Part 2 – Interview with Simon Padian from Saab Design

A few weeks ago in Frankfurt, I was fortunate enough to sit down (in a Saab 9-3x) and have a good long chat with Simon Padian about all things to do with Saab Design. We covered a lot of different subjects over the course of around 45 minutes and this is the second part of that interview.
Part 1 is here.

Simon Padian
Again, my thanks to Simon for the interview and insights. This is part 2 of what will most likely be a three-part transcription.
Saabs United: Can you run us quickly – if it can be done quicky – through the design process? So for example, “we’ve going to build X class of car” – is that where it starts?
Simon Padian: The starting point is, I suppose, what we call the portfolio dicussions, it’s where we say “OK, what kind of cars are we going to need in X-number of years?” What kind of role they should have, what should it be built on? And obviously we’re involved at that point, because design’s all about looking ahead and we’ve obviously got a lot to say about that. So then when a car’s been identified and it’s like “OK, we’re going to do that kind of product” then you start looking at the architecture and there’s a lot of discussions backwards and forwards in terms of “well, from a design perspective, we want to reduce the front overhang as much as possible… we want to widen the track… we want to get the proportions right” because that’s the starting point, really, the proportions. Once you’ve locked in some of those parameters, then you’ve got to live with those proportions, basically. It’s very difficult to do a good design if you haven’t got good proportions. They’re the building blocks. If your overhang’s too long at the front and your track’s very narrow and it’s tall – it doesn’t matter how good the design is, it’s never going to look right. So you try and establish all those parts. There’s lots of discussion – detailed discussions around the architecture, the position of the windscreen, for example. We’re working a lot with engineering and what tends to happen is that you at least try and narrow it down to bandwidth. So there’s a little bit of freedom because of all the packaging and components…..
SU: …everything’s got to fit in….
SP: Yeah, everything’s got to work. So usually you can say, OK, the touch-down point for the windscreen, for example, that can come anywhere within, say, a 100mm bandwidth, and that way you know your limits in terms of how the design can be or where the surface is going to go. Things like roof height, we’re always trying to push the roof down, of course, because it makes the car look more dynamic, but you’ve got a limit to how low you can sit in the car, how much headroom you need so that people can fit in it. So all these kind of things. The biggest one at the moment, which is effecting everybody is the front end, in terms of the pedestrian protection. All the regulations are getting a lot tougher now….

SU: …. Most cars’ NCAP ratings will be based on that now, right?
SP: That’s right. And that’s been the latest big thing in terms of packaging and constraints on the design. There’s no way around that.
****Clarification – NCAP ratings are not, in fact, based on pedestrian safety ratings, but the pedestrian ratings are the new and current focus, and many cars will have their over all rating brought down by a poor pedestrian safety result. Hence it is the basis upon which many cars will falter in safety testing and subsequent ratings in the short term, until companies tackle it correctly.****
SP: So there are all these types of discussions going on and at the same time, we are starting to look at proposals. So we can say “if we have this wheelbase, it’s going to look like this but if we can do this particular thing, look how much better it’s going to be” so it’s kind of like a big negotiation phase, if you like. Gradually, you get to a point where everything’s locked down within those bandwidths. Then you can say “OK” and you can really get moving with several things, different alternatives and you tend to develop those to a point. Previously, scale models were the first step after the sketches. Often what happens now is we work directly in Alias, in 3D.
SU: That’s software, correct?
SP: That’s right. And that’s good because that’s the language that we can talk to the engineers with, so to speak. We’ll do something and they can take that straight away and say “yeah, that looks good ” or “wait a minute, you’re infringing on” ….say…. “the door hinge, because of the swing, etc,” – or whatever it might be. There’s always that backwards-and-forwards conversation. What it means is that we can get to the point much faster where we’ve got some confidence that the forms, the designs, are going to be manufacturable, packageable. So at the same time you start to mill out from the math models some full size models…
SU: …and that’s automated now, isn’t it? The computer will sculpt the clay….
SP: That’s right. It all runs on a track and spins about and it will mill it out. It works in sections at a time, spins around, cuts the clay…..
SU: It must be amazing to see in action.
SP: Yeah, it’s pretty cool, I suppose. You dont really think about it too much.
SU: To an outsider it sounds exciting.
SP: It is quite cool, I suppose. And even when you first start to see…. at first it’s just a big mass of clay, where the guys put the clay on and it’s all rough and it’s all just roughly the form and the shape. And then when the mill starts cutting, the design slowly starts to appear and you get the first glimpse. It’s like “OK, this is what it looks like in reality.” It’s quite exciting, I suppose.
SU: Pardon the niavety of this question, but do you literally have an enormous piece of clay the size of a car?
SP: Not quite, no.
SU: Done to scale, then?
SP: No, it’s full size, but what you do is you build up an armature. You’ve got your wheels, you’ve got some kind of structure. You can do it in wood. You put a layer of foam over that. The foam is soft so that means that if the mill goes through the clay then it’s into the foam and it doesn’t screw up the milling head, etc. And it’s quick if you need to take some material off and clay back over that. So it’s a kind of sandwich construction. You’ve got the carrier, then you’ve got the foam on top and then the clay on top of that. And of course those armatures tend to be re-useable. And it’s got real wheels etc, so you can roll it outside. So that’s how it works, and you mill out the full size [model], you evaluate it, you look at it, you can go back into the database and make some changes or do some changes by hand, scan it and you’ve got point information to go back into the database to re-work the surfaces. And again, you’ve got this active process, interacting with all the various departments, engineering, etc, so you slowly get closer and closer to “yeah, this looks good, this is do-able. We can make this sort of thing.”
SU: So in your role, are you mainly working with exterior, interior? Are there separate teams doing that sort of thing at the same time?
SP: We’re pretty small as a team goes so everyone’s multi-tasking. It tends to be people who specialise in interior or exterior but generally we try and keep it all multi-tasking, really. Interior kind of works in a similar way. You have full-size clay models and you develop the themes, the criteria and the packaging together.
SU: It must be a very exact science. You’ve got tolerances of millimeters and…. building an exterior and then an interior and making them all fit and work. It’s amazing the level of quality that it’s got to. I don’t think that people actually sit and think for long about the complexity of an automobile – how many things go into it, the fact that all the parts have to work together.
SP: That’s right. I think it’s fair to say that there’s nothing – well, nothing ‘normal’ – that’s more complicated to design than a car, really. As you say, the complexity….. it’s not like a chair or a food processor. There’s an inside, an outside…..
SU: ….and thousands of moving parts. And it has to be durable. People expect cars to be durable now…
SP: That’s right. Exactly. It’s challenging. It’s fun.
SU: You mentioned the NCAP rules before… something that I’ve observed watching different car sites, which I’m sure you do as well – are designers being boxed in a lot by things like NCAP in terms of the shapes that they can build cars in? You know, something like that Citroen GT Concept is not going to get a 5-star NCAP rating. Is design being homogenised a little bit?
SP: To a certain extent. How could you say it? Certainly the limits you have to work within are getting more and more…. everyone’s working to the same rule book, basically. So from that perspective, yeah, it is. Luckily there’s still enough freedom so you still get cars with different characters. There’s still different ways of interpreting those restrictions as well, from the engineering side because you’ve got different ways to get to a similar result. Especially with the pedestrian protection rules from Euro NCAP, it’s built up on this points system where you can gain points in different areas. So whether you’re looking at lower leg, or head impact on the hood, for example….. It all means that there’s a little flexibility. Sometimes you can make a conscious decision, for example.. “we’ll have to be satisfied with our points for lower leg because changing it more is going to screw up the design theme in that area….” but that means you’ve got to work harder in other areas because we’ve got to gain back points, further up the hood, for example.
SU: A Saab has to be a 5-star car, doesn’t it?
SP: Yeah.
SU: There’s no options on that…
SP: No. Not for a mainstream Saab, I don’t think. No. Safety’s always been important. It comes from this Swedish, caring society, responsibility theme. So it is very important for Saab, and you have to work with all of those regulations. But I still think there’s enough freedom within that, you can still get different looking designs, but it is complicated. I often think how much fun it must have been in the old days of the ’50s and ’60s in America when you could use all your imagination. You could never do those kinds of cars these days. It must have been fun. But having said that, I think you get a better design out of having restrictions and frameworks to work with. It sounds silly but in some ways there’s nothing worse than giving someone a blank sheet of paper and saying “OK, do me a full design”. It’s working togehter, within the restrictions that brings out the best in you. People get more creative.
SU: How far ahead are you usually working? I don’t know if I can ask, but what are you working on now? I imagine the new 9-3 is at the top of your list, but are you looking at things beyond that as well?
SP: We are. We are. Typically we’re looking at anything from the current day up to as far as 10 years in advance.
SU: 10 years ahead? It must be difficult to pick what’s going to be important in 10 years time.
SP: Exactly. It’s fun as well, though, that future-gazing sort of thing.
SU: The pace of technology moves so quickly now. I’ve got no idea as to what’s going to be around in 10 years from now. Just the idea of making your own movies and loading them onto a DVD from your home computer was not thought of 10 years ago, when Google was only 1 year old.
SP: Yeah, that rate of technology is escalating all the time. You’re right, it’s very difficult because even things we see in development, you think “yeah, that’ll probably be ready around that time” and all these things are going on…. it doesn’t allow for the fact that, in reality, there’s going to be things in between that increase that rate even faster and then there’s another lot of new stuff coming in. Things that are important for people today, we can think they’re going to be important in the future but it’s probably going to be completely different. People’s attitudes change. One of the things there is a lot of talk about, for example, is what impact electric vehicles are going to have on the industry. One of the little things is sound. And that works on two levels. One is that electric vehicles tend to be very quiet so you’ve got a safety issue because you don’t hear them coming. The other one is how do you get around not having a nice engine sound and the feelings that gives the driver? You can fabricate that, but are people really going to be interested in that? That petrol-head element, is that really going to be relevant in the future? There’s a lot of young people who won’t look at a car the same way we have when we were growing up, that there’s this kind of romantic…..
SU: It’s sad when you think about it…
SP: It is sad. But then you think “well maybe there’s other stuff…”
Yes, there’s still more to come…..

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