An Afternoon with Ford

Tuesday I was in Dearborn, Michigan, with about 200 other journalists attending an event held in and marking the reopening of the renovated historic Ford Dearborn Glass Plant. Before I get into the particulars of our day, I want to mention that the Dearborn Glass Plant was designed by Albert Kahn and built in 1922. It has a “front wall and ceiling made of glass” which allowed the plant to “let air and light in and excess heat out, providing a more comfortable work environment for employees.” This building was closed in 1998, and after its recent extensive renovations, it was re-birthed December 11th as a New-Model Quality Center, where it will help provide “training on key assembly processes for a third of Dearborn Truck’s 3,200 employees.

photo courtesy of Ford Media

The Dearborn plant is the home of the 2009 F-150, and we were there to take an off-the-record and hands-on advance look at that very model. The 2009 F-150 is completely new and redesigned inside and out, and you will be able to see all of its incarnations at the 2008 North American International Auto Show in January. Although I can’t say much about it (other than to say that as a long-time F series truck owner, I like it!), the rest of my day was spent exploring a topic which I think Gear Diary readers will enjoy.

After our morning filled with NDA subjects, our afternoon was decidedly more trip-report friendly. Before attending, we were offered the chance to peek behind the scenes at the Ford Rouge Plant through participation one of 11 tailored experiences. Our choices included the following:


1. The Art of Sound: Chimes. A door closing. The roar of an engine. These are the sounds that help create unique personalities for Ford vehicles. As you step into Ford’s sound laboratory, you will learn about the science behind delivering sounds that are unique to Ford vehicles – and why what you hear is all by design.

2. Virtually Working on the Line: Building a vehicle takes on a new meaning as you step into a virtual assembly line in Ford’s Motion Capture Lab. You will have the opportunity to “suit up” and become an employee on the line “building” a 2008 Ford Focus. As you are put through the paces, you will help ergonomic engineers resolve issues and identify jobs that are less physically stressful and deliver higher-quality vehicles.

3. Tough Testing: When it comes to delivering high-quality vehicles, Ford engineers are putting cars and trucks to the test. From nuts and bolts to wheels, tires and seats, you will be able to get a close-up look of the wide range of punishing and unconventional tests used to prove durability and capability. All of this is designed to reduce development time and deliver more products people want – even faster.

4. Connected in Your Car: As consumers move from home to car, they want to stay connected. Meet the Ford team that’s helping answer the call – the electronic and electrical systems engineers who are taking in-car connectivity to the next level. Using the best technology solutions, Ford is connecting consumers with their devices (SYNC), with the information they need (Travel Link) and bringing the experience to life with branded audio (THX, Dolby, Sony and Gracenote) and the latest in navigation technology.


5. Driving Undistracted: In April 2006, NHTSA and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute released a study that showed nearly 80 percent of vehicle crashes involved some sort of driver inattention. We’ve all seen it on the road: distractions include everything from drowsiness or eating while behind the wheel to using mobile phones or reading maps. It all comes down to “workload management.” This is your chance to understand how Ford is studying the science behind driver distraction and determining the best ways to manage it.

6. Serving Up Safety: Ford’s new Servo-Hydraulic Reverse Crash Simulator enables Ford engineers to conduct the most comprehensive occupant protection crash simulation tests in the world. Spend time with Ford’s safety experts to learn how they are using a state-of-the art sled for testing and see firsthand how Ford is working to raise the bar on vehicle safety and bringing even safer products to customers – faster than ever.

7. Safety First on Race Day: Ford is committed to safety, including in its racing program. Ford Racing and Ford’s Automotive Safety Office is collecting and analyzing data in NHRA to improve the safety for all drivers. Spend time with Ford’s Racing team to understand how they are collectively working to make vehicles safer for the 2008 season. Ford racing has also expanded to support the Mustang Challenge in 2008, and you will be able to get behind the wheel of the FR500S at the Dearborn Development Center.


8. Edible Interiors: From soy foam to recycled and biodegradable materials, Ford scientists are leading the way in delivering alternative solutions to materials used in vehicles. Visit Ford’s materials lab and meet with the team that is transforming materials like soybeans, hemp, switch grass and flax into vehicle components.

9. Plugging into the Future: Ford’s sustainability plan calls for the aggressive development of breakthrough technologies such as plug-in hybrids. As Ford delivers its first Ford Escape Hybrid Plug-in to Southern California Edison, you will have the opportunity to learn more about the technology behind plug-ins and hear the latest update on the partnership that is designed to advance plug-in technology as well as an energy vision that connects transporation to the energy grid.

10. Weight Shavings: In addition to aggressive plans to downsize Ford’s engine lineup and introduce a family of new gasoline turbo direct injection engines, weight reduction will remain a critical element of delivering more fuel-efficient vehicles. You’ll meet Ford’s vehicle weight reduction team and learn what they are doing to slim down vehicles without compromising safety, quality, interior room or performance.


11. Speed of Design: From ideation to creation, Ford Design is utilizing the latest digital technologies to deliver more products people want – faster then ever. Join members of the Ford Design team to experience some of most advanced digital tools in the industry, including the new 60-foot state-of-the-art high-definition digital powerwall. You’ll even have a chance to virtually test-drive some of Ford’s newest products.

Quite a few of these looked really tempting to me, but since Kerry had already extensively covered SYNC technology, and since I wasn’t sure how many others might be interested in “edible interiors” (my second choice), I thought I would satisfy my own curiosity and take a look at the “60-foot state-of-the-art high-definition digital powerwall.”

About 15 other journalists and myself were transported from The Glass House to the Ford Product Development Center; housed inside what looked like a normal business building from the street, was a massive and complex automobile design hub. We walked down hallways wide enough to drive though…


…past many doors which strictly forbid video, cameras, or mobile phones with cameras, to reach our goal – the Electronic Design Presentation Room which houses Ford’s massive 60? powerwall. Here we were introduced to Peter Horbury, Ford’s Executive Director of Design for the Americas.


So here’s the deal: In the past, when a new model or updates to an older one were being considered, clay models had to be built. Now, I’m not talking about 1:100 scale models, but actual full size clay models of the exact design, built to scale. These clay models are expensive, and they are fragile, and it literally can take weeks to change one little thing on them when something needs to be adjusted or retried.


Another down-side to the models is that they were an exterior solution which did not allow full feedback for the necessary interior functions and design elements, so a lot of measurements had to be made, and calculations could sometimes be off. The answer to this dilemma was to create a massive powerwall that would allow designers to create and fix models in real time, in real life size. Using smaller walls (20? vs. 60?) would also allow the showing of created designs to test marketers around the world, without the expense and danger of hauling around the fragile clay models.


The room we were in had three 20? modules end on end. These three modules were each composed of four 60? high definition rear projection screens, which worked together to create life-size 360 degree views of Ford’s (and their competitors’) vehicles. Together, the screens create a virtual indoor showroom.


These pictures are similar to the pre-show given when you see an IMAX movie…where they talk about what’s behind the screen. In this case, 12 60? high definition rear-projection panels.



This 60? wall has 12,288 horizontal pixels. Say it with me now…damn!


This was the part where things really got interesting, though. You always hear how Mac / Apple is the tool of choice for graphics’ designers? Not here. The programs used are AutoStudio, Udrive, and Hypershot, and they are running on an amazing setup. Let’s see if I can recount this correctly: The powerwall is pushed by top of the line 64 bit Dell 7400 workstations running three NVIDIA Quadraplex 4s. Each channel of the powerwall (there are three) has its own Quadriplex, running Dual SLI SX50 cards with 30GB RAM.

Sheesh. Suddenly my 2GB RAM seems entirely too puny. ;-)

Every automobile designed in house starts with a blank page and some squiggles…


…with this software, Ford’s designers can create the “network of curves” which eventually will become a new car creation.


Using this software, they can plot in minutes everything that would have taken then weeks to months to create in a clay model.


I was told that a basic graphic takes a couple of weeks to build from the ground up – but once it is done, changing things on it takes a matter of moments.


Everything is done in real-time, nearly instantaneously.








This is the coolest part though: because the software knows exactly where the engine block and the suspension are, it is virtually impossible to create a top layer that won’t work properly with what’s underneath.


Anything the designer wants can be digitally rendered…


…but if he or she goes too far, as seen in this photo, there is immediate feedback that the design will not work. As you can see here, the engine block is now poking out of the hood, oops!


Here we are back to the GT look. ;-)


And once again to something that won’t work for obvious reasons.


So in just a few moments, and in real time, the designer can try any number of effects that would have taken weeks to try with a clay model.




The graphics in these programs allows the designers to create vehicles to exact specifications…but wait, there’s more.


With this program they can immediately change exterior paint…




Everything from the wire cage making up the model ( I believe that they called it “tessellation”)…


…to the skin covering the vehicle can be plotted in these programs.

But take a look at this…it is no photograph, it is the amazing work and dense pixelization only available through the high-definition powerwall.


Unique worlds can be added, and the graphics are so real, it is as if they are photos of an actual vehicle.





Here is a video I shot of the powerwall in action…

And these guy are some of the artistic designers who make it happen.


But what good are fancy graphics and crazy computer power if there is no end result…right? It was time for us to step out of the studio and go see what happens when Ford is ready to take a closer look at a design that has been created.

Need a new computer? :lol:

Our next stop was down the hall and around the corner, in a massive room made specifically to house this LinX machine. The machine can render up to a life size model of anything that is created on the designer’s computer.


A not-to-scale model was being meticulously cut from a block of foam while we watched. Several times we were told that this machine can recreate even the finest detail; it is very precise and can get the design down to the exact rendering.



Obviously clay models are still being created, but instead of creating four to 16 for every accepted design, they might only need to create…one. That is truly efficient.


These are all bits which are used to render the models created by the LinX Machine.



The roof had to be raised 5? when this machine was brought in…


And the floor was reinforced massively, too.


Here is a video of the LinX Machine in action…

So what does a machine like this cost? I asked and was told 1.3 to 1.6…I am guessing that means MILLION. :razz:


I have to admit that I had never given much thought into how automobile designs were taken from concept drawing, to model, to actual end product. This afternoon spent with Ford gave me a new appreciation for technology and software!

I should mention that the design guys said they are always looking for “great designers who can create digitally.” Looks like a great reason to take those computer graphics classes in high school and college. Although I am sure that there are out-of-work clay model makers who curse this efficient new system daily. ;-)

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About the Author

Judie Lipsett Stanford
Judie is the co-owner and Editor-in-Chief of Gear Diary, which she founded in September 2006. She started in 1999 writing software reviews at the now-defunct; from mid-2000 through 2006, she wrote hardware reviews for and co-edited at The Gadgeteer. A recipient of the Sigma Kappa Colby Award for Technology, Judie is best known for her device-agnostic approach, deep-dive reviews, and enjoyment of exploring the latest tech, gadgets, and gear.