How Ford optimises design process with VR

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Companies such as Ford are leveraging VR as a collaboration tool to enable better and more efficient design processes, helping them to drive change across the company.

Ford has been doing virtual design for over a decade, but since 2014, any changes visible to the customer have to be done with the help of FIVE (Ford Immersive Vehicle Environment).

FIVE is a system that employs an 80-inch, 4K monitor connected to a computer, where the viewer wears a VR headset to explore the vehicle with Autodesk VRED 3D-visualisation software. State-of-the-art motion sensors scattered around the room map the movements of users in relation to the virtual model of the car they are designing.

Elizabeth Baron, Virtual Reality and Advanced Visualisation Technical Specialist at Ford has been working with VR since 1999. She explains how this technology has enabled Ford to build fewer physical models, making better choices earlier in the design process.

“For example, we can hold a real steering wheel and then add other key components and switches in the physical world, then match the physical world to the virtual world. That way, when you reach for a switch, you feel it physically and see it virtually as a beautiful, properly rendered virtual vehicle. You can truly sense the proportion and design theme and feel the proper placement of interior controls in a vehicle,” she says.

This means that teams at Ford can combine engineering practice with the voice of the customer, by allowing experts to see things from their perspective: “FIVE enables the perception of reality to be altered, and this enables us to experience the car from the standpoint of a taller man or a shorter woman.

Now, I can see through their eyes what it’s like to be in a specific vehicle and from their viewpoints. We’re always looking at something from someone’s perspective, so we can bring the customer way up front, look at it all the way through, and iterate. We can also look at variation and vehicle appearances at any point in time in our product-development process, which allows us to embed our manufacturing process in a compelling design.”

When recently developing its new GT supercar, for example, Ford engineers used the system to check forward, side, and rear visibility from the driver’s seat, helping them to determine if the positioning of the vehicle’s A-pillars could cause problems for drivers. They were able to strip out layers of the virtual vehicle to see how structural, mechanical, and electrical sub-systems interact with the overall architecture.

“The impact on cost, time and quality are significant, and have allowed our designers and engineers more creative freedoms to explore options that in the past would have been to time- or cost-intensive to consider,” agrees Ford senior technical leader Jeff Greenberg.

VR driving cultural change

VR is also the cornerstone of Studio 2000X, Ford’s in-house animation studio. Using programs and techniques similar to those of animation moviemakers, the studio handles everything from initial vehicle design through to the films that will be used to market the cars to consumers eventually.

“Virtual reality was a game changer,” says studio design manager Jerry Kearns. “Designers can sketch in VR, and the lines float in space. Now, instead of two-dimensional sketches, they start in 3D, and this cuts out a lot of the expensive prototypes. Making a headlight, for example, can be hundreds of thousands of dollars, so there are cost savings,” he explains.

The ability to fully experience and share every concept and idea before a physical prototype is made is undoubtedly a significant competitive advantage. This is not, however, the sole USP that VR technology brings to companies like Ford. Arguably, the highest value derived from this process is the ability to share, discuss, and modify these rendered designs with others in real-time, wherever they happen to be in the world.

Baron believes that the adoption of VR technology at Ford has been a catalyst for cultural change within the organisation, which has made it significantly more collaborative.

 “We now have Ford designers and engineers around the world working together virtually - inside and side by side - on the same product". "By using this technology, they can quickly transition from one car design proposal to another, and study and identify which is the best option" she explains. Saying they recently had a member of their Australian team along with an executive here in Dearborn, Michigan, immersed in the same vehicle dialled in through audio and talking to each other.

Part of the engineering aspects was done in America, so a member of America’s senior leadership wanted to understand the direction Australia was taking with the design. They were immersed for over a half hour.

Simulation, therefore, glues together the complex fabric of design, engineering, manufacturing and marketing. An artist who has spent his or her life making beautiful forms and compelling shapes that are strong or sexy or cool can now talk to an engineer who is a body-structure person and is worried about how a vehicle will perform with all of the conditions it needs to work under.

So that artist and engineer can have a conversation and communicate in a way that is exceptionally effective and insightful, despite being two people who are worlds apart as far as their mental models. VR bridges that gap and makes it easy for them to collaborate using a common visual language.

“We have had a culture change that has been profound in providing a new communication paradigm, and that has done a lot to further team building and the way we work,” agrees Baron. “All of these people from different teams are looking at things from a different mindset.

In the past, we would be sitting at a conference table reviewing PowerPoint, but the real power of FIVE is that it’s holistic. It brings everyone together, and everyone can understand the final product, which is a beautiful vehicle we produce”.

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