ICEM Rocks the Motor City

3 Jan, 2007 By: Jeffrey Rowe

Software development program evolves into automotive design powerhouse

I'm on my way to Detroit, Michigan, this week for NAIAS -- the 2007 North American International Auto Show. For three days I'll get to check out concept and production vehicles, new and emerging technologies, and vehicles from Chinese companies exhibiting at this show for the first time. It promises to be an exciting trip.

As an industrial designer and mechanical engineer originally from the Detroit area, I have always had a special interest in automotive design, especially exterior styling and the tools used to realize it. Clay models are by no means extinct in the styling studios, but digital styling methods are becoming increasingly prevalent. The most popular styling tools in use today are probably Autodesk AliasStudio and ICEM Surf.

Software Redevelopment

I recently spoke with Pete Moorhouse, director of product marketing at ICEM, about automotive styling and ICEM's place in that arena. ICEM grew out of an internal software development program that took place back in the mid-1980s at Volkswagen in Germany. The intent was to develop surface modeling software for use by the company in car body skin design and engineering. That software was then made available commercially through a joint-venture company called ICEM that was set up by Volkswagen and Control Data. (The software itself was given the name ICEM Surf.) Having gone through a change of ownership in the 1990s, the company was the subject of a management buyout in 2002. It is now an independent, privately held company.

Since its earliest days, ICEM has concentrated on developing surface modeling, surface model validation and design visualization software. Although the main market for this software has historically been the automotive industry, it is also used by aerospace companies such as Airbus and Delta Air Lines, as well as sporting goods and consumer durable goods manufacturers. Increasingly, it's used anywhere aesthetics and surface quality play an important role.

ICEM Surf is currently used by the majority of automotive OEMs and their tier 1 suppliers in the design development of what the company calls "customer-visible surfaces." That category comprises the body skin and exterior components -- such as radiator grilles, headlamp assemblies and wheel trims -- and the interior components of a vehicle, such as the center console, instrument panel, and door and head linings.

In 2005, ICEM Surf was joined by ICEM Shape Design (ISD), which introduced a number of capabilities not previously part of ICEM Surf, such as parametric modeling. Just as importantly, ISD was developed on the Dassault Systemes CAA V5 architecture, so it integrates with CATIA V5 and other Dassault Systemes V5 PLM environments.

Made for Modeling

When asked what makes ICEM unique and what sets it apart from the competition, Moorhouse mentioned two factors: "First, the company concentrates on what it's always done and therefore, what it knows best -- that is, software for modeling and visualizing high-quality complex surfaces with compound curvature. [In the automotive industry, these are known as Class A surfaces.] The important thing here is that the surface model data that is generated is directly usable in the manufacturing process, which helps to maintain the design intent and the surface model quality right through into production.

"Second, with ICEM Shape Design, CATIA V5 users are able to use native V5 data from the initial vehicle body and interior design sketches stage right through to tooling design, with no data translation required at any stage in the process."

ICEM's principal target market has always been, and still is, the automotive industry. That includes private cars, motorcycles, commercial vehicles, trucks and buses, and agricultural and construction vehicles, as well as specialist areas such as tire design. The company has also seen a marked increase in digital design and visualization, with physical prototypes being at least partially replaced by virtual prototyping, which saves time and reduces development costs.

It's difficult to put a figure on the ultimate size of the markets ICEM could serve, but Moorhouse postulated that for every 10 to 15 engineering CAD/CAM seats there could be a need for one dedicated to surface modeling, so it's a sizeable potential market.

To sum things up, Moorhouse said, "Our vision is to be the surface design and visualization software of choice for any manufacturing company where design appeal and perceived quality are important factors in the sales success of a product. In addition, we'll be seeking out and appointing specialist business partners as appropriate in the various geographies that we serve so that we can effectively address new market sectors."

Executive Insight

Late in 2006, I spent some time with a couple of ICEM executives, as well as a Ford manager in charge of implementing ICEM across all of the company's brands and divisions worldwide. In the next edition of MCAD Tech News, I'll share what the ICEM and Ford folks discussed with me. Admittedly, some of the information was kept close to the chest, because future design direction and strategies of automotive companies are some of the most tightly secured secrets in the world. Nonetheless, the conversation about how a company the size of Ford implements a crucial piece of technology was interesting and insightful.

More News and Resources from Cadalyst Partners

For Mold Designers! Cadalyst has an area of our site focused on technologies and resources specific to the mold design professional. Sponsored by Siemens NX.  Visit the Equipped Mold Designer here!

For Architects! Cadalyst has an area of our site focused on technologies and resources specific to the building design professional. Sponsored by HP.  Visit the Equipped Architect here!