Concept car creation is invariably a high-cost, labor-intensive, time-critical operation with an end result that can be delicate to the touch, may lack the perceived quality essential for any auto manufacturer, and is sometimes barely able to propel itself on to a motor show turntable.
To help overcome these serious challenges, U.K. specialist design, engineering, and concept vehicle builder Envisage Group has developed new techniques to facilitate greater functionality and value for money in the build of efficient concept cars. The company’s aim is to deliver major engineering and marketing benefits to vehicle presentations at international motor shows, Main Board reviews, and for engineering programs.
For what Envisage describes as “little more” than the cost of a conventional full-size machined model, it is supplying customers with operational vehicles that allow the evaluation of a range of characteristics that would normally have to await the arrival of engineering prototypes.
A key enabler for success across a broad spectrum of model variants is to identify appropriate donor platforms on which to create the concepts, according to Envisage’s Quality Manager, Paul Cerisola: “If a customer wants a new derivative using an existing in-house platform, the starting point is obvious. But often the platform is not ready, so the concept vehicle, market research, and functional studies have to wait. We believe the solution is a combination of new single-piece manufacturing techniques and an open-minded approach to the hidden use of key systems from other vehicles, maybe even other manufacturers.”
Because timing is often crucial for concept car build, particularly to enable it to meet motor show deadlines, Envisage first used its technique for a client who wanted a full-size concept model within such a demanding timescale that a conventional approach would have missed the required deadline. Said Cerisola: “Our platform specialists identified a suitable donor architecture on which to build the car and the customer was so impressed with the result they began to question their traditional approach to concept vehicles and styling models. At that point, we realized the wider potential for supplying functional concept cars.”
The conventional approach to concept car build begins with solid models with surfaces machined from CAD data using multi-axis machines. The end result is typically used in marketing clinics to evaluate customer reaction prior to large-scale engineering investment. However, Cerisola regards this approach as having significant shortcomings: “Solid models have no windows, just blacked-out panels; you can’t sit in them, look down the hood, evaluate the driving position or ease of entry, test customer reaction to closure options, interior packaging, etc. That all has to wait for another stage, by which time any design modification that may be necessary can be very expensive and will introduce delays.”
Functional cars also bring engineering benefits. Envisage claims that it is able to identify a range of potential practical and manufacturing issues much earlier in the vehicle program than is usual. Cerisola explained: “Complex styled surfaces often introduce challenges for door sealing and shut lines, requiring careful hinge design and adjustment. Creating a functional concept car prioritizes the discipline of ‘design for manufacture’ at a much earlier stage, helping to avoid unforeseen issues downstream.”
State-of-the-art digital technology and traditional craftsmanship are allied by Envisage to create its functional concept cars. Surface geometry is defined by CAD data that is used to produce soft tooling for all the exterior panels. If any re-shaping is subsequently required, specialists produce the new forms manually. Once approved, the surfaces are captured through digital scanning and fed back into the CAD database.
Andy Hunter, Envisage’s Production Manager, takes up the story: “This gives the best of both worlds. We have the accuracy and convenience of sharing that comes from digital data, but when changes are requested, which is inevitable during the finessing of a concept, we use coach-building techniques to provide a faster response and more cost-effective service. New digital scanning techniques then allow physical contours to be captured very precisely.”
Design and engineering expertise are both essential for successful and highly convincing concept vehicles, complemented by modeling capability and extensive one-off manufacturing facilities. Techniques such as 3D printing and direct metal laser sintering are fully embraced by Envisage.
Cost control is always vital for concept car creation. Said Hunter: “The ability to go from the CAD model direct to a solid object, in a range of materials, has transformed the cost of delivering a production-like look and feel. We can create an interior switch in 45 minutes before machining and polishing.”
The company’s application of such techniques also allows the integration of features that in volume production may be provided using lower-cost techniques. Examples are illuminated instrument graphics and mood lighting.
Hunter stresses that as more complex BIW (body-in-white) material combinations are introduced in the auto industry, the Envisage approach to concept cars also helps provide early warning of any feasibility concerns.
“We can address the feasibility of bonding between aluminum and composite components, the location of rivets and joint lines, and other manufacturability issues before the concept is approved. This pays massive dividends downstream, helping to avoid costly re-engineering. Even in a digital world, there are huge benefits to being able to gather colleagues around a physical system when a fast, agreed solution is required.”
Cross-linking disciplines for rapid decision making and problem solving is central to efficient concept car creation, as is commercial secrecy. Envisage believes it meets these criteria by operating as a single company in a single location.
Hunter states that co-location (Envisage operates from the British Midlands) brings benefits including improved communication and faster decision making with “very high” levels of security. “It also engenders a far stronger team spirit than could be achieved using separate contributors, and that makes a real difference when trade-offs are required or deadlines are tight,” he added.
The company works closely with a range of OEMs, including Aston Martin, Bentley, Jaguar Land Rover, and Rolls-Royce.
Envisage is already broadening the benefits of its philosophy. “We have just started using the technique with one European manufacturer of prestige cars that has fully embraced social media and digital marketing to pre-sell vehicles before production starts,” said Hunter. “It’s very impressive, but generating the images, video content, and other materials that they need has proved costly, requiring either compromise, or substantial CGI, or bespoke running vehicles—and often all three.
“They see significant savings, and significant opportunities, through the shared use of fully functioning concept vehicles.”