiveness of an automobile manufacturer. Thus, from a design perspective, raising the effectiveness through digital modelling is impelling. 

A new dawn of  3D Digital Design will likely comprise holistic execution as a platform for processes integration and will be entrenched in direct digital modelling.

 

The new upside down order

Traditionally, new automobile designs are created based on market intelligence, and using the brands’ intangible hints. Relevant research involves concept package and several product ideation phases. Conceptual models are conceived in industrial plasticine (Clay). These are followed by designers through several “Clay and CAS” modelling loops and are linked to a collection of engineering investigations. All of this – though faster now than it was a decade ago – is spread over a long period. Finally, all these actions boil down to a single digital surface architecture that will be industrialized and ultimately seen on the street as a product.

A new, digital approach starts with creating that same architecture whilst bearing in mind all the intangibles simultaneously, which is more effective in terms of product planning, design freeze and product lifecycle management.

Digital modelling, offers several advantages over the mixed modelling techniques. Since digital models are sculpted in VR they do not require costly physical properties. Instead, they bring a big design picture into play at a speed and span that no other means can deliver. Whilst form-finding via digital modelling is easier and faster, the preceding research, such as feature drawings and sketches, can be utilized with a greater affluence and finery.

Digital modelling lets Designers power-wall multiple concept reviews in a matter of months, even weeks, rather than years. Not only do these qualities trigger new levels of creativity, they also pave the way for new, cutting-edge concept and product development capabilities.

A design process that fully endorses digital modelling as an operational platform takes execution as its integral part and thus secures instant advantages coming from interactions among the technical participants. Such an integration not only helps boost new design qualities, but can also produce major savings in trial tooling, prototyping and production. It speeds up new product launches and helps keep the program’s spending on budget.

During this course, styling and engineering issues will certainly arise due to the unveiling feasibility, manufacturing and legal requirements. Since integral modelling is an all-in-one hub, the approach creates chances to solve a multitude of potential concerns ahead of time. It helps manage the OEM’s most challenging and labor intensive phases in a smart way, not to mention its improvement in the time-to-market.

Digital design becomes a vanguard of body architecture and a front line in the definition of vehicle personalization packs. 3D digital design, being an advanced means of conceptual attainment, is one of the key components of a brand’s creative research. It is a system that may spur new and more effective product launch strategies.

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