Designing a car using clay to make a full-size model of the latest addition to a range might seem a little bit old school, but that’s the way Audi does it. And, this traditional craft isn’t just used for the exterior lines either. In fact, take a trip around the Audi Design Centre in Ingolstadt and you’ll find that interiors are done in much the same way.
There are other quirks inside this innovative workspace too, like the way the designers make mock-ups of touchscreens, satnavs and speedos using nothing more than bits of cardboard with controls scribbled on them. It all looks a bit weird when you’re so used to seeing high-end models like the A6, A7 and A8 in their pristine promo shots, but you’ve got to start somewhere, right?
However, all this clay and cardboard is also supplemented by state-of-the-art CAD and 3D visualisation technology that allows Audi to develop new models much more efficiently. Audi Design now boasts over 200 people who work on new models, starting out with an initial design phase that begins about five years before the model launches. This takes around three to four months. A 1:1-scale architecture model is milled from dense polyurethane foam and is then painted. From there an additional draft phase lets designers fine-tune their ideas and move the process to the digital design phase.
This segment of the design journey is what Audi calls its ‘C3 process’, which includes CAD, conceptual work and clay milling. The German manufacturer uses raw computing power to produce photorealistic representations on five LED walls with presentation areas of 5.5 metres up to 11 metres wide and the very high resolution shows new models accurately in every detail. Visual simulations of the design data are produced in real time using computing power equivalent to the performance of around 4,300 notebooks.
Manufacture design phase
Audi’s clay and CAD modellers subsequently transform the design formulated in the C3 process into a handcrafted model during the next stage. Mock-ups consist of a steel frame with height-adjustable suspension, wooden panels and a body made out of rigid foam. The overlying layer of industrial plasticine-like clay is around 30 to 40 millimetres thick, which is then sculpted to produce the perfect lines we’ve come to expect from the brand.
Developing the interior involves a similar level of detailed design work. With the input of exterior, lighting and GUI design teams, three 1:1-scale mock-ups are initially made from foam, with around 50 specialist departments involved in the overall process. Adhesive design strips are utilised next and these are attached to the 1:1 drawings and map the key lines. In the new Audi A7 Sportback, A8 and brand new A6 model, the design of the graphical user interface has become far more important due to the introduction of two Multi Media Interface (MMI) touch response displays located in the middle of the dashboard area.
We’re all used to having a touchscreen on our smartphone or tablet, but Audi is at the forefront of their development in cars. For its latest models this is an aspect of the design process that’s become a dominant part of the interior’s central console. What’s more, getting the menus to not only function logically, but also look just right is a painstaking process that involves creating menu levels and operating icons. These must fit both the interior styling and also be in context with the exterior design too.
The basic menu system is worked up around wireframe wallpaper that resembles a family tree. This lets Audi designers decide on the component parts of the system. Hundreds of widgets, buttons, labels and screens accurate to a single pixel must all be produced in order to create the entire menu structure. All in all, the teams design and program up to 500 individual modules. The attention to detail here is critical. Audi designers have to ensure that the interior makes the best use of the right materials, has a complimentary colour scheme and, ultimately, delivers a set of controls that are user-friendly.
There’s no better example of this than the newly unveiled Audi A6 Sedan. Inside the car there’s Audi’s infotainment extravaganza, which revolves around a 10.1-inch top screen. Underneath that, taking pride of place in the centre console is an 8.6-inch display, which has options for everyday necessities such as climate control as well as allowing text input for satellite navigation. Fancy going to Berlin? Simply scribble it on screen with your finger and the system will convert that to a location, find it on the map and send you on your way.
Designers have made the MMI touch responsive operating system capable of delivering an experience that’s very similar to using smartphone apps and allows the user to select and store specific preferences. It works for up to seven different drivers too and core vehicle functions can be placed in a specific position within the MMI screen using drag-and-drop. Owners can also enjoy the benefits of haptic and acoustic feedback when navigating the various menu options.
Audi’s new range is also getting smarter. The navigation system, for example, includes a self-learning function that works out the best way to get to and from locations on common journeys. It’s got the capacity for monitoring traffic flow to help you bypass irritations like road works and there’s an on-street parking service that’ll help you find an available space without breaking into a sweat. You even get the option of ditching a traditional key in favour of an Audi connect key, which lets you unlock, lock and start the car using an Android smartphone via NFC. Similarly, Audi is also including parking pilot and garage pilot options, which will let owners get out of their car and park in a space or their garage using a myAudi app. The innovative zFAS system works using a set of up to five radar sensors, five cameras, twelve ultrasonic sensors and a laser scanner. And, take it from us, it works a treat.
There’s another very cool part of the design process too. Nowadays, the Audi team make good use of virtual reality in a dedicated lab facility. Inside here they can place any aspect of the design in all manner of different environments. Using VR glasses and head-mounted displays, the designers can be placed in just about any kind of visual setting in order to check that everything will look and behave as expected. Audi sees the potential of this technology as a vital link in the design chain and it’s set to get even more powerful.
What’s more, experts at the Audi design centre reckon that data gloves will soon permit digital touching of virtual models using tactile feedback. On top of that, VR meetings will replace video conferences and offer entirely new opportunities for design teams involved in the development of new models. Colleagues based in a trio of Audi design facilities; Ingolstadt, Beijing and Los Angeles will be able to dial in and work on digital mock-ups without flying thousands of miles for face-to-face meetings. That’s quicker and certainly a lot cheaper, though not so good for accumulating air miles.
All images: Rob Clymo