By Jim Kerr

Designing a new vehicle can take years. From the initial concept, through drawings, mock-ups, clay models, hand built prototypes and pre-production models, thousands of people and months of work are involved. At any point in this process, decisions have to be made: should we build this or not? Is it feasible? Is it within budgets? Does it look right? Sometimes, so much money and time has already been spent on a model, it is produced even when perhaps it should not have been. We can all look back at some of the “ugly ducklings” we have seen on the roads that were never popular with the public.

One of the important design considerations right from the beginning is “does it look right?” Many times a designer’s sketch looks fantastic, but when translated into moving sheet metal it looses that flair. Other times, the designer’s concept must be modified to accommodate practical items such as engines, suspensions and even passengers. Perhaps then it doesn’t look as appealing.

In the past, full size clay mock-ups were built so that decisions could be made on design changes or even building that vehicle. It is expensive and time consuming, especially when you have several designs in progress at once and only one will be selected. Now there is a new tool used in the design process that shortens the time it takes to design a vehicle and it improves the process too. It comes from Bunkspeed.

Bunkspeed is a young company, just over three years old, but it has attracted the interest of one of the automotive giants. Ford Design Studios are using Bunkspeed software to help design vehicles better. This software allows designers to take sketches and convert them into digital images that move on a computer. Peter Horbury, Ford’s executive director, North American Design explains “Now, we can go from the sketch straight into a computer model, exploring different options like various wheel sizes and colours. Once we’re satisfied, then we export the data and use our milling machines and clay modellers to create full-size three-dimensional models.”

With this powerful computer modelling, the designers can even change the lighting conditions and backgrounds while viewing the vehicle moving. I had the opportunity to “test drive” this design software by taking a virtual Ford Edge for a spin. Using a control panel that looks like a video game controller, I was able to “drive” the Edge in circles, around some pylons, and even directly at me. All this time, the reflections in the vehicle’s painted surfaces reflected the clouds, lightning strikes and ground surfaces just like it was a real vehicle.

Viewing this virtual vehicle in life-like situations shows the designer what the vehicle will look like to owners, and subtle changes to design at this early stage can make dramatic improvements in visual appeal.

Leon Carpenter, Bunkspeed’s business development manager explained one of the advantages of the system. “Just about anybody can learn how to use it very “quickly”. “Instead of having a small group of experts that designers work with, the designers themselves can now start creating great imagery for their designs.” Wireless controllers even allow designers to wander around as they view the virtual vehicle from various angles.

Clay models are still used, but with the Bunkspeed software, now several designs can be evaluated quickly and only a few ever make it to the clay model stage. Design time is shortened significantly and so are costs, but perhaps more importantly, the final designs are more appealing.

Everything from wheels designed in motion to complete vehicles are being developed at Ford’s design studios using the Bunkspeed software. This is only one behind-the-scenes glimpse of how technology is changing the ways vehicles are produced.

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