Surfacing: More Than Skin Deep

The Ford Thunderbird is one of the many halo vehicles (like the Audi TT and the Volkswagen New Beetle) that had all of their aesthetic surfacing done with ICEM Surf.

With automakers putting increasing emphasis on designing appealing interiors, surfacing software is coming into play early in the development process to help new model teams visualize concepts and make initial decisions without making expensive prototypes.

Class A surfacing software expanded out of the province of exterior designers long ago and is now used to model everything from soft-touch parts like headliners and seats to underhood components like engine covers and hood hinges. The benefits are obvious. By seeing photorealistic renderings early in the development process, designers can quickly fix problems and reduce or eliminate the need for expensive physical prototypes. And the “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” nature of surfacing also helps to put stylists, engineers and executives on the same page faster than even a 3D solid drawing, thus enhancing workflow and speeding decision-making.

But surfacing solutions, like most software packages, have been criticized for requiring specialized training and not being user friendly, especially for stylists.

As the leading surfacing software developer (with approximately 65% of the market) ICEM Ltd. (Southampton, England) hears both the praise and the critiques, and it is embarking on an ambitious three-year plan of new products designed to add functionality and increase user friendliness. It is taking a two-track approach in an attempt to satisfy both engineers and stylists.

First, it will introduce an enhanced version of its existing suite ICEM Surf (v. 4.3) which, as in the past, is focused mainly on the needs of surfacing engineers. Knowing that new model development teams are often using surfaced images to make decisions in product meetings, ICEM has upgraded the Realtime Renderer module to include next generation digital mock-up and visualization tools that the company says “provide a real-time environment for digital product model creation, review and release.” The new tools include dynamic self-shadowing, lens flares, camera fly-through and a dedicated background image facility that allows for images to be imported and placed on different planes. In the surface creation and editing toolbox, ICEM has added parametric curve sketching and editing, G3 curvature matching and a new diagnostics feature called “Nominal Actual Value Comparison” that allows for comparison of nominal CAD geometry and tolerance variants like digitally scanned data from physical prototypes. Also, to get surface data out to the various groups that need it as quickly as possible, there is a Quick Surfacing module that can quickly generate a “first pass” surface model directly from 3D scan data.

The second track of the product strategy will be a new free-form modeler aimed at designers and stylists that will debut this fall. The modeler is intended to provide a more user-friendly environment for image generation while being fully compatible with ICEM Surf, so that surface engineers can seamlessly import and process the design data. ICEM’s plans call for the modeler to eventually evolve into a standalone suite of tools for stylists and industrial designers while remaining fully compatible with its flagship product. Indeed, the modeler will be a forerunner of the next generation of ICEM Surf which will be based on a new, object-oriented software architecture and will use parametric modeling technology. (Since most companies will not be ready to switch to the next generation software for a while, ICEM will support both old and new generations for at least two years.) Lee Cureton, ICEM chief executive, says that his company’s two track approach, “Spells the end of the divide that still exists between the styling and product design function and the design engineering function.”

Tim Norman, ICEM director of field operations, sees a move toward greater use of surfacing software among automakers. He says, “Car companies are realizing that design is the differentiator and that we are committed to aesthetic design and its extensions.” He continues, “Surface modeling has been neglected in the past and OEMs are regretting that now.” He also sees a pent-up demand among Asian automakers that want to move out of older legacy systems, and emerging markets like China that want the latest design tools. Interior design is the biggest prospect (Norman says, “One of our customers has five times as many designers working on interior surfaces than on exterior surfaces.”), followed by applications like Class B surfacing (which dwarfs Class A by an order of magnitude), lighting, head impact and pedestrian safety.

In addition to greater user friendliness, the key to being the software of choice in this future cornucopia of expanded use is the capability for smooth integration with a diverse range of existing design workflows and tools. Cureton says that ICEM has done this by, “Creating unified modeling that can not only use ICEM and other data side by side, but can manage large amounts of data for design review beyond what ICEM itself creates.” This ecumenical approach is aided by the fact that the newly independent company is no longer tied to a parent with a larger software sales agenda (ICEM was most recently a part of PTC). In fact, ICEM has landed customers since becoming independent (most notably: Nissan) who previously rejected it when it was associated exclusively with one CAD platform.