When it comes to giving consumers what they want, today’s automotive industry has turned nearly 180 degrees from Henry Ford’s any-color-so-long-as-it’s-black philosophy. The swing isn’t completely reversed, or Ford’s famous edict would today sound something like, “They can have any color they like so long as they buy a car from us!”
Obviously, we’re not there yet. But automakers do put a great deal of time and effort into trying to figure out what consumers want, and considerably more time and effort into turning those desires into actual automobiles. Both jobs are incredibly complex.
Figuring out what consumers want is complicated by everything from where they live to how old they are, to how concerned they are about the security of their jobs and the price of gas. Consumers in the regions with undeveloped roads, for instance, want different handling than those who primarily travel interstate highways. Older buyers express more interest in collision-avoidance features compared to their younger counterparts.
There are even regional color preferences. (A quick Google search reveals that blue is the top car color in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. while Boston and Seattle like green.) And consumers themselves have conflicting desires, valuing both fuel efficiency and a roomy ride, for example, and weighing those preferences differently, depending on the price at the pump.
Translating consumer preferences into successful vehicles is another challenge entirely, requiring up to several years to bring a new car concept into production. During that relatively long time frame, which is not nearly as long as it used to be, consumer preferences can change. The successful automaker is the one that can act quickly as consumer preferences become clear, and react quickly if and when they change.
Design functionality that delivers an advantage
CAD technology has contributed greatly to today’s shorter cycle times. Automakers now develop cars, production lines, and entire factories digitally before building physical prototypes, stamping metal, or reworking a factory for a model change. With all of the major automakers taking advantage of this technology, the ability to get a new car into production faster than the competition is only a partial advantage. A vehicle’s design, and how well it matches consumer preferences, has now become more critical to success.
Consequently, the designers’ tool set has evolved far beyond the digital drawing boards of the past. Vehicle designers have access to functionality that lets them rapidly explore ideas, reuse existing knowledge, optimize concepts, and visualize and validate designs--all within a collaborative environment that accelerates a global vehicle development process while simultaneously taking into account the voice of the customer.
Tools such as NX™ software from Siemens PLM Software provide knowledge-based engineering templates to enable designers and studio engineers to explore vehicle architecture and packaging configurations to ease taking designs from idea to feasible concepts—while simultaneously taking into account the voice of the customer.
Today’s cutting-edge functionality includes hybrid modeling tools for quickly creating and editing even complex body geometry, collaboration tools for improving the effectiveness of automotive design teams, and capabilities for validating designs to make sure they conform to their original requirements. Hybrid modeling makes body design more like sculpting clay
Digitally representing complex organic shapes, such as those of a car body, was not even possible with early CAD programs. Over time, CAD vendors developed the underlying mathematics necessary for representing complex curves and surfaces. From the user’s point of view, however, creating those shapes onscreen was never as simple as sculpting clay, which was the software developer’s ultimate goal.
Hybrid modeling, which combines tools for feature-based parametric design as well traditional, explicit modeling and direct manipulation of freeform surfaces, comes closer to sculpting clay onscreen than anything previously available. This makes it critical functionally for designing cars that meet consumers’ style preferences for two reasons:
- First, the designer is not limited by the software in terms of the shapes he can create. If consumers suddenly wanted a retro look and cars with fins, hybrid modeling would take months off the conceptual design portion of the development process by allowing the designers to quickly create and refine their ideas. Functionality such as multi-segment NURBS (non-uniform rational B-spline) modeling, for instance, reduces the surface count for fast 3D concept creation. Other hybrid modeling functionality, such as “control point” editing, makes the manipulation freeform surfaces as easy as pushing and pulling on selected locations on curve or surface, providing modeling with the speed necessary to keep the creative juices flowing.
- Second, hybrid modeling facilitates fast changes to existing designs, which can be useful in situations where consumer preferences change during development, or were defined incorrectly from the start. Do you remember the first-generation minivan from at least one car manufacturer? Instead of the sliding back seat door that is now ubiquitous, the first-generation of the minivan’s side doors opened outward, like front doors. Consumers clearly preferred the sliding version. The redesign of a body to change from a fixed door to a sliding door using the CAD technology of the time (mid-1990s) meant that the company couldn’t introduce a sliding door until the second-generation of its minivan came out several years later.
To create complex, organic forms made popular over the past decade, NX supports a hybrid modeling philosophy and provides comprehensive tools to deliver the design intent. Utilizing hybrid modeling ensures the digital sculptor is never limited by the software but rather has the flexibility to select the most appropriate tools for the task at hand.
Today, using a CAD system that supports hybrid modeling, such a redesign effort would go quickly thanks to tools such as associative constraints (rules such as tangency and curvature continuity) and parameters (values such as length or radius) for controlling geometry. Values could be adjusted and features added, and the geometry would update accordingly. Other hybrid modeling tools include global deformation (global modeling by surface or function) and curve/surface rebuild controls for Bezier (single span) output. The latter deliver the superior control required for class-A surface refinement.