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FORD’S new powerwall capability accelerates product design and quality


DEARBORN, Mich.- You haven’t seen vehicle design until you’ve seen it on a “powerwall.”

What sounds like an extreme sport maneuver or a video game challenge actually is helping accelerate the globalization of product development and market research at Ford Motor Company.

Ford is completing installation of several state-of-the-art digital powerwall studios at its Product Development Center (PDC) in Dearborn that will help get products to market faster. Powerwalls use high definition (HD) rear-screen projection to enable review and refinement of full-scale computer-rendered vehicle designs prior to fabricating physical properties in foam, clay and fiberglass.

In addition, Ford Market Research uses mobile powerwall technology to “test” vehicle designs, including potential global products, with consumers around the world. More than ever before, consumer insights drive vehicle design.

“This technology is an integral daily working tool that enables us to bring more of our vehicle design processes into the digital environment,” said Peter Horbury, Ford’s executive director of Design for North America. “It expands our capability and has the potential to save a significant amount of time and money as we continue to globalize product development"

The centerpiece of Ford’s new powerwall facilities is the Electronic Design Presentation Room (EDPR) at the Product Development Center, which features a 60-foot-wide wall that accommodates three 20-foot-wide projections simultaneously. It enables the review of Ford and competitor model exteriors and interiors through the use of highly detailed graphic rendering technology that is four times sharper than standard Blu-ray HD. Full-scale, static and animated imagery “come to life” in much greater detail than normally seen on a computer screen.

“The facility provides an effective forum for group discussions and executive reviews that are difficult to do over a 20-inch computer monitor,” said Jeff Nowak, Ford Studio 2000X chief designer. “It facilitates the social component of the design process.”

Powerwalls have been used in the industry for about 15 years, but recent advances in CGI and HD have revolutionized its usefulness in the design process. Early implementation of the current technology was used in the development of Ford’s 2009 model year vehicles.

The technology also has made the review process more compelling and detail-oriented, Nowak said. The photo-realistic computer-rendered images show driving dynamics in realistic lighting, from any angle and in lifelike detail. Colors and reflective surface textures in vehicle interiors can be changed with a click. The animated leather on heated seats appears realistically perforated. And exterior views are equally eye-popping with close-ups of metal-flecked paint reflecting a surrounding cityscape.

“The EDPR is the pinnacle of powerwall technology,” said Nowak, adding that Ford’s facility is believed to be the most advanced powerwall facility in the industry.

In addition to the EDPR, by year’s end Ford will complete PDC’s Advanced Visualization Center (AVC), a group of powerwall labs that will enable multiple design teams to use the technology simultaneously. While the EDPR can serve as both a working level digital studio as well as a management presentation space, the AVC will enable teams and individuals to undertake what Nowak calls “nitty-gritty feasibility studies” and component design reviews throughout the product development process.

Ford of Europe also has powerwall facilities at its product development facilities in Dunton, England, and Cologne, Germany, but it doesn’t stop there. The same basic technology can be used around the world for market research clinics.

“We want to move away from using physical models for design validation in clinics,” said Nowak. “The objective is to be able to walk into a clinic with a laptop to do a full-scale immersive presentation.”

Ford Market Research has used powerwall animations at pickup truck clinics in Texas and a sedan clinic in Chicago.

“You can take powerwall presentations around the world, knowing that everyone will see the same thing,” said Randall Janisch, Ford Marketing & Sales research manager. “We’re better able to control what clinic respondents see and we get more data because more people are able to participate in the allotted time.”

Janisch added that powerwall animations are much easier and less expensive to transport than physical properties. Moreover, the clinic participants have responded positively to the presentations.

“When they see these images they can’t tell what’s real and what’s animated,” said Janisch.

The digital presentations are not a replacement for physical prototypes, however. Physical models are still more useful for gauging the volume and proportions of a vehicle.

“Thanks to advances in digital design we don’t need to build a physical model until later in the PD process, which accelerates product development. And the potential cost savings is enormous,” said Horbury.


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