To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Volkswagen Innovation & Engineering Center California, the company’s team of designers, engineers, and scientists wanted to do something memorable to represent Volkswagen’s DNA while pushing the future of car design forward. So the team brought the past and the future together by taking a classic 1962 VW Bus and retrofitting it with the latest technology, including generatively designed elements such as wheel rims and wing-mirror arms. Watch the process of bringing a retro icon into the digital age using generative-design technology.
Nikolai Reimer, Executive Director, Volkswagen Group of America: We have been looking for something that would really represent our company’s DNA. It is the very classic bus. The Volkswagen, which stands for both the heritage of our company, of our company’s values, bringing people together, providing individual mobility and freedom.
Erik Glaser, Principal Product Designer, Volkswagen Group of America: What we’re doing is building not really a concept vehicle, but what we call a tech showcase vehicle. And the difference is a concept vehicle is, like, this is a product that we are designing to sell on a specific date, right? That’s what the concept car is. You ask, “When does that come out?” A technical showcase vehicle is something much more unique. We’re taking a 1962 vintage VW Bus, and we’re retrofitting it with all manner of the latest and greatest technologies that we think going forward will be significant within the automotive industry.
Michael Sagan, Technical Solutions Executive, Autodesk: The main focus is the wheels, but it goes beyond that. We’ve explored other spaces inside the vehicle—steering wheel, seating, exterior-mirror mounting—and so there are several areas inside the vehicle and others that we want to continue to explore in 2019.
Paul Sohi, Evangelist and Iconic Projects Lead, Autodesk: From a design point of view, generative design enables you to create really, really beautiful objects—something that we’re really keen to explore with VW. On top of that, nature is the best designer, and we end up with parts that look a lot like biomimicry. So we know that we’re able to produce something that’s beautiful and is not going to compromise the performance, either.
Andrew Morandi, Senior Product Designer, Volkswagen Group of America: From a designer standpoint, I have to say, it just looks cool. It’s absolutely a totally new aesthetic and something that I believe we’re going to start seeing more of in new concepts and new vehicles moving forward.
Sohi: Generative design for automotive is a no-brainer. Being able to produce things that are much lighter—and maintain the same level of strength without compromising the integrity of the product—is key in automotive design.
Glaser: In the past, if you’ve designed, let’s say, a vehicle rim, if you’re going to design one of those, in the very far past, you had to basically sketch it by hand. You had a draftsman who had to draw the whole thing out—very long process, very tedious. Generative design, instead of manually designing the actual shape, you give the software constraints. I need it to be this big; I need it to support this much weight in these kinds of directions. You feed it some physics information, basically.
Morandi: For the larger projects as a whole—and especially as this relates to Volkswagen Group—we’re always looking for new technologies that can help add lightness, if you will, to our vehicles, or lightweight technologies that make our vehicles more efficient, especially when you’re talking about areas like the wheel, where rotational mass is really important to making a vehicle more energy efficient.
Reimer: In a way, it makes it more complex because you have more choices to choose from—because when a designer worked for a week, you had two options. Now, a computer works overnight, and you have 300 [options], but yet you still need the time to evaluate all 300 and decide which work and which don’t.
Ariel Jeong, Industrial Designer, Autodesk: Even though you’re getting a thousand iterations [to] choose from, there is a certain thing that the computer can’t do yet. It’s very detailed, looking at the detail of the aesthetic—that has to be controlled by a designer.
Sagan: Being able to come up with a new workflow that’s faster, where you can make better design decisions and smarter informed design decisions—that’s really powerful.
Reimer: What I feel today is that we probably don’t even understand to the full extent the potential of generative design. This is something we will have to figure out within the [coming] years, where human engineering combined with artificial intelligence can provide lighter, smarter, more sustainable products. And there is a huge potential that will, from my understanding, revolutionize not just the products that we are providing but also the way we work.
Morandi: I’m hopeful that we can see it grow even more, and 10, 15 years from now, we can see entire frames being generatively designed. There’s a tremendous opportunity there—how to optimize A-pillar and B-pillar sections, the frame surrounding the engine bay, what can we do there? We hope it inspires the community—everyone who comes to see it at the unveiling—but, again, also for our partners in Germany. We hope that it inspires new ways of thinking and whatnot around how we’re going to be manufacturing vehicles in the coming years.
Sohi: If you speak to any designer or engineer, they’ll tell you that producing stuff in the real world always takes longer than you think. One of the great things about using generative design here is we were able to go from ideas in our head to a fully manufactured vehicle in about six months, which is unprecedented and unheard of. Being able to do that while maintaining design and engineering is incredible, and it enables us to produce something that’s really quite beautiful to look at. I think we’re going to be most proud of seeing the wheels in person. They look good enough to eat, quite literally.
Glaser: The main thing that I wanted to do was, if I take this out on the street somewhere, and some little kid sees it, and he’s like, “Who built that? I want to work there.” And I really think that success for us is if we inspire a new generation of people to become automotive engineers and work in the same space that we do. I think that’s pretty cool.