The process of designing a car typically takes between 3-5 years. At any point along that path, the design can be fundamentally changed or even thrown out. The design process reflects the connection between idea and product.
In general, there are several steps for a design to go through before becoming a full-fledged vehicle. The flow of the design process may not be the same in all car companies, but they are more or less similar to the steps elaborated in this article.
The design process usually begins with a sketch. During this stage, designers traditionally work with pen and paper and digitally with electronic drawing boards to draw out their ideas. This step allows everyone involved to get a better view on what the idea looks like. Both the interior and exterior of the car will be sketched in this stage. While sketching, designers will have to take into consideration certain criteria such as, the type of a car it should be (SUV, Sedan, etc.), its expected cost, its target audience and most importantly, how it fits into the brand portfolio of the company. These criteria act as a design brief or a guideline for the designers. Typically, sketches that meet the design brief and possesses an interesting, glamorous look will be chosen.
After that, the sketch will go through a step called – packaging. In this stage, the initial design concept is put through changes as packaging considerations are made. This is where most of the fundamental changes to the design will take place as designers will have to consider engine availability, drive train layouts, materials and equipment needed, and other safety requirements that will need to be packaged into the design. At this point, everything is still amended on paper and will continue being amended until the engineering needs are met. This is generally where art meets reality and compromises are made for practical reasons.
Now, designers will have a more detailed design direction to steer future development of ideas of the vehicle.
2D To 3D (Computer-Aided Design/Clay Modelling)
During this stage, the two-dimensional drawings on paper are converted to three dimensions, which can facilitate faster development of the final design concept without compromising the quality of detail or decision-making reliability. With the help of a Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software such as CATIA, the car’s physical dimensions can be measured, which will be used in building a clay model. CAD is also used for analysis and calculations. This will be used in ensuring that the components designed are functional and making sure that the calculations and tolerances are correct. CAD possesses a major advantage that allows flexibility – real-time processing. Designers can perform last minute changes to the rendered model without the hassle of re-sketching everything from scratch. The ability of CAD to re-analyze changes allows designers to save plenty of time and energy during this stage of the design process.
Once the 3D model is analyzed through CAD, the designers will build a clay model using the measurements recorded. This step is necessary as it helps designers visualize the designs in real-life dimensions. Usually, a scaled model is developed first, followed by a full-sized model as the project reaches the ending stages. As with the previous stages, the clay model will be designed to include the interior elements of the car. There are some cases however, where the interior of the car will be modelled as a separate entity to allow designers to focus purely on the aesthetics and the functionality of the cabin. Nevertheless, the objectives are the same – to serve as a physical reference. The clay model will aid the designers in evaluating and finalizing the physical appearance and ergonomics of the car. Once the final design has been approved (both interior and exterior), the design team will develop a full-sized clay model. At this point, the interior and exterior full-sized clay models will be developed separately to allow designers to focus on the materials needed for each component.
Once the full-sized model (interior and exterior) has been built, the design team will now begin to contemplate on how the car should feel. In this process, designers will browse through the numerous options available to them for paint, trim colors, fabrics, plastics, accessories and so on. The detailed models of the interior are also used to make adjustments to the driver’s controls and the dashboard’s design. In certain cases, ergonomic changes are usually fine-tuned at this point using the full-sized clay models. These adjustments are necessary depending on the choice of material used.
Once the materials are finalized, it will then go through a series of tests to measure its sustainability to real-life conditions such as heat, cold, and force. If the materials chosen does not pass the series of tests, an alternative solution will be figured out by the designers.
Final Engineering and Approval
Once the materials are finalized, the full-sized clay model of the exterior and interior will be put together, making it a complete vehicle. During this stage, designers will work together with engineers as engineering considerations for production begin to play heavily. This will then be followed up with an approval by selected team of people.
After approval is gained, the designers will work with engineers who specialize in the tooling of factories and building of vehicles to ensure the final design can be manufactured while heavily considering factor of cost, and time taken to produce the car.
This step can sometimes involve adjustments to the final design in terms of how individual parts are put together, which parts will be used (sourcing), and so on. All of this facilitates the process of manufacturing, making it easy, fast, and cost-efficient to produce. All that’s left now, is to manufacture the car.
This goes to show how much of change an initial idea would go through in order to make it a vehicle ready for production. The sketches on paper has solidified into the reality of a functioning automobile ready for consumers.
Most car companies have models on a 4-6 year “remodel circuit”. This means, the models under this regulation will undergo a major remodeling every 4 to 6 years. Variances are often made depending on sales figures, segment market changes, and marketing plans.
With the availability of modern technologies such as 3D printers, Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and so on, the design process will be even more efficient and advanced.