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Turning the Wheels Faster

It would be hard to underestimate the importance of wheels to vehicle design.

It would be hard to underestimate the importance of wheels to vehicle design. Gordon Platto, chief designer for Lincoln, points out that the size and diameter of the wheels have a distinct effect on the A-pillar, overhangs, wheelbase, height—the entire basic car design. They are both functional and emotional. So it is not surprising that Platto calls wheels “the single most important element in setting up a car design.” Get them right, and the car’s shape, presence, and brand identity are all the more resonant.

Since January, 2005, the designers in the Lincoln design studio in Dearborn have been working on the ways to achieve a greater number of options for wheels while taking into account the need to develop products at a more-rapid pace. Zitiji Mistry, an exterior designer at the studio, says that they’re using both digital tools (i.e., CAD systems and related tools) and digital tools that result in physical artifacts (i.e., computer-controlled rapid prototyping machines) as the means by which they are able to create a greater variety of designs for wheels so that the right choice can be made more effectively. And the key word that he uses in his discussion of this development process is “expediency.” That is, they’re getting the job done—fast.

According to Robert Gelardi, a Lincoln senior designer who created the 20-in. wheel that is used on the Lincoln MKS “teaser vehicle” (they’re not calling it a concept, nor are they saying that it is approved for production; a pretty good bet is that there will be a sedan of this nature coming from Lincoln in the not-too-distant future), the norm in the past involved such things as printing an image of a CAD design, gluing it to a round backing like the support for a large pizza, then fitting it onto an actual wheel and tire to see how it would look. Wheel designs that became closer to selection were machined in clay, then finished so as to resemble an actual metal wheel. This process took on the order of two weeks.

However, through the use of rapid prototyping tools, the Lincoln designers are able to get pretty good idea as to what it is that they’ve designed in a fraction of that time. Instead of making full-size models, they’re making models that are six inches in diameter. Overnight they can have a wheel (literally) in hand. What they typically do is produce six different miniature wheels, then attach them to a backdrop. This permits the designers (and managers) to spin the wheels to get a good sense of how the wheels appear in action. This view is supplemented by the use of UDrive software from Bunkspeed (www.bunkspeed.com; Los Angeles), which provides animation to and the ability to change colors of vehicles designed, and then to put those designs in an environment where they can be “driven” by designers and other analysts.—GSV