Porsche Mission R Interior

The controls clip in above my knees. The door shuts. All the noise around me vanishes. I am in a cockpit all right. I am guessing you drive the thing but if you look around, the environment screams X-Wing (yes, I am mixing my movie references). Where am I? This is still Earth, a hotel lobby of all places. At the Munich Airport Hilton, the time is still May 2022 in the Gregorian calendar. Welcome to the annual Automotive Innovation Forum (AIF) hosted by Autodesk. In between demos and presentations, I was able to slide inside the cockpit of the Porsche Mission R. My inner geek is in heaven. For all my career I used to build and visualise cars with some fancy software. This time, I embarked into a vastly different journey. I was going to assist customers on how to better build and better visualize their vehicles (with said fancy software). I was going behind the curtains to see what happens when you start working for a software company. It has been more than 90 days, but it is my first impression all the same. Buckle up for my first 90 days on the new job, unlike any other before.

The Machine

Fast forward to New Orleans. I am now attending Autodesk University in late September. About 9,000 people were on attendance. The main stage looked more like a rock concert than a software convention. This is when you appreciate on a visceral level how much horsepower is behind Autodesk. “So… Let me just download the latest software, I will be on my way”, or so I thought. Well not so fast. To onboard the machine, you must take it slowly. There is a lot of horsepower for sure and all the cogs of the machine are scattered around the world. Your Spanish and Irish teammates are in Germany. The development team is in North America. Don’t forget to reach out to some of the customer success managers in Spain or France. And of course, keep your manager in Belgium informed. For the rest, you can sort yourself out, for your travels or your IT equipment. It is a culture of self-service, but you never feel abandoned. You can use Teams, Slack, the Intranet. There is a wealth of information out there for you to address any issues you might have. For example, I was having issues with my new work phone, so I raised a ticket. Messages started to ping on Slack. A tech guy in San Francisco called me directly. Now that is a well-oiled machine. 

The Crew

When I started, my boss flew in from Belgium to the United Kingdom. My co-worker simply drove up. We all met in the Birmingham offices. The next time I saw them in person, it was in Munich at the AIF. A few weeks later, our team met in London.  A few weeks after that, we were with the entire department in Barcelona. From home, from the office, on site, people assemble and meet as needed. Imagine you are the new guy, and you are trying to figure out who you need to talk to about an extremely specific issue. Let’s say I need to demonstrate the latest feature in the latest software. This is a microscopic part of a huge ecosystem. You have technical account managers and customer success managers for the clients.  You have technical product managers for the business and the technology. Finally, developers and programmers handle the software itself as well as a lot of the support. Keep in mind that some of those individuals worked from home already before the pandemic. They are scattered in offices and homes all over Western Europe and the Americas over ten time zones. And all of them need to be aligned to deliver the best software experience to the customers. And without missing a beat, the work gets done. The entire orchestration is a remarkable sight.

The Care

In the past, I took my career development into my own hands. I would surf the Intranet looking for career resources and I would poke around at random. In one lucky instance, I finally generated a skills profile for myself. Unfortunately, that was years into the job already. Another time, there was leftover budget and it had to be spent. Here, it is a completely different story. I was encouraged to find a mentor right when I started. I was told I could become one as well down the line if I chose to. Within a few weeks I was getting emails about booking a coaching session. Within my first 90 days, I already had a work profile and one coaching session under my belt. The most striking aspect of my new position is the culture around its people. It is something that was given careful thought and consideration. There is genuine care about the people. Every person I met, from colleagues all the way to vice-presidents, have been very approachable, personable, and welcoming.

Look at the smile on the kid’s face…

Conclusion

Ah Autodesk, we have been looking at each other for a long time. My first interview with that company was in Toronto in the previous millennium. And now, here we are. I described myself like a kid in a candy store when I started, and it is pretty accurate. It is easy for a nerd like me to stare at the toys and the galaxy of products in the Autodesk universe. Yet it is the culture of the company around its people that really struck me. Of course, the perks of the position are pretty cool. I gaze around the cockpit in total awe. I have the face of a 5-year-old who sits behind the wheel of a car for the first time. A minute or two later, I somehow get out of the very snug seat. That was cool all right, but it is nothing in comparison that what I could see behind closed doors… Our clients use our software in ways I did not know what possible or imaginable. Put it this way: my inner geek has not stopped being tickled. Cue the 5-year-old smile.

 

This is Part 2 of the 2021 ISD Rubika Degree show review.  Don’t miss Part 1!

Today, I talk with Swarnim Verma on the Heart of England Speakers podcast. She discusses her upbringing in India and Dubai. She then details her journey to becoming a digital artist that took her all the way to France at ISD Rubika in Valenciennes (France). To earn her diploma, Swarnim and her peers had to give a 35-minute speech in English in front of a jury of five industry professional. That is one third of their final grade.

The cartoonist Scott Adams has coined the term “the talent stack”. He is average at writing, drawing and business. However, when you combined those skills, you get the multi-million comic strip franchise Dilbert. Swarnim combined her skills, her talents, her eye for colour and her software knowledge in clothing and texturing into a game changing weapon.

 

Conceptual CMF by Swarnim Verma

 

Her way is unique in approaching CMF (colour, material, and finish).  Her experiments are named “conceptual CMF”. Traditionally, CMF designers collect physical fabric and material samples to create their mood boards. Swarnim’s moods board are full CGI. CG fabrics tend to be stiff. Hers were flowing and photorealistic, not to mention with some dazzling colour combinations. A detailed look at her workflow can be found in an article she wrote for Adobe Substance.

The digital design graduating class had three women for a total of 14 students. The gender split was comparable to the previous classes I saw graduate. It was inevitable that at some point, a woman was going to take first place overall in the year end jury. That was not the surprising part. The real surprise was how it happened. Over the years, the winners were in some predictable categories. They were hard core car guys. Then they were wizards at visualization for cars or for watches (or clothing soon, probably). Swarnim Verma is none of those. Here is the best advice for students who want to single themselves out and who aspire for greatness: be yourself. It worked for her.

 

 

 

 

Audi R8 - full CGI by Fabien Vandemortelle

 

This is Part 1 of the 2021 ISD Rubika Degree show review.  Don’t miss Part 2!

Do you remember the last time you took a plane? It had been over two years for me, so I was giddy at the idea of taking to the skies again. It was time for my yearly trip to the north of France to judge the digital design graduating class at the Rubika Institut Supérieur de Design in Valenciennes (ISD). This was another marker in time for me. 20 years ago, I came to Valenciennes to become one of ISD’s first 3D teachers. The day before, the entire family gathered to take a now ritual lateral flow test. I don’t remember how many we have gone through all this time. All tests turn up negative until I see one test with the dreaded two lines. And it did not take long either. Goodbye flight. Goodbye weekend in Paris with one of my best friends. Ugh. Thankfully ISD was prepared so I was able to participate in the jury remotely.

 The Usual Suspects. Expanded.

Every year, it was customary to run into one type of student: the car guy / girl. There was no doubt what that student wanted to do out of school. It was cars and that was it. Saurav Ponkshe created one of the most detailed Porsche 911 models you will ever see. It not only had the exterior but also an interior and a fully articulated roof (too bad it is not in full details on his online portfolio).

Saurav Ponkshe's 911

Over the years the students’ tastes have evolved and there are now two other types: watches and clothing. For watches, there are so many to choose from. For clothing, those of us who are a little older need to take notice on how to promote yourself online. Thomas Radenne created an online fashion show on social media in the middle of the pandemic. Of course, he tagged the people he wanted to reach in his post, and they did reply. It is a brave new world.

Saurav Ponkshe's 911

The Visualization Wizards

Fabien Vandemoortele had some great images. His Audi won the best student image in the Domeble Symetri contest (Corona Render) but I really liked the Fairlady Z (3DS Max / Corona).

Fairlady Z by Fabien Vandemoortele

Nirmal Tudu used Blender to showcase his 911 Singer. Last year, Valentin Becart showcased what the future of visualization was going to be with Unreal Engine. If this year needed any confirmation, he is going to have some company. The population of students using Unreal is rising and it is bound to become more popular in design studios around the world. Saurav Ponshke had a nice visualization of his Porsche in a pre-made Unreal environment. It is a great step to understand how to import data within a readymade scene. Praveen Balaji went way further as he created an entire tropical forest environment from scratch. In it, he dropped a Mercedes 4×4 and the entire visual was a showstopper. 

Praveen Balaji's Mercedes 4x4 in Unreal

The Future

At every jury, a student comes along and lights up the presentation room. This year it was Swarnim Verma. Her bubbly personality was on full display. She was prepared, smiling, engaged and confident. Her presentation and public speaking skills were impeccable. I am a trained public speaker and I am telling you this: she made a 40-minute speech look easy (and even highlighted her newfound fluency in French). She took the jury from her humble beginnings as a digital artist to where she is today. Teachers found out early that she had an eye for color. Swarnim coupled that talent with software use to dazzling effect. What did we witness? It is the future of CMF (color, material, and finish). In Part 2, we will have a much longer and in-depth conversation with Swarnim.

Praveen Balaji's Mercedes 4x4 in Unreal

 Conclusion

Like clockwork, I look forward to seeing what the ISD students have done. It never disappoints. Think about the technologies used by the students during the time I have fortunate enough to be on the jury: Blender, Marvelous, Unreal, and now Substance. All those programs were known in the industry, but some students have created fantastic case studies for their use in automotive design. This year, on top of it all, the winner’s presentation was unexpected, brilliant, and ground-breaking. It felt like a breath of fresh air. As long as this fresh breeze blows from the north of France into the automotive design world, I suspect people in the industry, and I, will keep coming back to inhale it.

ISD Rubika 2020

Google, Toyota, Louis Vuitton and Tata Motors walk into a digital room.  Welcome to the ISD degree juries.  Every year the French school Institut Supérieur de Design holds its year end degree show.  It  is arguably the best place for OEMs to recruit digital artists and 3D modellers.  The main school is in the north of France with a sister school in India.  Each student must present their work to industry professionals and in English.  This presentation counts for 30% of their final grade.  The added difficulty this year is a completely remote jury.  The real world awaits.  Well students?  It has been five years and it all comes down to this.  Did you earn your digital design manager degree or not?  It was time to find out. 

Go to Formtrends to continue

NAIC at Night

To say that 2020 has been a bad year would be an understatement of epic proportions.  But hang in there everyone, we are more than two thirds of the way through this year and there are promising utterances of a vaccine on the way.  Still, this year will arguably go down as the single most memorable year in human history.  A world war was certainly terrible but thankfully it really was only fought in a few countries.  Covid-19 affected every single sector of human activity in every country, and that also includes cars.  It will shape the car industry for years to come.  It affected the product line, the design of cars, shared mobility and society overall.

The Product Line 

As human activity started to shut down in March, everyone felt the cash crunch.  Car sales around the world grinded to a halt.  Want an eye-popping statistic?  The 1.4 billion people in India bought a staggering zero vehicles in April 2020.  If your business case for a vehicle line was not strong before, COVID19 was probably the final blow.  Nobody is immune to this new reality.  Volkswagen has been on a tear to turn around its green credentials.  Prepare yourself for an onslaught of green ID vehicles of all sizes.  With Dieselgate and the COVID related cash crunch, VW is taking a long look at its luxurious (and polluting) portfolio.  The wildest rumour is that Rimac will take over its crown jewel Bugatti.  And nobody else in the VW empire is safe. 

Design Goes On 

Just recently General Motors issued an official statement: its staff will stay home until June 2021.  That certainly does not mean that design work stops.  And that has been true for all of the design studios around the world.  Sure, there has been contraction and furloughs worldwide, but the work has continued.  Automotive design has always been at the cutting edge of technology.  Why?  It costs billions to put a car on the road.  By investing heavily in technology, you maximize the chances of getting your product right.  Those technological investments certainly paid off.  With design studios all around the world, OEMs have long mastered conference calls, secure review rooms for 3D CAD reviews and virtual reality tools.  

The rest of this article continues on Formtrends.

Corvette in Blender

If you have some time to kill on Google Street View, check out the original campus of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.  If you go to this location, you’ll find the nicknamed Tinkertoy building.  The computer lab was on the third floor.  It was a mysterious room, hot, dark and full of very colourful computers.  I had never seen such computers before and for good reason.  Those were Indigo boxes made by Silicon Graphics.  They could cost you more than $50,000 apiece.  Only big companies and schools were able to afford them.  I attended my first 3D class with Alias more than 20 years ago at that location.  I logged in and for all intents and purposes I never logged out.  From my first class I was completely hooked on digital modelling.  I stumbled into a world that literally had no limits.  More than 20 years later, let’s have a look at the state of digital modelling.

 For the rest of the article, please go to Formtrends

Back in 2014, we started sketch modelling something crazy. That was in the User Experience Studio at GM.  It was a bank of buttons that was floating in mid-air.  It bridged the console to the instrument panel. I never got to see the finished product. That’s because on Tuesday, August 5th 2014, I was on a one-way plane from Detroit to London.  Goodbye 12 years at General Motors, goodbye United States, and hello to a brand-new challenge with Tata Motors, cheers to the United Kingdom.  Monday August 11th was my first official day.  Five year later, it is now a perfect time look back at the five biggest takeaways from the last five years.

 The Upside Down – Part I

The first thing to absorb was the culture shock.  I grew up in France so I should not have been amazed by a more socialist society.  I was a teen without a worry in the world then. Now I was a family man. I knew all too well about the costs of medical coverage and education. In the UK our family uses the National Health Service. It’s cheap and efficient. I send my kids to public schools and the quality of their education has been great.  As my daughter enters secondary school there will be plenty of things to worry about.  A bulletproof backpack?  That will not be one of them.  There are a lot of great things about living in the United States.  If you are an entrepreneur the US sky has no limit.  We can debate for an eternity about socialised medicine and the Second Amendment.  At the minimum, five years away will make you think about the choices you make as a society.  I’ll leave it at that.

The Upside Down – Part II

In the United States you get your health benefits from your company.  Bigger companies typically get better coverage for medical / dental / vision for yourself and for your family.  You can start working at a car company as a contractor.  If you are good at what you do you will eventually be offered a permanent job.  And that’s a big deal.  In the United Kingdom it is the complete opposite and it took some adjustment as a manager.  Good contractors are hard to find. They are in demand and their pay rate can be higher than permanent employees.  And of course, health coverage is universal.  “Permies” receive paid holidays and other goodies on both sides of the pond. It is up to the individual to determine what best fits them. 

The Work

It has been, it is and it always will be about the cars.  In those five years Tata went through two iterations of Impact Design.  And our digital team was more than happy to contribute.  The EVision showed a compelling execution of a luxury car with Indian Design.  That was the beginning of our use of Blender in automotive design.  The 45X highlighted the first ever use of the parametric software Dynamo in automotive design.  It also previewed the production model Altroz.  And the H2X showed how a micro SUV could look tough.  Each car had its mission.  Each car had its different set of challenges.  And guess what: I enjoy challenges. The reward is to see our cars in the metal or featured in the likes of Car Design News.

 The Travel

It is one thing to help design cars for the Indian market when you are 4000 miles away.  It is another to be driven around a tuk-tuk at night in the middle of Pune. It’s not quite a scene from Octopussy but you get the idea. It was great to see how the cars we design were used in their natural environment.  It was also the unique treat to taste for yourself the richness and diversity of the Indian culture, from the temple of Dagdusheth Ganpati in Pune to the Gate of India in Mumbai.  I was also fortunate to travel across Europe: Amsterdam, Valenciennes, Munich and of course London.  If you fly one hour out of Detroit you are either still in the US or in Canada.  In that time in Europe it will take you to medieval times or to completely different countries. It sounds cheesy but it’s pretty cool.

 The Achievement & What’s Next

In the last five years I reached one of my professional goals.  It was great to check that off.  And in that quest, I started my journey to master of a new skill.  Even Ian Callum thinks it might be a good thing to have. I gave a speech in Amsterdam which was okay but it needed work.  So, I decided to do something about it.  I really got into public speaking with Toastmasters and that’s something I will keep doing in the future.  When I signed up more than two years ago, I did not know that it was going to be so handy so quickly. I had to present for work in France, in Germany and in the UK. In the last five years it is definitely the best skill I picked up for myself.

 Conclusion

In the end one thing remains: I am glad I made the change. Oh, the famous buttons made it to production in the 2020 Corvette C8. It would have been nice to be a part of it but there are no guarantees in life. Even in a booming economy GM had a massive round of layoffs just recently. Would I have been spared? I don’t know. Here’s what I know. I started writing this post from Battersea Park, a spectacular area of London.  I also know that my first day at Tata was the exact same day Detroit was drowned in a biblical flood. The entire neighbourhood I lived in for 9 years was under water.  I sold the house less than 2 weeks before…

H2X

For people in my line of work it is becoming increasingly clear that a yearly pilgrimage to Munich will be a must. The Automotive Innovation Forum hosted by Autodesk has now gone global. OEMs from Asia and America are now flying in for the two-day event. People discuss and share ideas and methods about the digital tools needed to enable automotive design. I was very fortunate to present last year and I was equally happy to fly to Germany last month. Two things stuck out in my mind this year

First, Rivian, Italdesign and BMW started off the day with their keynote addresses. Each company was impressive in their own right. However, Nio stole the show. The ES8 was on display in the Hilton Lobby. As well executed as the car was, it was not even the most impressive part. The centre piece was what could be referred to as the “Nio experience”. It has completely taken care of any problem related to or derived from the ownership of an electric car. Did you forget to charge your car? Have a coffee at the Nio House while your battery is being swapped. Not convenient enough? You can summon a charging van to your car. Want to drive from Shanghai to Beijing? It is more than a 12 hour drive but fear not. Those highways are hooked up to the Nio charging network. Obviously all of this requires a huge investment. Time will only tell if Nio can achieve its vision but it sure offers a compelling vision. You can check out  part of the presentation online.

Second, let’s get back to more “car design nuts and bolts”. The other biggest takeaway is that some studios have moved away from clay completely. Clay can be expensive. On top of qualified staff, it requires a massive hardware investment: clay ovens, milling machines, physical bucks to build, to maintain and to store. The move away from clay is not too surprising if you are a consultant. The savings can be substantial. The alternative is to set up a PC and two trackers in the corner of your office. Strap on the VR headset and that’s it. That is way less than the cost of a full-size model. It is a little more surprising to see OEMs diving into the full digital realm. GAC’s new advanced design studio in California has gone fully digital and so has its neighbour in Malibu Audi. 

I have spent a lifetime in the tube but I am not a “clay hater” by any stretch. It has my appreciation and my respect. It dates all the way back to school. I remember how difficult it was to sculpt the clay into submission. It really is more like art and you need the flair for it. My clay mentor Alexander Buchan was a fantastic teacher and a sculpture wizard. Also there is nothing like feeling the presence of a car in front of you, running your hands on the surface and feel the fullness of the shapes. In 3D you can zoom ad infinitum into a part. And because of it some designers are never satisfied (never). When you see it in clay, either modelled by hand or milled from the computer, it keeps everything honest. That’s how the surface looks. You can’t zoom in past the physical limitations of your eyes.

When I started in the business many moons ago, parts were already created without clay or foam models. There were done in 3D only to be seen again when the car rolled out of the assembly line. After movies and video games, the automotive industry is probably right up there when it comes to capital investment into computer graphics. Can you even tell what is rendered and what is photographed anymore? It’s a technological warfare of clusters, headsets, tracking gloves and raytracing for the masses. Let’s put it another way. Do you remember the reveal of the first iPhone? When people saw it everybody knew it was going to be big, expensive as hell but revolutionary without a doubt. In Munich it did not feel like that January in 2007 at all. Nobody wondered if there was going to be a revolution. It had already been underway for a quite some time. The only question remaining is: how far will it go?

To clay or not to clay? Sound off in the comments.