Industrial Design

From Ether to Clay with Ease

8 Apr, 2007 By: Michelle Nicolson

Charged with redesigning its luxurious SUV, Honda Canada turns to AliasStudio for 3D modeling, design and surface creation.

Automobile manufacturers know that a car is more than a method of transportation. Personal style, values and sense of identity all influence a consumer's vehicle purchase. Designing, and redesigning, a vehicle involves years of pressure and effort from initial concept to assembly line. Designers must consider myriad complex factors in every decision, including safety, performance and style. Perhaps no other industry has so much at stake when it comes to current consumer trends.

Honda Canada faced such a redesign for the 2007 model of its luxury SUV, the Acura MDX. Ricky Hsu, principal designer, led the team of designers and engineers. Knowing the keys to success for an enormous project like this one, Hsu turned to the technology and procedures that had served Honda well in the past. One of those tools was Autodesk AliasStudio. In addition to its function as a design tool, AliasStudio also played an important role in improving communication between the vehicle design and engineering teams, ultimately speeding up the overall redesign process.

Evolution of Technology
Honda has used Autodesk AliasStudio (then Alias StudioTools) since the 1980s. "At that time, the Honda design team realized a need for a more direct and consistent path from sketch to 3D model that would reach beyond the limitations of a clay or physical model," Hsu explains. "The Honda design team also wanted the ability to interact with this model in a virtual world and share the information across work groups, and AliasStudio allowed us to do this. However, in the 1980s, because of the high degree of skill required to use the software, only a few key people used AliasStudio, and we were limited to making shapes we could all agree on and then feeding the content through a milling machine."

In the early 1990s, Honda began using AliasStudio more extensively. "As the technical skill level of our designers increased and AliasStudio became easier and more effective to use, we built a studio housed within our office devoted strictly to design and the use of Alias software," Hsu says. "At that time we used AliasStudio to sketch, model and develop prototype parts such as subassemblies and interior components, for example mirrors and lights. Later in the 1990s we began experimenting with designing the entire body of the car in AliasStudio."

A digital model of a concept car created using AliasStudio software. (Courtesy of Dua Xiong)

Cutting Edge Technology Meets With Tradition
Today, Honda uses AliasStudio -- in addition to other 3D software packages and Honda's own proprietary software -- for design and surface development. The Honda design team feeds Alias data into a 1:1 scale model and uses the information to create clay models used for further concept refinement. Clay modeling, a time-consuming and costly process in vehicle development, dates back to the early 1900s.

Clay models continue to be an important component of the Honda automotive design process, but they are now bridged with Alias. "AliasStudio gives our designers more flexibility and helps them accurately capture their design intent. Previously, this was only possible with clay," Hsu comments.

The communication of surface information can go both ways, Hsu adds. The team can make changes directly to the clay model, which are sent back to Alias using an optical scanner. Additionally, the team can make changes to the Alias model, which are milled on a clay model for surface checks using a robotic sculptor -- a robotic arm that can rotate and pivot on multiple axes.

"Milling is a critical tool to industrial design and manufacturing," Hsu explains. "Honda relies on this robot to sculpt the design and models they construct mathematically in the virtual world. The 'brain' that tells the robot what to sculpt is the 3D surfacing software program, like Alias."

Although AliasStudio makes this process easier and faster, Hsu also gives credit to the low-tech processes. "No matter what digital tool we use, our design team still relies on everything being milled out for data verification and real-life interaction. Nothing compares to human physical interaction with a model," Hsu says.

Data Share
Just as important as the ability to design quickly is the ability to communicate the data to collaborators. The MDX design team shared its Alias data and 3D models with the engineering team for feasibility studies, feedback and collaboration, allowing both groups to communicate accurately and on the same level. This helped speed development, reducing some of the pressure to produce a quality product within the design team's deadline.

The redesigned 2007 Acura MDX.

Hsu credits AliasStudio with helping the Honda team meet its design goal by streamlining the workflow. "A streamlined workflow helped us get from initial sketch to end product faster and more efficiently with time to experiment with different iterations," he says. The end result can be found in Honda showrooms across the nation.

About the Author: Michelle Nicolson

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