When it comes to digital design, particularly at the front end of the process, the area of ideation, of sketching, of even napkins where there are coffee stains on the styled surfaces, there is one name that is commonly heard: Alias. Autodesk Alias Design software has long been something of a standard among studios, and when it is the case that something is "long been," you begin to wonder whether it continues to have the relevance that it once did. So we asked Ed Martin, senior manager of Automotive & Transportation, Autodesk, about how the digital paint and sketching tools that are part and parcel of the Alias offerings are doing, whether they're still getting traction in the automotive design community. Note that there are three products within the Alias product line, one of which specifically calls out an industry: Autodesk Alias Design; Autodesk Alias Surface; Autodesk Alias Automotive. While all three products are germane to automotive stylists and designers, it is the last-named that is focused on going from the initial sketches to Class A surfacing (although it is worth noting that the Alias Surface software has a particular focus on providing the means for achieving production surfaces for a variety of products, including the Class A required by auto).
Martin cites four major trends occurring in the automotive design community that help maintain or sustain the relevance of tools like those of Alias:
1. Collaboration. As companies begin to use design resources around the world, there is a need to be able to share designs for development and review. Martin cites, for example, the design development of the 2010 Buick LaCrosse, which had exterior work done in the U.S. and interior work done in China. Digital collaboration facilitates the timely execution of tasks.
2. Visualization. "We've seen a number of customers starting to move toward digital decision making," Martin says. He explains that whereas the standard has long been to make a decision predicated on a clay model, this is changing because not only is the digital model displayed in exceedingly high fidelity, but if the car or truck being assessed is red, and a particular exec wants to see what it looks like in blue, the computer model is readily changed. As for that clay model . . .
3. Interior attention. "In the past, interiors were cost managed or driven by a number of constraints," Martin says, explaining that now, vehicle manufacturers are realizing that given the fact that people spend more time in their cars and trucks than they do standing outside looking at them, interior design and functionality are increasingly important. So more digital work is being done in this area.
4. Rendering the real. In some ways, this is a culmination of the foregoing. That is, people are becoming increasingly focused on the details: How does the paint really look under various lighting conditions? "We've put a lot of work into shader model development, making it more accurate, more complete, and easier to use," Martin says.
5. Important bonus point. Although Martin doesn't innumerate it in his list, this fifth item could arguably be the most important one of all: "I think there has been a recognition of the productivity improvement of working digitally. This has occurred at the management level, where there is more of a focus on performing the process better." Which results in the importance of digital modeling.
Some people might make the point that this is all rather moot. After all, there are rather large companies that provide a full digital suite of styling, design, engineering, simulation, manufacturing, etc. tools, the veritable soup-to-nuts. And while Autodesk itself has an impressive range, there are at least two software vendors that have the lion's share of the CAD/CAE/CAM seats in the automotive space. So, we ask Martin, isn't it likely that rather than Alias, stylists and designers might simply use something from one of those other companies?
"Alias tools," he responds, "are designed around the needs and the workflow of industrial designers. Industrial design is a specific discipline. The way an industrial designer thinks—going from a germ of an idea to a complete model—is different than how an engineer thinks, and our tool reflects that." And he goes on to say that the other tools tend to be designed around the way engineers think. Which is different. So does this lead to a gulf between the two, between the stylish design and the workable surface? No. For one thing, he points out that there is the capability of performing technical surfacing work with Alias—modeling and control of all curvatures, transitions, and gaps—such that there is a ready handoff to the hard-core engineering.
You’ve Got the Phone, So . . .
Let’s face it: Just as designers are typically (and not entirely unfairly) characterized as having a penchant for dark, monochromatic clothing and eyewear designed by HR Giger, their mobile of choice is the iPhone. And now Autodesk has an app for that.
It’s called SketchBook Mobile, and works on the iPhone and the iPod Touch. It is based on the same engine as the company’s SketchBook Pro painting and drawing package, so it is software that can be used for sketching by professionals (as well as by amateurs). Images created with the mobile package can be ported over to SketchBook Pro for additional work. SketchBook Pro, which runs on Windows machines and Macs, has an M.S.R.P. of $100 and is available from resellers or the online Autodesk store (store.autodesk.com).
SketchBook Mobile? $2.99 at the App store at Apple (apple.com).