Back in 2006, Ford instituted a new step in its vehicle development process to allow designers and engineers to test various styling, craftsmanship and ergonomic options and make improvements to new vehicle design without resorting to expensive and time-intensive physical models. Officially known as the Immersion Lab, the new technology utilizes Virtual Reality to create and improve vehicles during the prototype stage of development.
Thanks to a host of recent upgrades to the lab and its establishment in other Ford development centers around the world, Ford became the first automaker to use the technology on a global level, thereby enabling simultaneous input from designers and engineers working on the same product at the same time.
Similar to Second Life — the popular 3D virtual environment — Ford’s Virtual Reality Labs allow designers and engineers to experience a car the way a consumer would in a showroom thanks to an ultrahigh-definition immersive virtual space. The technology allows them to create visuals that are almost indistinguishable from a real car for the purpose of improving vehicle quality and craftsmanship.
In 2013, Ford designers and engineers have examined over 135,000 details on 193 virtual vehicle prototypes built in the Immersion Lab — an achievement that would have been impossible a few years ago. The work environment is already delivering improvements for the customer in such vehicles as the Ford Fusion and all-new 2015 Ford Mustang.
In the Fusion, engineers examined the placement of the sideview mirror and rear brakelight. In the case of the sideview mirror, the gaol was to optimize visibility without impacting the design of the car. The position of the sideview mirror went through several virtual iterations before the team decided that a door-mounted design was optimal. The LED center brake light underwent a similar process, with engineers determining that an ultrathin unit maximized visibility without losing style.
Meanwhile, the 2015 Mustang saw an improvement in the fit and finish of its dashboard and windshield wipers that hides the wipers from the driver’s view when they are at rest. Eliminating exposed fasteners allowed the engineers to create a finished look and a richer perception of quality.
“We now have Ford designers and engineers around the world working together virtually — inside and side-by-side — on the same product,” said Elizabeth Baron, Ford virtual reality and advanced visualization technical specialist. “By using this technology, designers and engineers can quickly transition from one car design proposal to another, and they can study and identify which is the best option.”
According to a Ford news release, the kind of dynamic, precision-oriented work environment seen in the Immersion Lab will be key in delivering improved vehicle quality and customer experiences as the automaker continues to grow its lineup of global vehicles as part of the One Ford plan.
Recently, Ford’s Virtual Reality efforts have received several updates, including big high-definition screens and new software.
The ultrahigh-definition “powerwall” display is a new addition to the Immersion Lab. The screen is four times the resolution of a high-definition television, enabling Ford designers and engineers to evaluate and review 3D models of vehicles in real time, globally. In addition to a facility in Australia, Ford opened collaboration centers in Germany, China, India and Brazil in 2012. In 2013, the automaker opened a collaboration center in Mexico.
“We moved to the global One Ford plan so that international collaboration could lead to the development of globally appealing vehicles,” said Baron. “With this technology, designers and engineers can enhance their ability to achieve that goal – while also improving vehicle quality.”
New software enables engineers to study hundreds of elements inside and outside of a vehicle, ensuring that vehicles coming to market “have been painstakingly inspected for usability, consistency and design effects that are now discernible in the sophisticated shadows and real-world lighting conditions the tools provide”, according to Ford.
Other recent upgrades to the Immersion Lab include:
- Virtual Space: With the new 4K-resolution “powerwall,” Ford engineers can have a life-sized view of issues that arise in vehicle development. Actual movement of designers and engineers connects with virtual movement, with the system linking Ford workers globally to simultaneously analyze and inspect the same virtual vehicle on a scale not possible before. The newest software provides a virtual experience almost indistinguishable from a real vehicle
- Programmable Vehicle Model: With upgraded software, engineers can now get immersed in a lifelike virtual vehicle. Evaluators can sit in the Programmable Vehicle Model – an interior laid out with steering wheel and seats – and both visualize and feel components. Engineers can test steering wheels, door handles and other major touch points for placement relative to the driver’s seat. Like the Virtual Space, the Programmable Vehicle Model has gotten upgraded collaborative capabilities. One Ford designer can be outside the car in the Virtual Space, while another is inside the car in the Programmable Vehicle Model
- Cave Automated Virtual Environment: CAVE functions as a wide, field-of-view virtual environment, allowing Ford engineers to rapidly test design and placement of door-mounted mirrors, center brake lights and other components to study visibility and customer preference
The Immersion Lab also has a trick up its (virtual) sleeve: the ability to se inside and through a vehicle structure to study how various structural, mechanical, and electrical systems interact within the architecture.
“Our new technology is more refined, and allows us to see and understand complex engineering issues while considering aesthetics and design,” said Baron. “We are incorporating light and shadow calculations in real time, which adds more depth and authenticity.”
The Blue Oval provides itself as being the industry leader when it comes to combining state-of-the-art motion capture technology, high visual fidelity and immersive virtual reality tools. Data derived from these tools allows designers to improve such attributes as outward vehicle visibility, quality and comfort.