Ford designers create color in a virtual world

The same virtual process that enables Ford designers to create new vehicles without the use of clay is helping designers develop colors without opening a single can of paint. It’s all part of Ford’s continued advancements in virtual design, which are helping the company bring more products to market faster.

“There is no room in our competitive industry for waste,” said Peter Horbury, Ford’s executive director, Design for The Americas. “We can’t afford to do business the old way. Digital technology reduces development time from months to minutes and gives customers the relevant products they want – today.”

Ford chief designer Jeff Nowak is spearheading a team of software developers, paint suppliers and designers to develop unique solutions for mapping colors in the virtual world, pouring the traditional paint verification process down the drain.

Until now, designers couldn’t create vehicles in the virtual world with their representative paint color. Today, research is leading to a new data language capable of creating color with the same precision and real-world accuracy as digital shapes and forms.

Several pieces of highly technical equipment are used together to gather light information that is translated into digital data designers can manipulate. The result is a virtual environment where designers can create a vehicle whose color can be changed in a keystroke.

Nowak explains that typical paint verification can take months, even years. Colors are developed based on swatches or other source material – even a feather. Paint suppliers and designers trade samples back and forth and eventually move to the actual painting process. 

Dozens of body panels are painted for each color, sometimes more. Once a color is chosen, a full vehicle is painted and moved around the country for a variety of management, dealer and customer reviews.

Aside from the obvious expense and time delays, Nowak said the current process can’t comprehend all of the factors necessary to make an informed choice. But the digital process can.

Jon Hall, an expert color designer on the project, explains that picking color is a lot more complicated than it seems.

“Colors appear vastly different on vehicles with different surfaces, contours and lines,” he said. “By using the digital process, we can apply color to the actual vehicle being designed in the virtual world. This can happen months upstream in the development process when a physical property is simply not available.”

Environments with different light sources can also be created: full sun, shade, a dealer showroom or an auto show floor. Hall said paint color that looks good in one lighting condition might not look good in another.

“In the virtual world, we can play with shine, depth, flop, finish and a host of other paint characteristics,” said Hall. “This process gives us the freedom to fully explore our design creativity.”

Nowak said the digital design process also is an important communication tool – with suppliers and throughout the company.

“We use this technology to share information globally, which is important as Ford expands its global product development process,” Nowak said. “It’s a lot quicker and cheaper than shipping body panels back and forth to Melbourne and Cologne.”

Customers, though, stand to benefit most from the new technology application.

“Color is a primary product differentiator,” he said. “Automakers that offer new and exciting paint applications can generate conquest sales, even if the colors are applied on older models. Our use of digital technology will enable Ford to offer more color choice, more quickly, with more special effects – without more cost.”

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