Ford Australia’s design centre is normally off-limits to press, but not today. They recently finished a refurbishment and invited us along to take a look. As per Ford’s international security protocols, journalists did still have to surrender mobile phones at the front desk. This design centre is one of only 3 in the world, the others being in Europe and America.
Anthony Picchioni, Chief Engineer of Design Technical Operations in Asia and Africa at Ford, detailed the upgrades.
The FAPA Design Centre was well overdue for a refresh as no large redevelopments had been done since around 1970. To create a modern modern design division in Ford Australia, they took cues from what other manufacturers have done recently. Purgeot in France, Nissan in London and Volkswagen in Germany were all shown as examples and it was abundantly clear that Ford Australia had fallen behind international competitors when it came to their design facilities.
The redevelopment started with an internal design contest where employees submitted 3D renderings of their suggested designs. While modernising the design studio, another key factory was to increase employee satisfaction so office working conditions were also taken on-board.
The externals of the building got some updates, but the core of the budget was reserved for revamping the internals and purchasing new technology. Good move.
The call-centre / cube design for workers has gone, replaced by more open furniture which resulted in a much more collaborative space. The Design Team is now in a single space for both interior and external components, an important change from the previously setup.
The diamond in the crown for the newly revamped Design Centre is the Powerwall. This is a HD cinema display that allows real-time collaboration with international locations in Cologne and Dearborn in amazing quality. Even up close the clarity was stunning, unlike most projection that falls apart inside 2-3 meters.
The 6×3 metre screen has 4 times the resolution of your HDTV and uses a Sony SRXT 420 Projector. This beast is one of only a few 4K projectors in the country, outputting an amazing 4096 x 2160 Pixels. This quality was really exposed with a demo of the design process Ford uses for the development of vehicles.
In a Wizard of Oz moment, I was taken to the rooms behind the screen that make all that Ultra-high definition magic happen. The immediate room behind is essentially empty, but allows you to see the back of the screen that receives the inverse projection. The next room contains a server cabinet filled with networking and storage racks, with a large tower PC at the base which keeps company with a Nvidia Plex 2200 external GPU solution.
Pushing that many pixels is not easy and needs some serious horsepower to pull it off. Keep in mind this is the resolution of HDTV’s that were shown off at this year’s CES conference. Being able to show 4K is one thing.. displaying highly detailed computer models in real-time is an entirely different one.
Ford designers make use of 24” Wacom Cintiq HD Sketch Tablets, the days of hand-drawing sketches are pretty much over. These detailed artworks provide for an early vision of what’s possible, even produced over the top of CAD models of vehicles to work through different body styling elements while respecting real-life proportions.
Vehicles are designed in CAD down an ever increasing level of accuracy at each stage of the process. By the end, the tolerance is to down to just 0.005mm. In the case of the Ford Ranger, there are 190,000 items per vehicle, all of this data accumulates to 55TB of CAD data per vehicle. This data is then piped into what they call CAE (Computer Aided Environment) that allows for virtual testing before a single piece of the vehicle is engineered.
None of these simulations are run locally, they are sent via high-speed fibre-optic cable to in Ford’s super computer cluster. Each simulation can take 2-4 hrs to crunch, on the supercomputer, or around 12 months on a regular home PC. Data connectivity between Ford Australia and the supercomputer is done using a fibre-connection, but aren’t the main concern anymore, with TB of data moved freely. The compute time of the simulations is a now a much longer commitment than the large file transfers sent to the other side of the world.
During the development phase around 9,000 virtual crashes are run. The software and models used are similar technology that is used at NASA.
Full vehicle aerodynamics modelling can be some of the most intensive done and takes up to a week to get results back from the super computer. We know from the comparison to a home PC earlier that this means aero calculations are amazingly complex for it to take a week.
Virtual Reality Centre
Only a few automotive companies in the world have a simulators like this. The system is made up of state-of-the-art $50,000 head-mounted displays and a series of motion tracking sensors that are read by 16 infra-red cameras around the room. This VRC is used to track inspect vehicle interiors from first-person perspective before a car ever rolls off the production line. Driver movements are transferred to the brains of the system (a server rack in the adjacent room), via a thick cable connected at the back of the headsets.
Ford say these thick cables connected to the back of the headsets are needed as the amount of data being sent is too large for wireless transmissions. The sensation is an immersive one, allowing you to look around, even move around the room while your real-life movements are matched by the movement in the virtual environment.
The VRC is commonly used to investigate how designs would work practically. This includes seeing how much can be see out the rear window or if objects in the cabin block access to others. By highlighting potential issues early on in the virtual environment, it saves time and more importantly dollars at an early stage of the process.
Check out photos below from today’s visit to Ford Australia.