27.04.2005 A look behind the scenes - alfa romeo development and progetto 940

Not long ago, a batch of photographs taken within the Alfa Romeo Centro Stile circulated the internet, boosting interest in the future Alfa 147 replacement, Progetto 940. At first sight the photographs, which revealed a duo of small clay models and a 1:1 wall tape drawing, portrayed design proposals for a car that matched the 147 in terms of proportion. It soon became apparent, however, that the photographs revealed no further details of the Alfa Romeo 147 replacement, and were described by insiders as ‘looking very different’.

The photographs turned out to bear slightly more resemblance to the design used on Progetto 921, the Alfa Romeo Kamal, which has been haunted ever since its birth with a stop-start development history. This was particularly true for the 1:1 scale wall tape drawing, which boasted a large ground clearance to match.

A second, more intriguing possibility for the clay models arose, with mention of a project that had silently come and gone, completely out of public knowledge. Consideration had apparently gone into the development of a small Alfa Romeo, to be positioned below the 147. Unfortunately, more questions than answers were triggered by the photographs, although one reasonably researchable curiosity was sparked, namely how far Progetto 940 exactly is in the development phase, and when we can expect to see the final product.

Earlier this year, it was stated that Alfa Romeo 147 replacement prototypes were already undergoing trials on test tracks, with excellent handling characteristics being observed. Coupled to the observation of a 1:1 scale body, at the Zagato facility on Via Arese, and the project appeared to be well underway. No photographs have so far been revealed, however, and it has now become apparent, with fresh information, that the car is not quite as far in its development phase as initially perceived.

Currently, a general design has been chosen, and is undergoing the feasibility phase at Elasis. Using the advanced 'Unigraphics' system, general parameters are used to test the practicality of the design. Not only constraints, but also comfort factors are tested, such as visibility, distance of gearlever, and legroom. Dimensions of technical features are also fitted into the car, such as the engine, and suspension components. The extremes are represented by two-dimensional cross sections, which are positioned within the virtual model.

Engineering work is also underway, which usually starts as soon as a general exterior shape has been derived. In the case of the Alfa Romeo Kamal, mules based on Fiat Stilo Multiwagon bodies were built by the Stola company, and used to test the general platform, and driveline. Recently, the decision to change the platform for the Kamal, for the third time, has resulted in a temporary halt in the use of old mules. By using mules, Alfa Romeo can develop the engineering side of the project alongside the styling, saving valuable time.

For testing the interior design after feasibility has been conducted, Elasis use the “Virtalis” virtual reality system. Fiat also use the system to incorporate all data held on a vehicle, to embrace aerodynamics, crash test, focus group analysis, manufacturing and marketing.

Top: Unigraphics is used to test the feasibility of a given design. Above: An engineer at Elasis is seen using the Virtalis virtual reality system to explore  a  proposed  design

A 1:1 scale tape drawing of an Alfa Romeo, possibly a Kamal proposal. The 147 replacement uses a combination of sharp and soft curves, broadly similar in effect to the new BMW 1-series, although Alfa  Romeo  have  been  more  successful 

A 1:1 scale tape drawing of an Alfa Romeo, possibly a Kamal proposal. The 147 replacement uses a combination of sharp and soft curves, broadly similar in effect to the new BMW 1-series, although Alfa  Romeo  have  been  more  successful  

Metodologie Sviluppo Prodotto (MSP), a department of Elasis, has been researching VR capability since the late 1990s and introduced Digital Mock-Up techniques into Fiat and sister company Alfa Romeo. In mid-2002, Gennaro Monacelli, manager of the MSP group at Elasis, decided to interlink ergonomics with real mock-ups.

First phase of the program included the creation of a parametric car in which all the physical relationships between elements of the vehicle’s interior could be electronically controlled. This was linked to a VR system, with the driver wearing a headset. The driver could then touch (real) proposed controls and sit in a (real) proposed seat in a virtual car.

In May of last year, the system was enthusiastically described by Monacelli. “Currently, altering the distance ratios of the various elements takes a few seconds and altering the physical seats and steering wheels takes about an hour. This means our top management can easily check out different configurations early in the design process without too much time commitment.

"Such comparisons are simply not possible with a wholly physical model, where creating a new one might not only take weeks but is costly to produce. Likewise, CAD does not allow you to truly feel the car, yet with this system, we can take CAD data and create a VR model ready for its first ergonomic evaluation in half an hour.”

Different drivers can also be used in the virtual realty system, to allow for the simulation of a complete range of human dimensions. Elasis are aiming to lower the time required for the system to prepare itself for a new driver to a minute. When this goal is reached, the system will then be regarded as the high speed, flexible design environment originally envisaged.

“We believe our adoption and investment in advanced VR techniques will generate better designs because we will genuinely have considered all the options and have thoroughly benchmarked them against our competitors. We will initially be focusing on the driver’s comfort and the quality of interior and exterior visibility. Beyond this application, the protocols we have developed are feeding into Fiat’s Virtual Reality Network, which will ultimately encompass all the Group’s activities in a co-operative working environment. VR will become the standard workstation for an engineer, just as CAD systems began to be about fifteen years ago.”

Adding ruggedised force feedback is the next target for Elasis and Virtalis, and is currently under development. Once this feature is enabled, Fiat dealers will be able not only to show how a customer’s car might look in different colours and lighting conditions but also allow them to experience textures created by the various finishes. Elasis is sponsoring research at the University of Padova into how VR is accepted by the general public.

The use of virtual reality will ensure that the Alfa Romeo 147 replacement will be a class-leader in comfort, irrespective of the customer type. The typical comfort problems, associated with both short and long drivers, will be an issue of the past. By replacing traditional techniques with such systems, development time can be used more effectively. Alfa Romeo are not exploiting the system to develop cars in ground-breaking times, instead they are using the systems to develop ground-breaking cars. The Alfa Romeo 147 replacement, both in three and five door format, is expected to be revealed towards the end of 2006.

By Patrick Granger