Christening its latest small vehicle with a homophone of “car” means Ford is responsible for some surreal vehicle-related exchanges.
“Got a new car the other day.”
“Strange little things, aren’t they?”
“Yes. Look like a student project.”
“Er, are you alright? I’ve bought a second-hand Triumph Dolomite.”
The Ka continues the tradition of passenger car names ending in an Italianate a. But that only explains half its name. Where the K came from is anyone’s guess.
However, the reasons for its extraordinary styling reaching the marketplace are more easily explained. Thanks to astonishingly powerful computer design systems, car designers now have the freedom to express themselves and develop their design intent far more comprehensively before submitting them to their bosses for approval.
This means that a concept body design no longer means a pie-in-the-sky airbrush doodle, but something that, while remaining challenging, is also rooted in mathematical, geometrical reality. Meaning that it fits an existing vehicle platform, and it can be manufactured.
Ford recently showed off the equipment it uses to design and model new cars. It claims to lead all its rivals – not to mention most governments, universities and businesses – in computer processing power.
Bearing in mind that this is impossible to check, and also that so many trillions of gigabytes mean nothing to anyone, other facts put it into perspective. For instance, Ford could compute the tax returns of all 30 million British taxpayers in less than ten minutes. Its 16-processor Triton computer can do the calculations required for a frontal crash test simulation in 15 minutes. On a home PC, the same set of sums would take 15 weeks; doing it on a hand-held calculator would take 67 000 years; and with pencil and paper, 68 million years.
But enough of this nonsense. What matters is that all this computer power is transforming Ford’s end-product. Its new sports coupÃ©, the Puma, is the first of its vehicles to be designed completely on computer.
Due for launch this summer, the Puma takes the Ford Fiesta platform, sends it down the gym and gives it a muscular, seductive little set of sweeping curves and sharp lines. If the Ford range was the Spice Girls, and if the Mondeo is Mumsy Spice, then the Puma is Scary Spice.
Just as pop groups can now be designed and manufactured from scratch in no time at all, so can cars. In late 1993, Ford gave its designers a few days to transform the Fiesta platform into a sports coupÃ©. They came up with 50 or so freehand sketches, and six went forward to be developed as full-size illustrations on Ford’s 2D CAD system; a high-speed, computerised drawing program. Using advanced software and an electronic pen and pad, designers can manipulate line, colour and shading, and construct layers of drawings that can be combined in permutations to offer different looks. The end sketch is infinitely more polished than a conventional one, and requires less of a leap of imagination to visualise as a finished product.
Two of the six designs made it to the next stage: more refined 2D work, and the first developments on 3D CAD software. At this point, a mathematical skeleton – or “scaffold” – of the existing car platform is called up and cloaked with the new body. The accuracy of this process – previously it was done by trial and error using a succession of clay models – means that designers can cut the cloth of the new design much closer to the underlying structural skeleton before any physical model is made.
For senior Ford designers, such as Simon Spearman-Oxx, the power and speed of the system means that their radical design ideas can be developed more fully and rendered less vulnerable to easy dismissal by management.
“It used to take a lot more people, that’s the point. It was almost like having a great aunt who finished your sentences for you. You only got halfway through. With this system you can finish your sentence, and then they can judge what you’ve said. You can make your statement, and develop it in parallel with engineering for longer,” he says. The passage of a design, from a sketch to a clay model, can take a dozen designers and modellers up to 12 weeks. Today, a single designer can take the sketch to a realistic, fully-animated video in under three weeks.
Critically, designers are able to check refinements to details and cross-sections with engineers concurrently. “It’s a very satisfying way of working,” says Spearman-Oxx. “You can create a new body surface in the morning, send it to a sheet-metal feasibility guy, and he’ll tell you the same day, ‘Yep, I can make it.’ Previously that would’ve taken a lot longer.”
Alternatively, mathematical models of the new design can be sent from the Ford studio at Dunton to one of its six others around the world, and transglobal virtual teams can be created, pooling designers and design influences via desktop video-conferencing links.
In January 1994, the final design choice for the Puma was milled out as a full-size clay model, following the CAD data. By mid-March, the clay was complete with a full interior and ready for review by Ford’s board, who approved it for production design. It had taken just 135 days to reach this point from issuing the challenge to their designers.
When it came to customer clinics, Ford produced a “video composite” placing the car in an on-screen car show environment and adding actors to play the part of admiring onlookers. (When they were filmed for this, they had to walk around an empty space, pretending to be impressed.) Over the same weekend, the animation was used in four market research groups across Europe. It would have taken weeks, using a physical prototype.
The cost of engineering new designs has traditionally been the great restraining influence on car design. The ability to develop designs quicker and to a much higher degree of feasibility concertinas the engineering phase. And the “virtualisation” of the process won’t stop here. Ford plans to cut the number of physical prototypes it uses in the development process by 90 per cent in the next three years.
The compressed time-to-market means cars can begin to reflect the visual language of other products more boldly. “Because of the the enabling power of this system, we’re thinking in shorter and shorter timescales,” says Chris Clements, Ford’s chief B-Class designer. “We can get much closer to the customer, which is a big advantage for us. You had to be more telepathic using the old pencil and paper techniques: from the moment the pen first touched the paper to the launch might have taken as long as five years.
“Now we’re in a better position to predict what the customer will find acceptable or exciting in that timeframe. Largely through reading journals such as yours, we can look at other areas of design – architecture, product, even aircraft – and get a better idea of what the tastes are on products with a shorter – even shorter – lead time than ours,” he says.
The question is, should cars share the visual traits of products with a shorter lifespan? Surely owners will simply get bored of them faster at a time when consumption must slow down.
“I wouldn’t like to think that’s what we were doing,” says Clements. “The way I see it, we’re identifying trends, but we’re getting in on them early so their longevity is increased. Take a vehicle that is even more adventurous (than the Puma) from a styling point of view, the Ka. That is such a sound piece of basic design, although it’s configured unusually and there are some unusual surface treatments, I don’t think it’s going to be a fad that disappears very quickly.”
So, is the Ka a classic or an instant car with a limited shelf-life? That’s something not even Ford’s colossal computer system can tell us.