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Car design specialties

A Look at Six Car Design Specialties, Part 3: The Digital Modeler

By Rain Noe From Core77

James Robbins transforms data into design

Two well-known specialties in exterior car design are sketching and clay modeling. These two skills are so longstanding in human history that you could pull Leonardo da Vinci out of a time machine, drop him into a car studio and he could do the work. But he’d have been baffled by what James Robbins does.

The Digital Modeler is the newest specialty in exterior car design, and in the past few decades it’s become a crucial third leg that holds the tripod steady. The digital modeler not only helps shape both the early and final design of a car, but is responsible for coordinating with a dizzying array of departments, from design to engineering to marketing, to ensure that what comes out of the factory is exactly what the design team intended.

Digital modelers provide a level of speed, precision and support that any stylist or clay modeler from the Harley Earl days would have killed to have access to. Here in Part 3 of this series, we chat with Acura Senior Designer James Robbins, who describes his work with the Digital Modeling and Visualization Group. If you think of your average Autodesk user as a CAD jockey, Robbins is more like the guy who oversees the entire raceway.

Core77: Can you describe your position?

James Robbins: I’m a senior designer with the Digital Modeling and Visualization group here at Acura. Over the last seven years I’ve been very fortunate to work on cars like the NSX, both the 2012 concept car and the 2016 production car. I worked on headlight details and a lot of the surfacing for the Precision Concept. I was data project lead for the early design data of the 2019 RDX, and also worked on the RDX’s production data.

What led you to become a car designer?

I grew up in New York on Long Island, in a really old house. My dad was always working on it, fixing things, tinkering with things. He was very fortunate to have my twin brother and myself his helping hands. He taught us about woodworking, how to replace doors and windows, install bath tubs, all that fun stuff. I think that developed my desire to tinker and make things. It also gave me an insight into how things work from a mechanical standpoint. That’s a very much-needed skill, especially when designing something that’s going to be made, something as physical as a car.

I got my car education from my grandfather; when I was growing up we’d go visit him in Scotland a couple times a year. He was into car racing, doing autocross in abandoned airfields and taking spirited trips around the Scottish countryside. As a 14-year-old that was extremely inspirational for me. He taught me how to drive manual on a right-hand drive car. When I was 16, I had to relearn it on the other side here, which is fun. That nurtured my joy for the automobile, and when I was 17 I started to autocross my CRX.

I think that everything combined helped guide my passions for design creation. And personally I’m interested in sketching, 3D modeling, 3D printing, VR technology. I’m very lucky that a lot of the hobbies I have overlap with my job. So it’s very easy to come to work and do those things that I enjoy, and I’m always inspired by the designers around me and the creativity that they bring to their work. It helps us create these amazing designs.

Where did you go to school?

I went to the University of Cincinnati, where I studied industrial design with a focus on transportation design. There I excelled at 3D modeling and understanding forms and volumes. More importantly I learned, through class projects and internships, about design aesthetics and not only how to do 2D sketches, but how to translate them into tangible 3D models, whether clay or digital.

Robbins has owned multiple CRX’s. Here he’s modeled one just for fun.

Were your internships all automotive-based?

No, I was fortunate enough to have internships in packaging design, consumer electronics, soft goods and I worked on some body armor for a bit. It was a very broad spectrum of the industrial design field. I’m able to pull from a lot of those experiences and apply them to the work we do here at Acura.

What does your job here entail? From talking to [clay modeler] Matt Mantz we know that you and Matt go back-and-forth with stuff, but I’m not clear on exactly where the hand-offs occur.

[There are roughly] two different types of digital modeling we do. The first one is for early concept creation. This process typically happens alongside the clay modeling process while we’re in development.

One of the first models we made for the RDX was capturing [Randall Smock’s] sketch. Then we used the file to play with the proportions and the volumes here and there. Then that was given to Matt and he was able to use it as an underlayer base*.

[*Editor’s Note: Robbins means that his digital file was sent to a milling machine, which carves a rough shape into a clay buck at 1/4 scale. Clay modeler Matt Mantz then begins shaping the form in clay. To understand more about this process, read Part 2.]

What kinds of software do you guys use?

We use a few different software packages here, but for the first part we use a polygon modeling/subdivision modeling software. It’s mainly used in the video game industry and special effects for the movie industry. But I’ve been able to incorporate some of its workflows into our design process because it’s very flexible in its approach to surface creation and modification. That’s just one example of the software used; we have many that we use in the studio. We’re very software agnostic, so whatever gets the job done.

Can you talk about when it’s beneficial to do something digitally versus doing it in clay?

Whether we do something in clay or digitally–or both together at the same time–depends on everything from manpower to time to the scope of the project.

[With digital] it’s very easy to make big proportional changes. I can grab a bunch of surfaces at once, and start manipulating them to, say, change the “speed” of the roof; I can change a tension point so that it’s a little slower, a little higher, more aggressive, further back, whatever. Or we can change the wheelbase–even a 20 to 30 millimeter change to the wheelbase can really change the packaging of the car.

The software keeps the surfaces all combined and connected, so you don’t have to worry about high-end surface continuity, tangency breaks and all that mathematical stuff–it’s not important at this early stage in the process. It just lets us quickly test out all those things.

All of the mesh details and smaller things that require many iterations, we don’t have the clay modelers do that. We can very easily do it using our modeling tools. We can make one spoke of a wheel and duplicate that 5, 7, 10 times, whatever wheel style you want, and we can do that really easily.

And obviously with digital, I have the ability to undo or [quickly return to an older version of the design]. That’s great. This allows us to create more on the process so we can choose the best design.

Can you give us a concrete example of a time when working digitally made the difference?

One particular story I remember: Early on, they were considering a variation on the front end of the RDX. The variation required moving the front end about 30 or 40 millimeters. We were easily able to do that just by grabbing this data and moving it. A change like that really does affect the relationship of the hood to the windshield and the front volume of the vehicle, and even the cross-car feel. In this case we ultimately decided not to do it, and being able to look at that early on, and decide if [it’s viable or not] is extremely beneficial.

And obviously, the benefit is being able to share this data with our clay team. We can implement the digital changes directly in the clay with the milling machine. So our clay modelers don’t have to waste the time doing that by hand. Then they can spend the time really refining the highlights and the surfaces to move upstream in the process. They don’t have to make the changes over and over again.

You’d mentioned there’s at least two types of modeling. What’s the second?

The next type is what I consider mock-up level or hard model quality data. We have an engineering team that does further refinements down the line, but our team does the design modeling. This is typically used to create internal mock-ups that are reviewed in the courtyard or even the concept cars. It’s typically created a little later in the design modeling process, as the clay models refine. So we’ll actually work with Matt and we’ll get the scan data that he has, which is created by scanning his physical clay model. So then you can compare the two and make sure that the surface that you’re creating captures the design that was refined in clay.

As one example, late in the process on the RDX, we needed to move that line on the hood quite a bit for some additional pedestrian safety and engineering requirements. So that was done in data and then verified on the clay later on.

Another thing we’ll do is evaluate the surfaces by covering the digital model with what we call zebra stripes. This is when you’re coming in and checking the continuity of the surfaces. The stripes help you see if there’s a break in the surface, or really track how the highlights are going to flow across the body. This is also done in the clay modeling process, and all the way though the final stamped sheet metal, where they’ll put a big panel with bar lights to replicate the check on the body side.

We also have other kinds of chrome metallic shaders that we can put on the digital model, that really shows the horizon line and how that’s going to flow across the surface. You can use the shaders to look across the hood, making sure you’ve got nice, clean geometry that creates those nice highlights.

And this is always a back and forth process. We’ll have our data checks weekly, as we decide to change and fine-tune things.

I’m assuming you guys go back and forth with the Spocks, the engineers, too?

Yeah so, for aerodynamics, we work a lot with our computational fluid dynamics team. Sometimes design changes are introduced that will affect the aero, and we’re able to look at multiple iterations of the changes and see which one still looks good but meets the numbers. We work with our engineering team in Ohio to do that, it’s a very collaborative experience.

Your group is called the Digital Modeling and Visualization group. What’s the Visualization part?

So, we also use this software to break up the model into its components. We’ll have the hood here, the fender, all the glass, tires, the mesh details all separated. As we get into the final part of our evaluation stage, which is the visualization, we can input that data that is broken up accordingly into its color chart, which we work with our CMF team to do.

The room that we’re sitting in [the Digital Design Room] is where Dave [Marek] and all of our executives evaluate the model. We’ll spin the model around on our turntable [virtually, on the wall-sized screen]. That way people can get a good sense of the vehicle with its actual color and material breakup. We can change colors on the fly, change the color of the cladding et cetera, and they can make sure the graphics look correct. They can go through all the different trim and color options to verify everything.

We can also change the environment that the car is in, for instance a studio background or a sunny tree-laden environment. We’ll do completely different atmospheres for the vehicle. That way they can verify how the car would look in studio lighting, or parked on the side of the road under trees for a magazine shoot or something. We can do the pre-visualizations here before that gets all the way through to production.

It’s interesting how many different facets of the process your group plugs into.

Yeah, I think that the biggest takeaway for the digital modeling side is we support the design team, the clay modeling team, and color and material (CMF). The clay modeling and digital modeling has a lot of overlap as far as surface creation and volume creation throughout the design process, but each has their strengths and weaknesses. So we try to leverage that throughout the whole process to make sure that we’re using the right one when beneficial, so that we don’t waste time. We want to create more designs faster, so we can choose the best design to represent our Precision Crafted Performance mission.

Although you’re a “3D guy,” do you still do any 2D sketching?

Oh yeah, we’ll sketch as well. We can sketch with the other designers to explain how some things are not gonna work, or will work.

You mentioned that in school you covered the full gamut of ID skills, from 2D to 3D. What drew you to the digital modeling aspect of the design process? As opposed to being the clay guy or the sketching guy.

In design school I would draw all the time, but I was always more fascinated with the 3D side of it. I feel the 3D side, whether clay or digital, is where a lot of the design is done; I’m sure Matt mentioned it in his presentation. Because with the sculpting, creating those forms and translating that sketch is what makes the design, the design.

There are times when you can draw a great sketch and it looks cool, but the highlights aren’t going to do [what they do in the 2D drawing]; that surface isn’t possible or that corner won’t work. So a lot of that has to be developed in 3D, whether it’s clay or digital. They both complement each other. And my mind works in 3D, I see things in 3D when I’m drawing them. So I think that’s what drew me to it. It’s more tangible to me.

Obviously there’s a place for the 2D sketch and for clay modeling. But you can offset a lot of the workload in 3D digital modeling, and that’s great. It’s very much a collaborative effort between everybody in the design studio.

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