Ford has adopted hologram technology to speed the design review process and dramatically enhance collaboration between design, engineering, and product development teams, and at an earlier stage.
IHS markit perspective
- Significance: Ford is expanding its work with Microsoft HoloLens as a tool for speeding design reviews the automaker has been working on with the hologram technology developer in its Dearborn headquarters design studio for a year and is expanding to use globally in design studios.
- Implications: The new technology is impressive and continues Ford's use of virtual reality in the development process; Ford has been an advocate of leveraging and expanding virtual reality technology in product development since 2002.
- Outlook: Ford expects this new technology to save substantial time in the design development process, although at this point it is not willing to quantify those savings. The tool has the potential to aid collaboration across offices and Ford's ability to develop the system to best suit its needs provides options for adaptability and expanded use in the future. In terms of being able to review more information about a design more quickly, the process has the potential to cascade improvements throughout the vehicle development and commercialisation process.
Ford has announced that it is working with Microsoft's HoloLens, a new technology that allows mixed-reality communications. Initially, Ford is using the technology for design reviews, although it is exploring other options. Ford says that its designers have been using the technology for a year in the design studio at its headquarters in Dearborn, United States, and is expanding its use to incorporate its other design studios. Recently, Ford demonstrated the system to media and analysts, including IHS Markit.
Microsoft HoloLens technology uses a wireless headset system that essentially has a Windows 10 computer in it; the technology enables visualisation of design proposals to be displayed on a real vehicle. Using HoloLens, designers can demonstrate proposed virtual design elements on the vehicle, and share that information with other vehicle development teams, speeding decision-making. Ford's statement says that the designers have "been able to explore different shapes, sizes and textures of future vehicle attributes in minutes and hours instead of the weeks and months it can take to create clay models".
HoloLens uses what Microsoft calls "mixed reality". It enables designers to see holograms in photo-quality backdrops through the headsets. The system allows designers to scroll and preview numerous design variations and have those projected virtually on an actual car or a clay model. Microsoft HoloLens technology scans and maps the physical environment the wearer is in, and renders holograms and images from the angle at which the vehicle is being viewed. Ford design manager Michael Smith was quoted as saying, "With HoloLens, we can instantly flip through virtual representations to decide which direction they should go. As a designer, you want to show, not just tell. This is much more compelling."
Just as important, the HoloLens technology enables collaboration with engineers and programme managers, including on the customer experience. Ford's Dearborn demonstration displayed the system enabling design to show a new side-view mirror shape, but the system also showed what the customer would see from that view. Using the technology, the designers are able to make adjustments to the shape and size of the mirror in the system that show the impact of the change to the car's design and the user experience at the same time. The engineering teams can provide immediate feedback on, for example, if the viewing area that the mirror shape would provide meets both Ford and regulatory standards for consumer visibility ‒ this is something a clay model cannot display, and in clay making the shape change to see different mirror options would take significantly longer. Ford also demonstrated how the system could be used to study several grille designs very quickly.
Collaboration using the system works in several ways. Not only does everyone see the same projections when the headsets are synced, team members are also able to walk around the vehicle and see the change from different angles and are able to leave audio notes for other team members working in different time zones or off-site. Ford demonstrated category information associated with the design review process, enabling participants to essentially bring notes into the presentation. As the system is expanded Ford's offices globally, headsets synced to the system will display the same holographic images in overseas offices. Designers, engineers, and managers do not have to be in the same location in order to participate in the design review. In the Dearborn demonstration, there were hologram categories for design, engineering and program management. As the various grille options were displayed, all synced headsets could see associated notes and information relative to each design entered by each group. The design tab included notes from that team regarding the proposal and engineering and manager tabs including any potential issues or simply programme information that would make the review more productive. While initially this tool is being used for speeding the design process, Ford is evaluating uses for engineering as well. Elizabeth Baron, Ford virtual reality and advanced visualisation technical specialist, said, "Mixing virtual and physical models is exciting, because it helps our designers and engineers communicate effectively and ideate to see what the future looks like earlier in the process. This allows great freedom and efficiency in how prototypes are created or changed."
Moray Callum, Ford vice-president of design, is quoted in the company's statement as saying, "It's amazing that we can combine the old and new – clay models and holograms – in a way that both saves time and allows designers to experiment and iterate quickly, and dream up even more stylish and clever vehicles for our customers. HoloLens is a powerful tool for designers as we continue to re-imagine vehicles and mobility experiences in fast-changing times."
Outlook and implications
Ford expects this new technology to save substantial time in the design development process, although at this point it is not willing to quantify those time savings. The potential for the tool to ease collaboration across offices is clear and the ability for Ford to develop the system to best suit its needs provides options for adaptability and expanded use in the future. In terms of being able to review more information about a design more quickly, the process has the potential to cascade improvements throughout the vehicle development and commercialisation process.
Working with Microsoft, Ford has developed its own "apps" and capability for the system, showcasing the ability to customise it for company needs. The HoloLens project is an evolution of Ford's use of virtual reality tools throughout the design and engineering process; the company has invested heavily in virtual technology for more than 15 years. As the automotive industry strives to develop vehicles more quickly, Ford's investment in HoloLens has the potential to enable Ford to explore more design solutions more rapidly. Microsoft's HoloLens system is not exclusive to Ford, although the automaker has adopted it first. While Microsoft has not indicated that any other automakers are specifically interested in the system, in theory other automakers would have the opportunity to work with the technology company to develop a HoloLens programme tailored to their design review processes.
However, Ford designers demonstrating the system repeatedly said that the tool will not eliminate the use of traditional sketches and clay models in the automaker's design process. It will make iterative changes in design development faster and easier at many points of the process, but it will not fully replace the information a clay model can provide.
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