Few industries are undergoing more technology-driven change than the automotive sector, which has been roiled by ride-sharing services, as well as electric and self-driving cars.
Another kind of digital disruption is happening at Ford, where designers are using Microsoft’s HoloLens headset to refine the look and feel of the company’s cars in accordance with human-centric design principles.
HoloLens enables what is known as a “mixed reality” experience. Akin to virtual reality and augmented reality, mixed reality overlays contextual information atop a display.
Blending physical and digital worlds, HoloLens helps employees complete their work untethered from a desk.
Such flexibility, accompanied by the promise of improved operating efficiency, is a big reason why retailers, airlines and healthcare companies are embracing the technology.
Efficiency gains are exactly what Ford was looking for when the business approached Microsoft in 2016 to embark on a HoloLens proof-of-concept test, ideally to improve workflow for designers who make thousands of decisions in modelling Ford’s cars, trucks and SUVs, Craig Wetzel, design technical operations manager at Ford, told CIO.com.
Ford, which worked closely with Microsoft to build custom visualisation software for HoloLens, currently uses 10 devices in its Dearborn, Michigan design centre.
Wetzel said Ford has purchased additional headsets to deploy in Ford design centres worldwide. Following is an inside look at how HoloLens is helping to reshape Ford’s design process.
Ford runs five mills that churn out full-size car models in clay. After a mill produces a model vehicle, designers and clay modellers scrape it by hand to refine its look and feel, after which it is scanned digitally for additional scrutiny.
But this process makes it hard for designers to align the physical and virtual models because they can’t see them side by side. Designers “can’t see, feel or touch the vehicle at full scale,” Wetzel added
So when they make changes to the clay model, they go back to the computer to see the impact, then go back to mould the clay some more. A lot of washing, rinsing and repeating ensues. HoloLens alleviates that problem.
The headset projects holo- graphic images onto the user’s field of view, using sensors to fix those images in place as the user changes viewing angles, or as they walk around the clay model.
Designers can also scroll through multiple design options for components such as grilles or side mirrors with a hand motion and display sketches onto the physical walls of the studio.
“I can walk around these holograms of my car design like the customer would walk around it, and see my digital design at full scale,” Wetzel added.
An efficiency bump
This affords Ford significant time-saving opportunities in the design processes. Traditionally, a designer would bring in a perspective customer to weigh in on how a new side mirror design affects a vehicle’s aesthetics and try to remember approximately where they were standing when they said they didn’t like the look of the car.
With HoloLens, the customer’s feedback is recorded in real time. “With HoloLens, I’m recording precisely where he is standing so I can replicate what he had seen before,” Wetzel said. “The critical view from where customers see an issue is key for us.”
Design processes that once rolled on for days or weeks in an iterative cycle are now completed over the course of one day. A big reason for this is the on-the-go information access and sharing HoloLens enables.
If a HoloLens-clad designer makes a change to the clay model, they can get “immediate feedback” regarding the impact of their change, obviating the need to check the change on the computer, Wetzel said.
Ford designers in Europe can also “thumbtack” notes about issues they are working on for U.S. designers to work on the next day. “It’s getting a 24-hour-a-day cre- ative cycle going,” Wetzel added.
Design on the down-low
HoloLens also helps Ford preserve proprietary information. Designers, engineers and product managers huddle more easily on sensitive schematics with components that are highly compartmentalised to preserve secrecy.
Engineers often work on pieces of a vehicle without ever seeing its full model design.
Using HoloLens, design and engineering teams can work on discreet parts of the vehicle without risking leaking sensitive design details. “I can control who sees the data,” Wetzel said.
Clint Boulton is a senior writer at CIO.com.