Hidden figures of design: modellers in the digital age
The creation of a design model is one of the most exciting stages in the development of a new car. At ŠKODA Design, an international team of over 80 people is dedicated to this process. Meet the team members responsible for modelling and digitalisation.
Headed by Martin Bogner, the Design Modelling and Digitalization (EDM) department transforms the designer’s idea into a digital or physical model as faithfully and quickly as possible. These models then represent a proposed design solution and are mainly used for further development, design presentations and the final approval of proposed designs for mass production. The EDM department is also responsible for design presentations essentially anywhere in the world, as well as developing and implementing advanced visualisation and other IT technologies and working on the digitisation of design processes. It’s a lot of diverse issues, but the big advantage is that all the activities are logically connected.
ŠKODA Storyboard will cover the different sections of this largest design department in three articles. The first will focus on digital modelling and digital technology.
Modelling and digitalisation requires teamwork involving many different professions.
“The role played by digitalisation is growing significantly today,” says Martin Bogner. “Whereas we used to work mainly with clay models, most of our work today is done in the digital environment. In most cases, this gives us greater efficiency, flexibility, speed and the associated financial savings. At the same time, digitalisation allows us to work remotely, sharing information and digital design data via modern communication methods like video conferencing and other online tools, which has had other advantages in recent times, for reasons we all know only too well.”
Today, digital work accounts for around 70–80% of the design process for a new car, with the rest involving work with physical models. “Digitalisation in this area has been proceeding intensively for twenty years, but it is only in the last few years that the capabilities of software and hardware have made a great leap forwards,” says Martin Bogner. Basically, the idea is to create a detailed and sophisticated 3D model in the digital environment that will faithfully represent the final car.
How good does the new version of the ŠKODA FABIA look in its virtual presentation?
A sketch is the starting point
This is the model prepared by ŠKODA’s digital modellers. Their starting point is a sketch by a designer, which the modellers and the designer then use to prepare a 3D model of the future car. “It’s a kind of symbiosis, where two people, two different positions, actually merge into one. The designer can produce a sketch – we might call him the brain of the process – and the modeller knows how to create the model, so he is the hand,” says János Bársony, head of the digital modelling and visualisation team.
Recent technology and the events of the last two years themselves have made this connection closer than ever. “Until recently, we basically worked with a few programmes that required a great deal of understanding. But now the software’s capabilities are much broader and easier to work with so, for example, we are trying to get designers to sketch their visions in 3D from the get-go wherever possible,” explains János Bársony.
First, the designers were introduced to a popular graphics programme called Blender, but now 3D sketching in virtual reality is also coming into its own. This next step again facilitates the creation of digital models. “With sketches, it is extremely important that the designer conveys all his intentions, thoughts and ideas well to the modeller – it is best to do this in 3D, of course,” explains János Bársony.
“Sketching in virtual reality will give the designer a better idea of the result than sketching in a 3D programme on a monitor. Projection of the geometrie to the flat screen is distort, and then there’s the complication of scale. In virtual reality, you can create on a scale of 1:1 and see everything in space right away,” says Radek Šimon, who is responsible for the introduction of these technical innovations at ŠKODA Design and is in charge of technical equipment for the entire digital team.
Members of the Design Modelling and Digitalisation department responsible for interior design
But whether the starting point is a conventional sketch created by hand on a tablet, a 3D model or a virtual reality model, the modeller then has to create a model of the car. Sketches don’t cover the details: they do not address the individual parts and components of the car, so these have to be added by the modelling team. There are several of them working on every car: typically, for example, three work on the exterior and three on the interior, gradually modifying the model and consulting with the designer, then presenting it to the management and modifying it again. “The modeller actually has to think in loops, and he has to be patient. Those individual stages are very important, because they help to refine the final design to perfection. But it is not unusual to go back several steps, especially in the first stages of the work,” János Bársony describes.
Presentation like a video game
This kind of work in loops as the model is gradually fine-tuned takes about 22 months. At a later stage the digital model serves as the basis for a clay model (more on that next time). From the clay model, the modifications are scanned back into the 3D model and fine-tuned again. “The data we generate make it easier for other ŠKODA departments to work on their parts of the upcoming car,” says János Bársony.
Presentations are another important part of working in the digital environment. What’s more, their importance has understandably grown in the last two years. In the virtual environment, the teams now present the cars not only to their superiors and for consulting with the designers: they also present the work being done on the car to the company management and the management of the entire group. In this way, the car is fine-tuned in a virtual environment across the world, for example with colleagues from India.
Members of the Design Modelling and Digitalisation department responsible for exterior design
Special software is used for visualisations, but surprisingly, the technology is also quite “democratic”. ŠKODA uses the Unreal or Unity videogame engines for this purpose. These are used to create static visuals, and realtime design presentations. “One of the reasons we use them is that their output works effectively with the various virtual reality glasses we use. They’re also fairly open platforms that we can programme almost anything we need into. And last but not least, game engines are designed to provide the best possible graphic output at the minimum CPU use,” explains Radek Šimon.
Common design presentations, especially those in 3D, can therefore be done using relatively “ordinary” computers with powerful graphics cards. For very complex and complicated models displayed by method Realtime Raytracing is using high performace computing cluster. This is the hardware, as well as the workstations and interactive sketching tablets that the designers and modellers work with, that Radek Šimon tests and provides for the design team.
The Design Modelling and Digitalisation department includes a team that works on wheel design.
One of the innovations his team has managed to put into operation in the past few months is the new presentation wall. In the design presentation room at the Česana office in Mladá Boleslav, a state-of-the-art LED walls Samsung The Wall with 8K resolution is now in operation – there are two of these six-metre high surfaces side by side. “Making them operational was not easy. We were in intensive contact with the developers in Korea and we even had to convince them that our spaces would do justice to this cutting-edge technology,” says Radek Šimon. This is yet more proof of how ŠKODA is constantly striving to be a frontrunner in the digital sphere.
The trio from the Design Modelling and Digitalisation department
Martin Bogner is the first head of the combined Design Modelling and Digitalisation team. He is in charge of the entire department that transforms designers’ visions from sketches first into digital form and then into physical models that look like real cars. “It’s an amazing collaboration with a lot of very talented and creative people,” he says of his work. “I’ve been working in design for more than a decade, and what I enjoy most is being present at the very birth of the digital and physical model that always evolves from nothing more than ideas. And after two years we see the final product being produced in their hundreds of thousands,” he smiles.
Growing up in Hungary, János Zoltán Bársony drew cars and planes in his school books from a young age. “I wanted to be a pilot or an aircraft designer. But in the socialist bloc of the time, studying aviation fields was only possible in Russia, and I was no good at Russian,” he recalls with a smile, explaining why he finally decided to study design. “I was one of the first students on the newly launched Industrial Design course at the University of Dresden,” he says. After school, he worked as a digital modeler, mainly for Volkswagen Group, and for a time as a freelancer. At the request of Oliver Stefani, he joined ŠKODA AUTO in 2018. “As an external contractor for the group I didn’t have much influence, but here my work is really visible and I have the chance to push things forward,” he says appreciatively of his work at the Czech carmaker.
Radek Šimon is something of a digital modelling guru at ŠKODA’s Mladá Boleslav headquarters. “Digital modelling started here in 1993 and I was part of a four-person team that helped launch it,” he says. As this field evolved, Radek Šimon worked with a wide range of technologies and participated in founding the first VR Studio in ŠKODA. He created teams for digital design modelling, VR and visualisations and led them until 2018. This year, however, he decided to dedicate his working hours to the technology itself, and he has been working hard to put new tech into practice at ŠKODA Design ever since. He keeps a close eye on all the trends in this field and, just as his colleagues often get to see secret models of future cars, he tries out suppliers’ technical innovations that are still top-secret.