What We’ve Learned from Visiting over 20 Automotive Design Studios

Since we started Gravity Sketch, we have visited over twenty of the biggest automotive design studios in the world. Here are some of the insights we picked up along the way.
Oluwaseyi Sosanya
What We’ve Learned from Visiting over 20 Automotive Design Studios
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We feel a certain affinity towards the automotive sector. The design process of a car is a challenging one; a great design takes into account the engineering constraints, human factors, and art or sculpture. Many of our biggest clients are Tier 1 automotive OEMs. I’ve worked as an Innovation Design lead at Jaguar Land Rover for a couple  years, along with my co-founder, Daniela Paredes Fuentes. When we started the commercialization of Gravity Sketch, our product naturally found a home in the automotive design workflow due to the challenges of creating fluid organic shapes, while maintaining a healthy respect for the engineering and safety requirements, and the human factors. The ability to view a sketch at scale, from day one of the creative process, is extremely empowering and helps designers troubleshoot complex concepts. 

We have visited over twenty of the biggest automotive design studios in the world, from Detroit to Bologna, Stuttgart to Tokyo. After demonstrating Gravity Sketch, and talking with design teams who work under different constraints, and face a variety of challenges, we’ve spotted some patterns  in the advancements of the design process across the industry.

The industry is doing some great things in the design process:

  • International cross-cultural real-time collaboration: Many companies have set up design studios in 2 to 3 different countries allowing them to gain access to great talent and leverage their cultural knowledge. Collaboration amongst global teams is a challenge, but we have seen teams do this really well through great project planning and the use of virtual reality with designers in multiple locations across the world is an industry-standard. Regardless of their location, design studios across the world are able to review and collaborate on new designs.

 

  • Young talent: In every design team there are company stalwarts who have decades of design experience and institutional knowledge. Simultaneously, there is a high turnover of junior designers in these teams, who are more likely to work at several different OEMs at the start of their career. Every studio brings in fresh young talent each year through internships. This allows design teams to explore fresh ideas, emerging tools, and unique design processes. It was quite common to visit a studio where a team’s experience ranged from less than one year to 15+ years, with many of the designers having spent time at 3-5 different companies. This mixing of youth and seasoned veterans, as well as broad experience across different brands, equals a truly balanced and inclusive team. There is a strong desire for car manufacturers to innovate and continue producing fresh new ideas.

 

  • Adoption of new technology: Designers are becoming deeply involved in the technology procurement discussions. Just a few years ago  designers would get a Wacom Cintiq tablet and a copy of Adobe Photoshop. Now there is a push towards bringing digital 3D towards the front end of the design process with designers, modelers, engineers, and IT teams all invested in the procurement of new technology to help develop an overall more effective workflow. 

 

  • Polygonal Modeling Techniques: When it comes to digital 3D modeling, for years the industry standard has been NURBS modeling, which is quite rigid and most software used is targeted towards technicians. Every studio we visited has incorporated polygon modeling into their early-stage ideation process. This has allowed the stylist to move to digital 3D quickly, which has given them more control over their design for more of the design process. 

 

  • Design for EV: All of the major OEMs are preparing for electrification by better leveraging their supply chain. Rather than waste years trying to develop a better electric battery in-house, the industry is leveraging suppliers who have deep expertise in manufacturing electric motors and battery technology. As many OEMs use the same suppliers there has been a considerable focus put on the design process. The advent of electrification is heating up the competition; the possibility of cutting the development time for a new vehicle from 5 years down to 3 years is revolutionizing the industry. Designers are giving much more exciting briefs and companies are looking at completely fresh opportunities that an EV drivetrain provides.

 

  • Focus on Interior Design: The industry as a whole has accepted the idea that autonomous driving will soon become a reality. This coupled with the growth of the gig economy has driven increased attention to the interior design of the vehicle. Often, our experience of a car’s interior today is dictated by driving the car, and the interior is designed to suit that. Once our vehicles drive themselves, the interiors will adapt for work, pleasure, and rest. Just a few years ago interior designers expected that only a handful of people would ever experience the inside of the vehicle, while hundreds of people would view the exterior. The gig economy has put us in the backseats of hundreds of vehicles. With this industry not looking to slow down anytime soon we are seeing the next wave of vehicle interior designs considering the rear passenger experience.     

All of these point to an appetite for greater collaboration and continued spirit of innovation. When it comes to the technologies being used for design and development of new cars, across the industry there is a reluctance to implement new technologies (AR/VR) at mass to help improve collaboration on a company-wide scale. 

 

To explore this in more detail: 

 

Every single one of the studios we visited already has some capacity for working in VR. The automotive industry was an early adopter of VR design reviews, having invested in large-scale VR CAVEs, where the user wearing 3D glasses enters a room with computer graphics projected on three walls. With the rise of head mounted displays (HMDs), studios are using VR more frequently primarily at the design review stage, however, the same location-specific mentality remains: let’s stick this potentially groundbreaking technology in a room somewhere, some distance away from where designers and engineers work.

 

So why aren’t designers using VR headsets at their desks? The first hurdle is that credible professional immersive workflow tools simply haven’t existed until now. The thinking around how immersive technologies can be used to drive a more seamless workflow  hasn’t changed much, and this has prevented more people across the organisation from accessing these technologies. Immersive tools are being evaluated through the lens of I.T. procurement; there is nothing wrong with this lens – it’s functional – but I.T. cannot evaluate immersive creative tools through the lens of a designer (or anyone else in the organization for that matter). How they evaluate technology is defined by their remit, which means that the criteria for evaluation comes down to questions like does this piece of technology do what it is supposed to do? Does it function correctly? Can it integrate with our current systems? Is it a security risk? Designers evaluate their tools against the ability of the tool to empower them creatively. 

 

We’ve seen some OEMs treating VR with only cursory exploration, allowing one or two people from the same team to evaluate what it can do for them. However, in some American OEMs, we supply have gone much further, purchasing six headsets and dispersing them across different teams. By having six people from different teams evaluate the technology from a range of different perspectives, they increase the number of potential use cases and ways in which the technology can be used, both within teams and across teams ultimately driving a more clear return on investment to the company.  

 

Facebook, Microsoft and Google are all building their capabilities in VR, AR and mixed reality. While the major OEMs have already bought into the technology, it feels as though they are sitting back waiting for something miraculous to be developed from the big tech players before they deep dive in. Major automotive manufacturers have not taken an offensive stance on how to deploy and utilize immersive technologies across the organisation. It is clear that several initiatives around immersive technology are being conducted in small, isolated use cases, not taking into account the full power of those technologies and the business benefits they can bring at scale across all business units.

 

Designers are keen to learn new tools and experiment with new ways of working to enhance their creative abilities. Younger designers, at the start of their careers, face a growing pressure to churn out a great number of  new designs. The time to hone their craft is diminishing with the shortening of the design cycle. Fresh grads are bringing new ways of working to the table, with tools such as Blender or Gravity Sketch so there is a lot of appetite to explore unproven technology.

Each and every one of these automotive companies has a firm stance on the electrification of drivetrains and autonomous vehicles. The challenges on the horizon are going to turn the industry on its head; as such, it feels like a pretty good time to shake up the way we design vehicles. As of yet, very few companies are acting offensively  with respect to how they will use immersive technologies, cloud, and globally collaborate in a more dynamic way to keep up with the challenges ahead. I ask myself: will the vehicles of tomorrow really be designed and developed with the tools of yesterday or will we leverage emerging technology to develop a better vehicle design process resulting in better vehicles and mobility experiences?

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