A behind-the-scenes look at Ford's Melbourne Design Centre (+35 photos)

Virtual reality, 3D printing, specialised tablets and more behind the development of Ford's upcoming Everest.

Members of the press are told smartphones will have to be confiscated at the door. A stationed security guard mans a secretive section. The room our presentation is held in has three doors, but only one of them is in use.

Ford Australia’s president and chief executive, Bob Graziano, explains the lockdown. “We don’t usually invite media inside this facility.” Ford designer Minh Huynh further elaborates: “it takes around four years to design and manufacture a vehicle.” Wandering journalists could expose industry secrets and discount millions in investment.

The Melbourne-based facility is only one of three in the world. The cars designed and engineered on-site will not only go on sale in Australia, but throughout the Asia Pacific. It is here Ford’s Ranger and Escort were conceived, along with the company’s upcoming Everest 4WD.

The in-development Ford Everest
The in-development Ford Everest

Tucked into a corner is a pre-release model of Ford’s Everest. Black tinted windows hide that Ford is still working on the interior, while the company’s employees stop journalists from trying to slip a peek at the car’s engine. “It’s only a shell”, says Ford’s communications associate, Martin Gunsberg, to a rogue journo trying to sneak a peak at the model's underside.

Questions are raised pertaining to the Everest’s bold styling and whether its sharp lines will be softened as it enters production. The company’s senior designer, Max Tran, explains technological advancements in design has helped Ford identify if changes need to be made at earlier stages.

These advancements include speciality tablets used by designers, milling machines, 3D printers and virtual reality glasses.

Sketching designs digitally is more efficient, says Tran; however, he continues to see the romance in hard-copy pencil and paper. “When I started with Ford, we sketched with pencil on paper. Now we use [specialised] tablets.

“Each designer goes on to develop their own ideas. We talk about what’s working, what’s not and what will meet customer expectations.” A product group identifies the designs that best resonate.

Styrofoam, clay, polymer and a 3D printer are required for the next stage. Tran and his team develop 3D data and experiment with their designs in three dimensions. A milling machine is used to shape inanimate Styrofoam. Skilled craftsmen then overlay it with automotive clay, which, when dried, has fine details milled. This process takes a ‘couple of days’, says Tran.

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Smaller components are 3D printed. Tran says the mirror for the Everest’s model took approximately four hours to print. The metallic finish of paint is achieved by coating the model in Di-noc, which helps the designers estimate how the shape of the concept will reflect light.

The Everest model gives designers a better understanding of its proportions, but the 4WD is large and the scaled down model doesn’t do it justice.

Developing a mechanical model this early on would prove costly in time and dollars. The company has hedged this problem by adopting immersive 3D technology, similar to that found in the gaming industry.

“The crux of the engineering cycle is in the virtual space,” says Matt Sullivan, Ford’s digital integration manager, as he breaks down the technology used in the company’s Ford immersive Virtual Environment (FiVE) lab.

The FiVE lab virtually replicates in-development cars to scale. Engineers can test every component of an upcoming car, from the buttons on the dashboard to the parts in the engine bay. Only two such labs exist in Ford’s global company, with the other based in Michigan.

 The left half showcases the detail two years ago, while the right reveals its capabilities today
The left half showcases the detail two years ago, while the right reveals its capabilities today

Motion detecting cameras are scattered across the room
Motion detecting cameras are scattered across the room

The virtual car is rendered in photo-realistic detail based on CAD data provided by the company’s designers. Colours can be easily changed and props, such as a torch and a pointer, have been programmed into the software. These aids help communicate suggested changes—not only to colleagues on-site—but to Ford employees across the Asia Pacific.

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Behind this virtual technology are motion detecting cameras, powerful computers running Autodesk software, a stereoscopic 3D headset and an 84-inch Ultra high definition television. A steering wheel is placed in the centre of the room. Sitting behind it when wearing the glasses is like sitting behind the virtual wheel of the in-development car.

“These high fidelity computer simulations increase the speed of which we can get a result back,” says Sullivan. “The idea is we can put the car in its entire paces before it arrives in a customer’s driveway.”

More than 150,000 details on 200 vehicles have been verified this year alone using the two FiVE labs, including Ford’s upcoming Everest. Sullivan claims this methodology has helped his team design the Everest to a surface accuracy of 0.005mm.

Pinned to the breadboard are an array of sensors, which, on fully working models, will rest on rear-view mirrors and in quarter panels. Their inclusion represents the advent of the autonomous vehicle. Ford is currently using them to automate parking and emergency braking. Some of these technologies have already trickled into production models; others remain in testing
Pinned to the breadboard are an array of sensors, which, on fully working models, will rest on rear-view mirrors and in quarter panels. Their inclusion represents the advent of the autonomous vehicle. Ford is currently using them to automate parking and emergency braking. Some of these technologies have already trickled into production models; others remain in testing

Stationed on the other side of the complex in a secure warehouse are engineers testing in-development electronics. Only a small section of the warehouse has been made accessible with other projects hidden by a large wall-to-wall divider. Laid out on an elaborate breadboard is a car’s electrical circuitry in its entirety, exposed and completely functional.

Here engineers can physically test the electrical nervous system of a car. Journalists in attendance were privy to a demonstration of Sync2, the company’s second generation car entertainment system.

The entertainment system now features an 8-inch touchscreen; however, Ford has partnered with Microsoft and Nuance to develop proficient voice-control. A car's climate control, satellite navigation and linked smartphone can all be controlled by everyday voice prompts.

The second generation platform now benefits from contextual understanding. It’ll understand prompts such as “find a car park” or the citation of full Australian addresses.

The platform eschews Android Auto or Apple’s CarPlay in an effort to remain platform agnostic. Apple iPhones, Android smartphones and select Windows smartphones will work with the car’s entertainment system. The console features connectivity technologies such as 2 USB ports, an SD card slot, a 3.5mm auxiliary and Bluetooth.

No official word has been given on which Australian cars will come equipped with Ford’s Sync2 system, but the company has revealed it will be featured in select models before the end of this year. We will have to wait longer still for the Everest SUV, which will continue to endure testing until its day of release in the upcoming years.

Tony Ibrahim travelled to Melbourne as a guest of Ford Australia

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