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An Imperial Process

The process – not the vehicle – may be the most important thing to come from Chrysler’s annual concept car design competition.

It’s October 2004, and the concept car season has begun again in earnest. In the confines of Chrysler’s design center, teams are forming to create the vehicles they hope will astound auto show goers in 2006. These cars will suggest a level of production destiny–even where there isn’t one–and draw the interest of more than just show goers. Designers and engineers that dream of working on programs like these are another target of these vehicles. It is hoped that, at the 2006 Detroit show, the Challenger will draw the greatest attention, but the Imperial will have the greatest effect. That’s because this vehicle not only suggests where the Chrysler brand may go next, it shows designers everywhere the effect an individual can have on a design.

In his 9-to-5 job, Michael Nicholas is the product design manager in Chrysler’s Advanced Design Studio; a job he continued to perform as the Imperial concept moved from sketch to drivable vehicle. A graduate of Detroit’s Wayne State University Industrial Design Dept. (www.wayne.edu) and a 12-year Chrysler veteran, Nicholas designed the Imperial’s exterior and acted as design manager for the entire project. This meant overseeing and working with Nick Malachowski, a 28-year-old graduate of the Art Center College of Design (Pasadena, CA; www.artcenter.edu). Despite the fact that Malachowski has been with Chrysler for less than two years, he was given full responsibility for the design of the car’s interior. “When we began work on the interior, we started with a ‘wish list’ Trevor (Creed), created,” Malachowski says, speaking of the senior vice president Design, Chrysler Group. Aware of his unfamiliarity with the desires of those in the target market (accomplished 45 to 55 year-olds), Malachowski researched what people in this demographic wanted in a vehicle of this type. He also drew on experience passed down to him by his mother. Yes, his mother. “Mom is an architect. I grew up around this stuff. It’s second nature.”

Nicholas and Malachowski had other support as well, including a core group of engineers who provided advice and worked to produce the underlying structure for the vehicle. They worked directly with the designers throughout the process, and liaised with a small clay modeling staff. Two groups–interior and exterior–transferred this information to CATIA and from there to the fabricators at Metalcrafters (Fountain Valley, CA; www.metalcrafters.com). “At any one time, as the process moved along,” says Tom Tremont, v.p. Advanced Product Design Strategy, Chrysler Group, “there were as many as 30 people touching the vehicle. However, it’s the core group that did most of the work as the support staff moved among three or four concepts.” And the work that they did involved a tremendous amount of detail.

Each design team kept a sketch book in which they recorded the details of the design, and answered every question they thought the builders might ask. “It’s the bible for the car,” says Nicholas, “with call outs and pictures, and notes about materials and intentions.” The interior book ran over 60 pages, while the exterior tome covered nearly 40. Except for a few manual sketches and photographs, the Imperial’s bible contained mostly computer-generated sketches and renderings with written explanations for the craftsmen building the car on the other side of the country to follow. “Our support group acted as middlemen and came back with very specific questions as the vehicle was going together,” says Nicholas. “This back-and-forth went from the time we handed off the exterior design–this happened in late March after two months of surface development with the interior following a month-and-a-half later–until they began painting and putting it together.” 

Nicholas says the interior was a “leap of faith” for the team since it was created using only Alias software, and a detailed interior buck was never built. Two models were built along the way, however, including one that had the instrument panel mocked up in foam. “Before any of the CATIA finessing took place,” says Malachowski, “we milled a basic interior buck that I could sit in, and I immediately saw 10 things I didn’t like, 10 things that could be done better, and 10 things that needed a little refinement.” Those areas were addressed, and the CAD data shipped off to California. It was the first time a complete interior buck did not accompany the engineers on the trip to Metalcrafters. Though still somewhat imperfect, the process used for the Imperial is being refined and adapted to future concept builds. From there, the lessons learned will make their way into production programs. “A concept car is a microcosm of a production program,” says Tremont, “only it operates at four times the speed. And we use it as a model by which we improve our production process.” It will not be a true one-to-one carryover, however.

From a design standpoint, what comes out of the concept pressure-cooker are vehicles that are uncorrupted answers to a particular need. In large part, this is due to the lack of emphasis on real-world concerns like aerodynamics, cost, and manufacturability. However, a small team working toward a solution acceptable to all members means, as Nick Malachowski says, “that there are fewer people to mess it up.” And it is this camaraderie, along with numerous “2 a.m. inspirations,” that Chrysler hopes to bottle for use in its production programs.