At last year’s Blender Conference, a title caught my eye in the schedule: “Automotive design with Blender”. I was intrigued and went to see the track. And this is how I had my first contact with Mathilde – a young and talented artist, who drove the adoption of Blender in Tata Motors’ UK design center. Read on to find out what Blender is used for in the car design department, and what are some of the challenges of a product design pipeline.
Marius Iatan: Hi Mathilde, I think you are the youngest artist we’ve interviewed so far. What were the main takeaways from your scholar years in Design?
Mathilde Ampe: Hi Marius. I’m glad I’m the youngest one but surprised at the same time. There are so many young and very talented artists in the world.
From my three years in a design school, I’ve learned how to work in a team and how to handle deadlines. It was really the first time I had to handle various personalities. It’s very interesting how people behave differently when they are under pressure. I have learned how to find solutions and, trust me or not, “Google is my best friend” doesn’t work all the time.
But I guess the most important thing I’ve learned during these years is that nothing comes by chance. You have to make your own luck. If I am in Tata Motors now it’s because, first of all, I worked hard. But, most likely, because at one point in school I met Pierre Paul Andriani, my current manager. He came as a judge for the graduating students. At that time, he was working for GM in Detroit. We had a chat about what I wanted to do. I asked him if he could help me with an internship at GM and gave him my business card and stayed in contact. I couldn’t get an internship at GM but he thought Airbus Helicopters would be a good experience.
By staying in contact, I’ve learned he quit GM for Tata Motors in the UK and he was looking for contractors to join his team. I applied to one of Tata’s suppliers so that they would send me to Tata. But Pierre decided to hire me directly instead. So if you want something, go for it. It might take time but at one point perseverance will pay.
Marius: You told me that you started using Blender because you had a need to create your own assets for design. What determined you to stick with it?
Mathilde: I started working with Blender when I was an intern at Airbus Helicopters. I had to write an important report of what happened during the six months I spent there but all the projects I worked on were confidential. At this time, we were two students working in the design team – Kevin Massard as transportation designer and me, the surface modeller. We decided to work on an internship project in order to have something to present in our report and for our degree. Most of the project was done with Autodesk Alias because surface modelling is my main skill. But, with Kevin, we wanted to go further and present some cool and sexy images of our helicopter. With Alias, I would have never been able to obtain the quality needed. We asked our manager at Airbus for using a rendering software. He approved at the only condition we have to use an open source software.
At the time, I already knew about Blender but I never had the time to get more into it. So I started learning it, watching tutorials, and trying it by myself as well. I like to figure out how things work. Very quickly, I started to like the interface and the logic of the software. So by the time I was working on my internship project I decided to use Blender as my only animation and rendering software for my degree presentation. Originally, my plan was to only use Maya in my projects, because it was the software I learned in school.
So by starting to use Blender I learned more and more about the software. All the renderings I did for my degree were very simple. I integrated my objects into images. And the animated showreel I presented that day was rendered in a studio environment.
Afterwards, I’ve been hired at Tata Motors as a surface modeller but even before being hired I started testing polygonal modelling with Blender for them. They were interested in comparing the time spent modelling a soft part like seats between surface and polygonal. When they were expecting 2 days of work on Blender for the seat it took me 4 hours. So based on this experience, we tried to push forward the use of Blender in the company. It took us 4 months to have it included in the process. I was the only user at the time so I trained the entire advanced team, Pierre included. And now, Blender is part of my everyday life, either at work or for my personal projects. I’m now getting into Python. This is going to allow me to have my own functions and improve my own process and the process at work even more.
So, to answer the question, for me open source means freedom. Freedom to try, create, improve and succeed. That’s why I’m sticking with it.
Marius: You drove a very fast adoption of Blender and managed to save time in the sketch/modeling phase at Tata Motors. If you needed to do it again in another company, what would you do differently in the process?
Mathilde: All the companies are different. I have the chance to be in a company where employees are free to try and sometimes, fail. Most of the big companies are much more procedural. So I guess, to obtain the same result in another company, the process will have to be procedural as well. It might require some kind of audits.
Marius: What are your main responsibilities at Tata Motors—can you explain what you’re doing at your job?
Mathilde: To start, Tata Motors Design UK is one of the three design studios at Tata Motors. The other ones are based in India and Italy. In the UK there are two teams. One is working on production projects. The other one that I’m a part of is the CAS advanced team (Computer Assisted Surface). The advanced studio is where all the projects are started and where we are creating show cars.
Our main job in the CAS team is to produce and deliver models to the engineers and the suppliers. We are working with the designers and the engineers to bring the ideas to life.
Another part of our job is creating the review files and at the same time doing some renderings of the projects for internal communication. There are two kinds of reviews. We have our weekly review with the designers and the heads of design where we are showing a work in progress of the project. And we have the review with the Head of Design, the chairman, and the board. At this point, they have to believe in us and in the project. So it’s important to show them a high quality review.
Now for all those tasks, the choice of the technique we are using depends on the phase of the project and the timing. The first phase of a new project is to translate a 2D sketch into a 3D model and adapt it to a platform. This phase is now done with Blender. It allows more flexibility to create and modify the model. The next phases are to rebuild the scan of the clay model. The use of Blender or Alias is going to depend on how many changes we have to apply to the scan and how important they are. For example decreasing the length of the car or moving the A-pillar are big changes. This involves redoing all the car and thinking about new problems. We are, ideally, rebuilding the car on Blender first and then use the Blender model as a guide to building a clean surface model.
Another part of my job at Tata Motors is to work on some research and development projects. It really started when we launched polygonal modelling. I am completely free to try whatever I want to. Now, I’m working on how to improve our rendering and animation process for internal communication. A typical scenario is on a Friday afternoon. The modeller in charge of the project has to deliver for Monday x images of the project. He doesn’t know how to use Blender and he is alone. How can he do it?
Marius: What were the benefits of using Blender in the design process? Were there any drawbacks?
Mathilde: The main benefit of using Blender was moneywise. I don’t even speak about the fact that Blender is an open source software, free of charge. I speak about how much time we saved on the first project we worked on. And everybody knows that time is money. By using Blender on this project, instead of spending 10 to 15 days modelling the cars, we spent 5 days. Then afterwards, by using the software more and more, the open source fact became important for us. It means everybody can write and implement their own plugins and people are sharing a lot about their experiences.
However, for us, there is one drawback. We can’t translate our Blender model into surfaces to give them to engineers and suppliers. Now, we need to add another step and another software to our process. We are using Maya for that.
Marius: How well does Blender integrate with the rest of your design pipeline? Are there any improvements that, if implemented, would have a significant impact on your productivity?
Mathilde: Now, in the CAS team, we are using Alias, Blender, Vred, Showcase and Maya. Occasionally, when we have the time to do some testing, we are using Photoshop and After Effects. Personally, I’m too lazy to switch computers when I want to do some post-production so I’m using the composition nodes in Blender.
Our engineers are using Catia and the designers, Photoshop and After Effects. Blender integrates pretty well in the pipeline. The main problem we have, as I mentioned before, we have to use Maya to convert the Blender model into NURBS if the engineers need to work on the surfaces. Because they can’t do anything with the STL mesh we are able to export. Being able to do it directly in Blender would have a significant impact for us. Another problem we came across is the export in STL doesn’t keep the crease edges. Time wise, we have to add one day of work to transform all the crease edges of an exterior in real sharp edges. That would be another significant improvement for us.
Marius: So, are you set for a career in industrial design?
Mathilde: I can’t predict the future but I think so. The main reason for that is because I like it. It’s so enjoyable when you receive and touch the object you and the team you’re part of created. It’s a little bit like when you were a kid, you helped your mother cook a cake (you actually just broke an egg and left some part of the shell in the bowl) and two hours later, you can eat a slice and it tastes amazing because you were a part of it. The other reason is because it’s what I studied
Marius: You mentioned that you are considering creating VR experiences for your company in the future. What would be the best use of this technology in your field?
Mathilde: By using VR, we are trying to improve our review experiences. As I mentioned before, every time we are receiving our Chairman and the board, we need to impress them. The VR technology allows an immersive experience. So we would be able to transport our chairman into a new environment and show him the car in a city or in the countryside. He would be able to walk around the car, open the doors and take a seat inside. This is the kind of experience the design team would require as well as to validate the colour and trim or some details like the lights or the interfaces.
Marius: How do you envision the personal car one hundred years from now—in 2116?
I don’t really believe that personal cars have a future. I think in one hundred years, people are going to travel underground or in the air for very long distances. There are already some awesome projects that go in this direction like the Hyperloop. There are now some companies which are working on the project and which are building a fast track to prove the concept.
And for smaller distances, there is the Masdar project, this green town in the United Arab Emirates. There, cars will be electric and driverless. The inhabitants are going to share them. It’s not very personal but in one hundred years, technologies are going to be even more efficient and transparent. And by knowing your mood and your preferences, the car might change shape, colour or music automatically.