Special Coverage

Auto Interiors Conference

DEARBORN, MI – Admitting nothing will replace physical prototypes, designers and engineers nonetheless insist there is a place for virtual prototyping in designing vehicle interiors.

The ability to view an interior virtually in 2D, or in some cases 3D, can save money and time, as well as more closely meet a customer’s expectations, say “The Science of Interior Aesthetics” panelists at the 2010 Ward’s Auto Interiors Conference here.

“Every little bit matters and affects the perception of your vehicle (interiors),” Dan Vivian, director-engineering design-Hyundai America Technical Center, says of the role virtual-design software can play in creating interiors.

For example, viewing a virtually created black interior opposite a beige one can reveal visual differences and flaws in selected materials that might not show up in a clay-model interior prototype, Vivian notes.

Virtual prototyping also can help in visualizing the multitude of interior variations needed to meet global-market demands, panelists say.

Americans tend to favor soft upholstery, the color white and bold grains and textures, says Steven D. Madge, vice president-business relations for virtual software supplier RTT USA Inc.

Germans prefer hard seats, dark grey/black interiors and technical flourishes, while Indian car buyers favor “very soft” seats, brown/beige interior shades and cloth upholstery.

Virtual prototyping software, such as the 3D kind RTT touts, also has the ability to reveal slight tolerance gaps that can affect cost differences.

Madge cites an example where 3D design software was used to achieve a tolerance gap of 0.004 ins. (0.1 mm) for a center-stack faceplate, exceeding the customer’s 0.02-in. (0.5-mm) specification.

Ford Motor Co. has been using virtual visualizations to eliminate design issues that could cause customers to perceive a vehicle as substandard in quality, says Mark Springler, engineer-vehicle interior technologies for the auto maker.

Ford can improve only what it can methodically measure in a robust and reliable manner, he says.

With that in mind, the auto maker is employing a robot, dubbed RUTH (Robotized Unit for Tactility and Haptics), that can mimic how a driver will perceive an interior.

RUTH can test for factors such as the wobbliness, force and torque profiles of switches; visual differences in gaps, color and graining; and tactile measures such as the stickiness or stiffness of components and temperature of materials.

Despite the benefits, getting more auto makers to adopt visualization software has been “a very, very hard sell,” says Madge.

Asked how many auto makers use Aesthetica virtual software offered by U.K.-based Icona Solutions, he says “not enough,” ball-parking about 50% of global OEMs.

Getting some auto makers to change, particularly those in Detroit that are comfortable with long-used development processes for interiors, is like “trying to rewrite the Bible,” Madge says.