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OM in the News: One Thing Isn’t New in Car Design

June 9, 2014


Ford modelers work on a clay prototype of the Mustang

Ford modelers work on a clay prototype of the Mustang

When it comes to designing high-tech cars, writes The Wall Street Journal (June 2, 2014), auto makers still depend on clay models sculpted by hand—a craft that goes back to the industry’s early days. Designs for a new car may start with a simple sketch on a cocktail napkin. Sketches get turned over to a digital modeler, who fits the lines of the drawing over a digital rendering of the car’s engine, suspension and other chassis parts. The idea then goes to a clay modeler to be transformed into a series of clay models, usually starting with sculpture 4/10 the size of an actual car. But despite use of 3-D imaging technology that allows executives to see a virtual vehicle, the top brass at Ford won’t sign off on producing a new car until they see full-size physical models.

The pressure to produce new designs more rapidly intensified when competition in the auto industry went global. During the 1990s, auto makers boasted about how quickly they could bring new vehicles to showrooms as they slashed product-development times from 5 years to under 2 years by relying more heavily on CAD tools. The rapid decline in the cost of computing power moved the auto industry closer to a world where the mathematical models of a car’s exterior and interior surfaces could go directly to computer-driven machines that cut dies and molds for production. The problem, says Ford’s design head, is “digital projections can’t accurately show how light will play on a car’s surface.”

Once designers have a model about 60% right, they use an optical scanner to translate the clay scale model into a package of digital data. Milling machine can produce a full-size clay replica in one day. The clay-to-digital, digital-to-clay approach is now common. Designs go back and forth between clay and digital renderings, and are integrated with digital representations of the car’s chassis and other mechanical components.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Relate this approach to the 6 issues for product design in Chapter 5 (see pages 165-166).

2. Why isn’t auto design all digital?

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