Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Smart Skills
Gear up for AUTO DESIGN
Usha Albuquerque

WE have come a long way from the time when, according to Henry Ford, getting a car with some style meant you could have any colour you wanted as long as it was black!

By the end of this year, some of the oldest carmakers in the US like Ford, Cadillac, Oldsmobile and Buick will have celebrated their 100th anniversaries as automakers. And one over riding factor that has dominated those 100 years has been the realisation that as all cars are very similar to each other, design is often the deciding factor in purchases.

Among the earliest and most successful automobile designers was Harley Earl of General Motors, who, in the 1920s, took Cadillacs, Buicks and Ford Model Ts and fashioned custom-built coaches for movie stars, much like Dilip Chhabria does in Mumbai today. Alfred P. Sloan brought Harley Earl to GM where he went on to influence car design significantly. Earl began giving recognisable features to cars such as chrome, tail fins, curved windshields, and the infamous Motoramas. Even today, Earlís design legacy still influences modern cars.

Wheels of change

Today, many aspiring automobile or mechanical engineers have visions of designing the future Porsches, Lamborghinis, or perhaps even something desi, a la Tata or Maruti. For all those with gnawing creative juices today there are growing options for an auto designer. Auto design is a part of industrial or product designing, a profession that came to be recognised because of the need to make consumer goods look aesthetically appealing. Therefore, auto designers have to understand engineering or work with automobile engineers or manufacturers.

Most auto designers start their careers as automobile engineers or product/industrial designers. Such a training enables you to deal with developing and designing of any product from an aeroplane or automobile to toys, home appliances, electronic and electrical products and recreational equipment. It involves the study of the technical aspects of the product, and the creation and working of a design along with engineering specialists.

Car seva

As yet, there are no specialised auto design courses, although some car manufacturers have plans to set up training facilities.

There are two main tasks that an auto designer has to perform. These are: redesigning of a product, and creating a new product.

Often, auto designers have to redesign a given product to make it look aesthetically more appealing, as well as more functional. At some of the auto manufacturers headquarters, auto designers are also involved with the design of a new vehicle from scratch, to create a whole new product, while ensuring itís utility for consumers. A matrix of sorts is drawn out, where the factors begin from fairly tangible ones and then they go down to very determinate ones like market research, production technology, material processes and costs. Based on these factors the product is designed and created.

Automobile designers have to address themselves to aesthetics, while keeping in mind efficiency, and reliability. They must have technical knowledge as well as commercial awareness of the market. Work, therefore, involves a thorough study of the product required, its usage, functions, and raw materials. It also includes sample drawings and sketches, and models for testing before the prototype is created. Most car companies and also scooter, motorbike and moped manufacturers have studios where teams of specialists who work on drawings, models and the engineering aspects of the vehicle.

Engines of growth

To become an automobile designer you can take up engineering courses, preferably in automobile or mechanical engineering, and follow it up with a Masters in Industrial design, or join the 4-years industrial design programme offered by the National Institute of Design at Ahmedabad. NID also offers an advanced programme in industrial design open to engineering and architecture graduates.

The training is both theoretical as well as practical. The course includes freehand drawing, geometry, making models, information material, colour graphic composition and design processes. As part of the learning process, students are allocated an actual workplace in industry where they have to design a functional item/product. IIT-Guwahati also offers a B. Tech in Design, for which selection is through the IIT JEE.

Some private institutes, including the Maharshtra Institute of technology, Pune, also offer a Post Graduate Diploma in Automotive Design (PGDAD).

With the growth and expansion of the automobile sector in India, the job opportunities for automobile designers can only grow. Besides, Hyundai and Honda, many American and European car manufacturers like Chevrolet, Ford and Chrysler have already come in, or are setting up manufacturing units in India. India is also fast emerging as an important destination for engineering and design for global auto majors. The recent Auto Expo with its strong contingent of engineering design services firms, signified the importance of India as a destination for automotive design.

Many car manufacturers, including the Tatas, Mahindras and Maruti Suzuki have plans to set up design centres in India. Maruti Suzuki also already announced its plans to set up a complete automobile design centre in India in a few years. Maruti, in fact, has plans to launch a slew of cars over the next five to 10 years, with India as a hub for Suzukiís small cars, for the Indian as well as other Asian markets. Maruti has already sent some of its engineers to Suzuki Motor Corporation in Japan to get some experience in designing cars. Nearly 20 engineers from Maruti were sent to Hamamatsu, Suzukiís headquarters in Japan to co-design Marutiís latest car, Swift.

But R&D in India in automotive design and engineering has only just started. Much of the work has so far been only reactive, where the companies do what they have been asked to do by their customers abroad. This is largely because there is not a huge design engineering pool in India from which companies can source talent. So, this is the time for those wanting to move into the fast track, to put it into fifth gear with a career in automobile design.

The writer is a noted career expert