The Detroit Auto Show (a.k.a. the North American International Auto Show or NAIAS) recently wrapped-up its annual event in Detroit, Michigan. While I have never attended the show in person, it’s an event I look forward to every year. Okay, I’ll admit it, I just like looking at the pictures. And that is precisely one of the main points of the show — showing off the latest styling ideas from car makers the world over. My favorite category is the concept cars, the brainstorming sessions on wheels, where designers show us what’s on their minds and stretch our understanding of what’s possible. The ideas range from the practical to outlandish. Many of the car concepts I like never move beyond the NAIAS floor, at least as complete vehicles. But there are a few that migrate from tradeshow to dealer showroom bearing at least some resemblance to their NAIAS prototype. While it takes a large resource investment to get a car from drawing board to NAIAS prototype, the real work and resource investment start when an automaker decides to turn a prototype into a production vehicle.
Henry Ford revolutionized the automotive industry with his assembly line approach to vehicle manufacturing. Time and technology have transformed Mr. Ford’s contribution into highly automated assembly lines that produce high quality cars faster than he could ever have imagined. But assembling a car is actually the end of a long and complex process, a process that starts with one simple thing: an idea.
Turning ideas into reality is what the automotive design process is all about. And while engineers in Henry Ford’s day literally used a drawing board, along with pencil and paper, to design cars, the vehicles we drive today, from the most basic to the top-of-the-line, would not be possible using the same design techniques. It’s not an exaggeration to say that software-based design tools, the modern equivalent to a drawing board + pencil + paper, make modern automobiles possible. Just as Henry Ford’s assembly line revolutionized car assembly, today’s software-based tools are revolutionizing the vehicle design process. Engineers use computer-based tools to design virtually every part and system in a production automobile. Among the many tool options engineers have, system design and simulation tools (like SystemVision) enable some of the more significant gains in design quality, performance, and reliability. With the right simulation tools and system models, engineers can do a lot more, in less time, and with fewer resources when compared with the traditional pencil and paper-based design flows.
I’m already looking forward to NAIAS 2012 to see what new transportation ideas the automotive industry puts on display. In the mean time, it will be interesting to see which of this year’s offerings actually make it through the idea-design-manufacture process and end up on the showroom floors of my local car dealers.