Cutting edge software drives automotive innovation

World-renowned for its understated English styling and hand crafted design, Aston Martin has been making cars for the stars, and for a certain secret agent, since the 1960s.

Now in its centenary year, the company shows no sign of slowing down in its quest for automotive perfection. But how does the iconic brand ensure its designs remain timeless, classy and beautiful? Like many premium car manufacturers, Aston Martin views the design process as a skill that blurs the line between engineering and art. Much of the process still involves physically sculpting surfaces out of clay, but the company's 50-strong design team has also been on a mission to develop and strengthen its digital capability in recent years. "We are still very reliant on the physical process at Aston Martin – it's deep within our brand DNA – but we now augment it with a robust digital process," says Neil Lloyd-Sherlock, Digital Surface Manager at Aston Martin. "Earlier this year, we made the decision to switch to Autodesk Alias for 100% of our digital development – a move which has helped us accelerate the design process, improve efficiencies and increase creativity." Because the designers work so closely together, and often on each other's models, the decision to standardise to one tool was an easy one, says Lloyd-Sherlock. "There's always that potential loss of creativity in the process where engineers start interpreting what designers have done. Switching solely to Alias has resulted in a seamless flow of surfaces all the way from the designer's initial sketch to production. There's no room for interpretation when we release to studio engineering because we're giving the same format of data every time. We're all speaking the same language." Another benefit of the software the design team has found is the time it saves to go from 'art to part'. This is especially true when it comes to wheel design. The process of sculpting by hand used to take up to six months before a one-off wheel design was up to the standard and the geometry could be sent to the engineering department. Now, the design team only has to draw a segment of the wheel such a spoke and Alias will mimic that section all the way round the wheel. That data can then be used to produce a photo-realistic visualisation to share with others in the team and can also be sent to a 3D printer to produce a prototype. "This means that the design can quite literally go from 'art' one day to 'part' the very next," explains Lloyd-Sherlock. "We have a range of rapid prototyping machines in-house that are in use 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The digital team and designer can now get an approximate feel about surface aerodynamic performance based on quick iterations of surface much earlier in the process, prior to handing it over for more in-depth and sometimes timing consuming analysis." Similarly, the design team recently had to create a new deck lid for one of the cars when the aerodynamics changed following the installation of a new engine. This new deck lid with larger tail flip was designed in Alias and tested aerodynamically in the software before a full-scale part was rapid-prototyped and metallised. Within just two weeks of releasing the design data, it was then fitted to the car and taken to the race track to be tested. "Instead of waiting for a part to be made and tested in a wind tunnel, we want to be able to experiment virtually within the early stages of the design process so we can focus our design effort on it and mature it from that point forward," says Lloyd-Sherlock. "If we can be confident that a design will deliver a certain level of performance before we do hand it over for more in-depth analysis, then that is going to save us time, effort and obviously money in the future." Aston Martin has recently installed a large-screen, high-definition projector coupled with surround sound into a room where designers, as well as other members in the organisation, can come together and interact digitally with the designs. Autodesk's flagship real-time rendering product, Showcase Pro, has enabled the design team to showcase the latest automotive models or concept designs quickly and professionally, through photorealistic visualisations and animations, before they reach production. "We certainly have much more reliance on computer aided simulation to support the verification of prototypes for our products nowadays," Lloyd-Sherlock continues. "The challenge has always been getting the balance right between functionality, speed and aesthetics. Aston Martin is known for creating visual masterpieces, on the inside as well as the outside of its cars, but we also have to ensure parts are strong, lightweight and manufacturable. Alias helps us strike that balance." So what does the future hold for Aston Martin and the way it goes about the design process? Will new technologies such as simulation software slowly overtake more traditional methods like clay modelling altogether? "We do stick to our core values within design and our core techniques – it's a very much a physical studio – we still like to verify what we do in digital form, but look at things in 3D as well," says Lloyd-Sherlock. "What we're trying to do with new technology is augment the traditional values – adding as much as we can to make the design process more creative, more efficient. We also get more iterations within the process without affecting the overall company's ability to deliver. "OEM studios in the past have delivered products based on an almost total virtual design processes. But I think that has been only a limited success and the aesthetics have perhaps often suffered. We are very keen on the physical aspect of the design world and will always acknowledge its importance in our DNA. That's what makes a modern Aston Martin: that very strong bond between the physical and virtual world."