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Ford Australia meets US in virtual reality

Digital dimension: When Ford first installed its virtual reality system at its US headquarters in Dearborn, it attracted the attention of both NASA and Boeing.

Brave new world for Ford Australia with Virtual Reality Centre to help future design

Ford logo29 Aug 2012

FORD Australia this week unveiled its refurbished Design Centre at company headquarters in Melbourne, headlined by a state-of-the-art virtual reality studio that it claims will streamline its future engineering and design projects for global markets.

The Virtual Reality Centre (VRC), which combines “Hollywood animation and Silicon Valley technology”, is among a host of Australian-funded updates aimed at bringing the facility up to speed with Ford’s other global design hubs in the US (Dearborn) and Germany (Cologne).

Other changes to the centre – largely unchanged since its opening in 1969 – include a new open-plan office layout and the installation of a mammoth, circa-$200,000 ‘Powerwall’ high-resolution screen capable of projecting three-dimensional concept designs and virtual environments.

Ford Asia, Pacific and Africa design director Christopher Svensson said the Powerwall would help the Blue Oval’s local operation better communicate and present its work to the North American and European design centres, keeping the company in the global loop.

“The Powerwall will allow us to communicate in real time with our colleagues around the world – so we can exchange design ideas, show progress and comment on the work in Australia, in North America and even in Europe,” he said.

Ford claims most of the building design work – including the open-plan design and colour schemes – was done in-house and project managed by Ford staff to keep costs to a minimum.

 center imageLeft: Ford Virtual Design Centre images.

The company said the updates have given the Design Centre “world-class status” and, combined with its engineering and powertrain expertise, cement its place as “a recognised centre of excellence in the Asia Pacific and Africa region”.

As well as being responsible for local product like the Falcon and Territory, the Australian operation has previously designed and engineered the Ranger one-tonne ute for 180 global markets, as well as the Figo light car for the burgeoning Indian market.

Ford Australia would not be drawn at the unveiling this week on what future projects were in the pipeline, but confirmed it was actively contributing on various levels to global Ford projects.

Tantalisingly, the company re-iterated the ‘T6’ platform underpinning the Ranger had been designed for other uses, raising the prospect of an SUV derivative in the same mould as the Chevrolet/Holden Colorado 7 that will appear at the Australian International Motor Show in October.

However, a Ford Australia source told GoAuto that it would be “at least a year” before any firm details on such a vehicle would be revealed.

The new virtual reality studio – only the third of its kind within Ford, following Dearborn and Cologne – uses technology plucked straight out of Hollywood animations to test a prototype interior up to four years before any physical car emerges.

Testers (including, for this event, GoAuto) don a special helmet and a pair of gloves fitted with motion tracking baubles to check interior visibility and ergonomics.

Operators can show the vehicle moving, the doors opening and closing, the instruments functioning and the driver controls operating.

The virtual world also extends to outside the cabin – as a demonstration we were placed on a virtual road and instructed to watch a passing car to check rear/side visibility.

Ford says the machine would speed up production times by allowing the company to make changes on the fly courtesy of real-time image manipulation, and help reduce development costs.

When the technology was fitted at Dearborn, Ford received a call from NASA asking for a tour of the facility, resulting in ongoing collaboration.

Ford Asia, Pacific and Africa chief engineer Adam Frost said the Virtual Reality Centre would allow the company to “evaluate early vehicle design and its engineering against a backdrop of virtual conditions and literally experience a complete vehicle years before it is built and a customer drives it out of the showroom”.

“This helps us to create a car, pickup or crossover that provides the perfect environment for the driver and its occupants. From a customer’s perspective, before even out first prototype is built, this allows us to finely tune the customer experience,” he said.

Ford's virtual reality world also extends beyond the design and engineering of vehicles to the factory floor. Ford of Europe is said to be developing a complete virtual factory to simulate end-to-end assembly line production.

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