The new 2019 Audi A7 marks a new chapter for the guys and gals at Ingolstadt. Not only have they released a new model packed with technology, but they have done all of this out of their brand-new design center.
With the paint still drying, we were treated to behind the scenes access to Audi’s top-secret design center–a place so secure that most Audi employees don’t have access–where they are pushing the envelope with automotive design technologies.
Here, we look at the 7 most interesting things that we learned about the new design center and the new A7.
1. It was designed in the new Audi Design Center
The design division at Audi used to have it quite easy. Before the 90s, its model range consisted of a handful of vehicles, requiring relatively little manpower and floorspace for design development. Fast-forward to today and Audi offers a total of 15 models, from the humble A1 to the evocative R8. This increase in model range has pushed Audi to build the aforementioned new design center in Ingolstadt, which houses new design technologies and philosophies.
Enter the building and you immediately notice the shear amount of natural daylight. This was pivotal in the design of the center. According to the architects, the building was designed to allow as much natural daylight in as possible. To this end, three atria flood the inner sanctum of the building with light, and exterior walls are clad in glass.
Not only do designers feed off good lighting for their work, but the view of a rolling German landscape offers a boost to their creativity–apparently. To allow ample light in but to keep prying eyes out, Audi used one-way glass that reflects the image of the surrounding sky from the outside, but seems perfectly clear on the inside.
Situated on the roof of the building is the outdoor display area. It was used while we were there for the world premiere of the A7, but is also used to get models and prototypes into pure natural light for analysis by top designers before sign-off.
Another interesting point about the design of the building is that the main design room is open-plan and has around ten CNC clay milling machines. This way, various models can be developed within eyeshot of others, offering a flow of creativity and co-operation from the various teams.
2. It is based on the Prologue Concept
The Audi Prologue concept was revealed in 2014 at the LA Auto Show, and it gave us a taste of what was to come from Audi. The new A8 took cues from the Prologue concept, and the concept was also used as a basis for the design of the A7. In fact, the Prologue provides the design principles for the new A8, A7, and will also feed into the next A6. Head of exterior design Andreas Mindt spoke to us of the importance of the Prologue, and how the design ideas can be split for differing underlying principles. For example, the A8 uses the Prologue as a basis, but offers an air of the ‘Superior’, whereas the A7 goes down a more ‘Sportiv’ path.
This was achieved with a systematic tweaking of interior and exterior features to give the A7 a sportier dynamic. For example, the touch surfaces in the A8 are democratically divided between the driver and front passenger, whereas the A7 has the control center angled towards the driver, providing a more driver-focused environment. Additionally, the edges of the interior door trims are curved in more than they are in the A8, giving the impression of a tighter, athletic cockpit.
3. Its design philosophy is inspired the theme of “effortless propulsion.”
To understand the basic philosophy behind the exterior design of the new A7, we were introduced to Sebastian and Andreas, two finely dressed young men who were beside themselves with enthusiasm for the new design process. They told us how they started by taking inspiration from reference images that they believe personify the values of the A7. An image of a female model in a flowing dress represents the avant-garde, whereas a yacht embodies a feeling of luxury and the sensation of smoothly gliding along. This theme of effortless propulsion was key for the exterior design experts, who also took inspiration from zeppelin airships.
The gentlemen then showed us how these core ideas translate to initial, but tangible design ideas. Situated next to a state-of-the-art clay model CNC milling machine, Sebastian talked us through an early design step where a basic sketch composed of a few lines can be milled into an A7-esc clay model with the aim of getting an idea of defining curves and swoops. As we stood watching, Andreas etched a long sweeping roofline onto a tablet, and the milling machine followed suit, carving a long line along a rough clay silhouette of the existing A7. This is where Audi’s design ideas come to life.
4. It was designed through a modern, computer-assisted process
Not only was the 2019 A7 designed in an entirely new building, it was done using completely modern techniques. Traditional techniques used to involve the painstaking manipulation of clay models based upon rough sketches of free-thinking design geniuses. This has now changed.
Computational techniques are implemented at the earliest stage of the process to help push automotive design well into the 21st century. A blue-sky sketch of a few flowing lines is input to computational modelling software, where a design engineer can extrude out a rough 3D shape. This extrusion can then undergo digital ergonomic testing. A human figure is superimposed into the vehicle to see if ergonomic and spatial requirements are met, which basically comes down to “will his head fit under the roofline?” and similar questions. Soon after this stage, the design can be tweaked in CAD software before being sent to a CNC milling machine to slowly chip away at a life-size clay model. At this point, the team has a tangible model in front of them, where they can employ traditional clay sculpting techniques to further their vision.
5. Audi has its own supercomputer cluster
The reliance of Audi’s new design process on CAD modeling and 3D image manipulation required it to up its computing power. To this end, Audi commissioned its own supercomputer cluster for the design center.
It is used throughout the design process, but mainly to generate photo-realistic models of designs for environmental superimposition. Designers can load a photo-realistic model of their current design into any background environment, allowing them to evaluate its appearance in different lighting situations.
Want to know what the car would look like in Mexico at dusk, surrounded by plant pots? No worries. Want to see what it looks like from a three-quarter angle parked on a rooftop in Germany? Don’t sweat it. Any environment and lighting can be simulated.
This might sound like a bit of a gimmick, but when we were shown these different images, it soon became clear that this is a powerful tool. Delicate curves and creases in a car’s body reflect different light in various ways, some of which look stunning, some of which don’t. This is where this tool is used to its potential.
6. It includes the new role of a multi-modeler
Once a clay model has been rough-cut by the milling machines, each square inch of the model is meticulously finished by what Audi call a “multi-modeler”. Whereas previous techniques involved a tactile manual worker developing a clay model and a CAD engineer to develop computer models, these roles are now merging. A multi-modeler works carefully by hand on the clay model with traditional tools, then uses optical imaging techniques to scan the clay model, transferring the real-world model into a CAD environment. This updates the milling machine on the current design model, and allows the multi-modeler to play with the shapes in CAD software.
The entire process is called “ping-pong” by Audi engineers, and is invaluable to streamline and develop the design process further.
7. Its lights are inspired by a panther
Audi has always been somewhat of a pioneer in the automotive lighting arena. It was the first automaker to showcase all-LED lighting with the R8 V-12 TDI concept, and more recent models have presented progressive turn signals and laser headlights. We can safely say that Audi didn’t let us down with the new A7, the headlights of which were apparently inspired by the eyes of a panther. Cesar Muntada, head of lighting design, broke down how the unique slotted lighting idea came to be. Right before our very eyes, a member of his team started with a rough wire sketch of the front facade of the A7. He then drew the lights either side of the grill, and with a flick of his white pencil, he showed how he continued lines from the grill geometry to split the light into an upper and lower half. The upper half received a ‘pupil’ to anthropomorphize the face of the car, and surrounding the pupil we found the unique slotted daytime running lights. The idea, we were told, came from the binary nature of the digital world, where 1s represent on and 0s represent off. This amalgamation of an anthropomorphic eye, and binary slotted headlights is Audi’s take on their ‘analogue meets digital’ design philosophy.
This idea was experimented with using lighting projections and block volumes. One of Cesar’s understudies gave a lighting demonstration that would no doubt gain the approval of Pink Floyd, projecting varying shapes and images over a cuboid block in the middle of the room. The point of which was to show how these slotted lights change the apparent shape of an object with subtle animated projections.
The rear light bar was an idea carried over from the A8. However, understated adjustments were made to make this rear light cluster unique to the A7. The animation upon waking or sleeping the car is playful and almost Tron-like in nature, something that the lighting team was quite proud of. And for good reason—the new A7 certainly stands out in its field thanks to the exterior lighting innovations.
From our recent trip to Audi’s new design center, it’s clear that we are entering an exciting time for automotive design. It seems that automotive designers are finding new ways to express themselves, with overall body shape or even lighting ideas. The new design center gets our tick of approval, and we can’t wait to see what else comes out of the doors.