Making a concept car is a little like building a toy—a huge, expensive toy for the finicky giant-baby that is the international car market. Like toys, concept cars are often more fantastic than feasible, but some do hit the sweet spot between production and wild projection. Ford unveiled its new Edge Concept last year and it is positioned uniquely to blend pragmatic new technologies and fun design. It combines the core of the existing Edge, but reaches out to touch on sweet new car tech (remote parking! Glowing armrests!?) and the obsessive tech-savviness of People These Days. We talked with Kevin George, Design Manager at Ford Motor Co., about what it's like working on a not-quite-production car like the Edge Concept.
C77: Walk me through the process of conceiving and building the Edge Concept.
Kevin George: The beginning of the process for us was looking at how the target customer was evolving. One of the main purposes of Edge Concept was to confirm a hypothesis we had about how the design should move based on that. The idea was that the customer had evolved into somebody who was more socially nimble. They make plans with their friends on the fly, maybe through social media connections, so how should the imagery of the car evolve to meet that need? The other concern we had was how are gas prices going to be in a few years, and what would that do to the customer's idea of the efficiency of the machine. So we wanted to test out something that looked a little more nimble. So the customer is more socially agile and the vehicle needed to look a little more agile so it would convey the right message about the car's efficiency.
We looked at Edge in the market: it's leading its category at least here in North America, we don't want to just start over. We don't want to throw out the earlier work of other great designers, but we wanted to leverage their work in a way that would fit this predicted image. In the past you may have seen Ford do some wild, out-there concept cars, and one issue with those is that if they never come to fruition then the customer is frustrated. One of the ways we really connect with customers is to build these concept vehicles that relate to the production.
Edge today is very modern, very monolithic, but not very agile. So the slab sides you see on Edge are gone on Edge Concept. So we started sketching Edge Concept to be more athletic in an agile way. Evolving it from sporty like a heavyweight boxer to sporty like an Olympic sprinter. And to bring it into the new Ford DNA, because Edge was originally developed during the last incarnation of the brand DNA and it needed to catch up to be more like the Fiesta or Focus. Those surface languages were influential to the designers as well.
"For a smooth, cohesive look, sculptors sand away the paint of hte liftgate on Ford Edge Concept to create a concave, angular form to the valance. The body shell arrives at the studio as a complete form, but requires serious hands-on attention before it becomes a vehicle designed by Ford."
Where is that new nimbleness most visible in the Edge Concept?
Edge has been described as the "Mustang of crossovers" and we wanted Edge Concept to push that a little farther. In a side view, you can see that there are two feature lines that run down the sides, one by the handle and one down by where the rockers are, those features we've sculpted out more deeply from the body side, and that helps make it look leaner, and we have a graphic around the bottom of the car - lower cladding on steroids - bringing that black up higher into the color, and theres an undulation where the line zigzags. That line kind of reminds us of the classic picture of a cheetah, where its belly is sucked up to the ribs and its haunches, and there's a similar kind of S shape to that dynamic. We wanted that kind of pouncing quality to the graphics as well.. A mix of graphics and form to communicate that sense of agility.
"These interior pieces are laid out and ready to be polished and refined before being installed on the vehicle. The number of small pieces can be daunting, but the team building the concept includes specialized experts for each interior detail."
What changed in the interior?
The overall concept for the interior is what we're calling a "dynamic sanctuary", which sounds like a contradiction in terms. However there are dynamic forms and stitching that mirror the exterior, and then there are soft materials that are very light in value, so the combination of the softness of the leather and the light appearance and the tone on tone gives you this relaxed quality, the extensive glass roof makes it airy. So it's dynamic but calming.
In a similar theory about the exterior, we wanted it to have charisma, and we wanted the overall feeling to be dominating yet accommodating. Again, it sounds like we're contradicting ourselves, but one of the reasons people like Edge today is that it has charisma, it looks like it can be dominating when it needs to be and it looks like it can be accommodating when it needs to be. We tried to infuse that sense into one form. Not like the kind of person who's trying to lead all the time, or someone who comes off as milktoast by never trying to lead, but the person who knows when to lead and when to support. That's the kind of person people want to follow, that's the definition of charisma. Then it's down to the designers to turn those feelings into lines on a page.
"Designers and assemblers compare different exterior paint samples for the wheels. Ford Edge Concept was designed and drawn ahead of time, yet some decisions can be made only once the actual materials are in hand."
Which design decisions are usually made late in the process? I'm looking at a picture of a wheel color decision.
Yeah, that's actually taken IN the paint booth, the guy on my right is the painter and the guy on the left is the owner of the shop where we built the show car. We're discussing whether we achieved the desired intent with the sprayout. Those little plates we're looking at are samples of subtle changes in value. All the components of the paint are weighed in grams when we get down to that level - 4 more grams of blue, or 2 grams of metal flake. It's a fun process if you know what you're doing, and know what you want. If you don't know what you want you're going to have problems!
"Hand painted fiberglass clear-coat is polished with orbital buffers to accentuate the red color under show lights. At this point the front is more polished and the overhead lights are reflecting on the front bumper."
True in life! Are those final color decisions put off until the rest of the body has really come together?
Not really. We go in with a very detailed plan. We have a whole book of images that have color callouts, showing the standard for the color and showing with a leader line - this color goes here, this color goes there. And they have all the formulas we sent them for paint. We spray them up here in our paint shop, but we want them to do it because they're the ones making the car. Different chemistry, different temperatures, different applications.. for the exterior color the difference can turn out to be the WAY it was sprayed! The technique a particular painter used, his arm moving a certain way across a panel, if his arms are shorter it can change how the paint goes on, and the color of the paint. And if you've got 24 coats of paint... it's such a big part of how people perceive the form, the curves. We can't just show up with the sketches we made the week before. There's a lot of work that goes into it.
"Working on the lamps is a process akin to a maker at a home workbench - a busy tabletop complete with coffee and tools within arm's reach. Here, builders assemble a lamp, which requires a delicate touch fitting pieces together and refining the parts"
And all for just a couple cars! Can you describe the production process?
Once the sketches are converted into a 3D model and we're satisfied that it's been "built" as much as possible with that tool, we take it to the modeling community and they mill a full sized car out of foam and clay. We mill full sized block of foam, and it's undercut 2 inches, so the modelers lay on two inches of clay in a hot state and when it cools it's hard and they mill it off with a big 5-axis milling machine. That takes several days to accomplish that. Then we start modifying the surfaces. We spend a few weeks modifying and scanning and feeding back to the digital modelers, then mill it back so it's pure again... spend another week highlighting the surfaces.
We have a unique material here, it's like a transparent film we can lay out over the surface of the car, squeegee it down and it makes the clay look like painted metal. It's so shiny that it reflects the lights on the ceiling, so we arranged the lights to run in strips parallel to one another and orient the car so it's parallel to the light strips above. We look at those white lines now running fore-aft down the car, and see how parallel the reflections are. Any time there's a problem in the reflection we study that for quite a long time. That's a process we just call "highlighting" the car. We might spend a week highlighting - peel the [film] off, change the clay, reapply the [film], look at it in the light. If we see the light pooling up, that's a problem.
After the car is highlighted we send it to the mold shop, where they make a giant fiberglass mold of the car. Then they lay up fiberglass in the cavity to make the body, and we go through the whole highlighting process again. At the same time there are whole groups of people and distributors working on component pieces. Usually we design those digitally and get them machined or grow it in SLA, or cast it. All those parts have to come together—there's thousands of parts that make one of these show cars.
The guys working on the lights had a sign they hung up that said "2 cars, 600 pieces, 3 weeks," crossing out the 3 and writing a 2... I think there's about 100 pieces in each lamp.
"Jeweled LED headlamp made of polished acrylic is cut to draw people in with a long, slim shape made to look like leaded crystal. The acrylic is so finely polished that each little cube splits the light spectrum, revealing a rainbow effect in each one."
Were the lamps the hardest part?
The lamps were very labor intensive because they're so highly detailed and technical. They're completely LED, and we're hoping innovate in lights on the show car that hopefully they'll improve on in future production cars. We've assigned multiple tasks to every part. Typically in a headlight you have the light engines, whether they're halogen bulbs or LED projectors there's always some source of light, and then there are some decorative elements that we call bezels. We actually assigned a lighting function to the bezel. The chrome bezel in the car sort of defines the headlight, in this case it's a sort of U-shape, it appears chrome but when we throw the switch we can light it. That's because the chrome we applied has microscopic pinholes, and the light shines through the pinholes and obscures your perception of the chrome. By assigning a decorative function in the Off state, and a daytime running light in the On state, then change the light from white to amber and it's a turn signal. So it has three functions, and we don't have to add another light engine for the turn signal, we don't have to add another for the DRL, it's all performed by the bezel. It's a really intricate headlamp but it pays off because it's really modern. Hopefully it will influence the production car, certainly in its graphics.
"The tail lamp features about 70 parts that must be hand assembled on-site. The lamp design is cut to draw the eye from the center of the vehicle to the outside, conjuring a feeling of movement that helps convey the agility of the Edge Concept"
The tail lamps do the same thing. We have a ribbon of red light that runs around the tail lamps that functions so that people can see you at night, then the brake and turn are performed by the interior part that looks like little ice cubes. What we wanted for the imagery statement for this car, if people are calling this the "Mustang of crossovers," let's borrow some imagery from Mustang. So both in the head lamp and the tail lamps we've got sequential lights. Y'know when you're behind a Mustang and you see the three lights fire in sequence? Sort of like Las Vegas, without looking cheesy? On the Mustang that's a carryover from our muscle cars of the 1960s. We reincarnated that in the modern Mustang, but we've borrowed it and put it in Edge Concept. It transitions from the headlamp and actually looks like it jumps out to the mirror. A very Mustang thing in spirit, applied in different way on the Edge Concept.
Any other exciting features you enjoyed working on?
One of the functional features we turned into a visual feature would be our automatic grill shutters. The AGS system is on some of our products today. We use shutters to control air flow into the engine compartment, we need lots of cooling when the car is moving slowly and not getting the kind of air flow it requires, so we open the shutters. When the car is moving at high speeds and there's lots of air pressure you don't need as much volume, so we close the shutters and the car becomes more aerodynamically efficient. We wanted to get a read from Edge customers on how they felt about AGS, but to be able to talk about it they have to be able to see it and it happens behind the grill in production vehicles - you'll never see it. In between the main grill we have chrome shutters that you can see close up. When we fired those off at the car show the crowd oohed and ahhed a bit because graphically it changed the impression of the grill, and then they understand how aerodynamics are important to efficiency. We know Edge Customers value technology and wondered if they'd like to see it happening. We brought it out of the shadows, literally, and people loved it.
Another one of the things people really commented on was the door handles, or lack thereof. It's a little switch feature commonly found in a lift gate, and put it into the doors so you just reach into the little door cavity and push a button. I borrowed that from our production cars but put it in the door just to gauge reaction.
Tech blingg things
The other interesting aspect of the interior that a lot of show-goers commented about is the tablets we have in the rear of the vehicle. There's an ipad mini and two ipads behind the seats. It comes from the idea was that everybody wants to bring their tablets with them and here we provide a home for that. We're not going to dictate what kind of tablets we put in the car, or charge you for them, because you might not be interested. But since you have your own tablet, let's make it part of your world when you enter the car. They're all synchronized together or can run independently within the vehicle. If you buy the next generation you can still fit it into the car, knowing how much Edge customers value technology we wanted to make sure we didn't lose that personality in the show car.
What part of the process is the most fun?
I enjoy the process with tape on the model, like pencil on paper we use tape on the clay. Using the black tape on that primered fiberglass, or the monochromatic clay colored car... there's nothing like it, because you're still sketching. Which we love - it's our tool for communicating! It's not that we sketch just for the pure pleasure of making art, we're designers and we want to use sketching to communicate our ideas. So, sketching in 3D space is really fun, it's oldschool craftsmanship. Learning how to tape is a skill in itself. It's such a direct way to talk with the modeling community: move the crease from there to the edge of my tape. So direct! Like "when the rubber hits the road", when the tape hits the clay everybody knows what to do.
You really get in touch with the car, you're running your hands over it, getting to know its form, sighting down a line the way someone might sight down an arrow in their bow. You turn a line into a point, and when you do you can see any curvature or weight. It's a pretty good feeling.