Commercial software for modelling and visualising manufacturing variation in automotive products – users save estimated £25 million
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Leeds
Unit of AssessmentComputer Science and Informatics
Summary Impact TypeTechnological
Research Subject Area(s)
Information and Computing Sciences: Artificial Intelligence and Image Processing, Computer Software
Engineering: Manufacturing Engineering
Summary of the impact
Researchers from this UoA developed 3D modelling techniques and virtual
visualisation software to help car-makers address potential imperfections
(gaps between panels, misalignments, etc) that arise during vehicle
assembly, even when all part dimensions are manufactured to within their
tolerance range. The University of Leeds spun out Icona Solutions in 2003
to develop and exploit this intellectual property. Icona's Aesthetica
software was launched in 2006, and since 2008 it has been licensed by over
20 automotive companies in 10 countries. The software has contributed to
improvements in the design and manufacture of around 70 different vehicle
lines, reaching over 40 million consumers, and saving car-makers
approximately £25 million in efficiency and cost savings (including
reduced scrap and rectification costs). Icona's turnover since 2008 is
well over £1 million.
In 1996, the Rover Car Company approached the University of Leeds for
help with a quality control problem. The company was concerned that after
assembly a number of manufactured cars failed to match the visual appeal
of the original CAD design, despite all components being manufactured to
within their specified tolerances. These cars had to be scrapped or
rectified leading to waste and increased production costs.
This problem arises because CAD packages show what a perfectly
constructed car will look like. However, its actual construction is always
"within tolerance". For example, two adjoining bodywork panels will have
lengths that fall within a tolerance range, but, if each panel is at the
minimum range, an unsightly gap might appear between them on the car.
Professor Peter Dew assembled and led an EPSRC-funded consortium to
research and develop solutions to these problems highlighted by Rover.
This consortium [Visualisation of the Impact of Tolerance ALlocation in
automotive design (VITAL), GR/M12094/01
(01/10/1998 to 31/12/2001), £214,769 from EPSRC plus industrial
contributions, PI Professor Peter Dew] included Neal Juster (Department of
Design and Engineering Management, University of Strathclyde) together
with Rover, SGI and Rover's Tier 1 supplier, Magna, as industry partners.
Dew and John Maxfield (PDRA) were the key Leeds
researchers involved in the project, leading the research and development
into: modelling the effects of the manufacturing variation, representing
these effects visually, and developing a software tool.
Primary underpinning research: the VITAL project
The Leeds research in VITAL built on Dew's earlier work into
interactive, constraint-based solid modelling , and upon Dew
and Maxfield's prototype distributed virtual environment for
interactive synchronous collaboration in engineering product and process
design . Specifically, as described in [3,4], the Leeds researchers
explored new modelling approaches to capture the effects of manufacturing
variation. They the then developed a prototype software tool for users to
simulate and view an interactive 3D model, allowing them to visualise what
would happen to the appearance, fit and finish of an assembled car when
manufacturing variation (within user-supplied tolerances) was introduced
for specific parts or assembly processes.
The 3D modelling approach applied tolerances and component deformations
directly to the 3D CAD geometry of component parts. These alterations to
the 3D models could then be visualised in a photorealistic, real-time 3D
virtual environment. The visualisation module provided accurate
representations of how deformations, irregularities and misaligned
components and assemblies would actually appear from any angle and in
different lighting conditions.
Dew and Maxfield investigated the behaviour of the
tolerance models used in the software (representing the deformation of
components under prescribed conditions and their allowable manufacturing
variations respectively); they also applied the models within an
automotive design and manufacturing process . Following further model
enhancements, the researchers worked with the VITAL industrial partners to
fully evaluate the research software prototype using an industrial case
study of a glove box assembly within a typical automotive instrument panel
that is composed of both rigid and flexible components .
Alongside this activity, VITAL's Strathclyde research team (led by
Juster) worked with users, and potential users, to assess where the
technology could best fit into the design and manufacturing process;
Juster fed this information into the requirements for the Leeds software
developers. Although Strathclyde's work was essential to the eventual
successful exploitation of the software, the formation of Icona Solutions
itself and the subsequent software product Aesthetica were based
solely on the intellectual property generated by the University of Leeds'
Upon completion of the EPSRC research described above, the University of
Leeds employed Maxfield to continue development of the software
tool (with some financial support from SGI, whose visualisation modules
were used) towards commercialisation. The spin out company Icona Solutions
Ltd. was established in 2003 with the aid of start-up funding of £300,000
from the WhiteRose Seedcorn fund. This supported the company to develop
the software interface, documentation and marketing and sales operations,
through to the launch of Aesthetica in late 2006.
Professor Peter Dew [text removed for publication]
Dr John Maxfield [text removed for publication]
References to the research
1. Fa, M; Fernando, T; Dew, PM, Direct 3D Manipulation Techniques for
interactive constraint- based solid modelling. Computer Graphics Forum,
12(3):237-248, 1993, DOI: 10.1111/1467-8659.1230237
2. Maxfield J; Fernando T; Dew PM. A distributed virtual environment for
collaborative engineering. Presence: Teleoperators and virtual
environments, 7(3):241-261, 1998, DOI:
3. Juster NP; Maxfield J, Dew, Peter M; Taylor, Stephen; Fitchie, Martin;
Ion, William J; Zhao, Jeff; Thompson, Martin, Predicting product aesthetic
quality using virtual environments. Trans of the ASME, Journal of
Computing and Information Science in Engineering, 1(2):105-112,
2001, DOI: 10.1115/1.1387244.
This paper first appeared in the Proceedings of the International
Conference on Engineering Design (ICED 01) 2001, with the authors
subsequently invited to submit to the (fully refereed) international
4. Maxfield, J. Dew, P. M. Zhao, J. Juster, N. Fitchie, M., A virtual
environment for aesthetic quality assessment of flexible assemblies in the
automotive design process. SAE Technical Paper 2002-01-0464, 2002,
This paper was selected to appear in the SAE Transactions (and
re-published as SAE Transactions, 111(5):209-217,
2002, ISSN 0096-736X, which "is an annual collection of the technical
papers from that year which are best suited to be preserved in permanent
literature" (quoting from http://www.sae.org/events/ads/transactions.htm)).
Papers  and  best illustrate the quality of the underpinning
research, as evidenced by their selection for re-publication (see notes
Details of the impact
Consumer impact — better looking, higher quality vehicles
The look of a vehicle plays an important role in the purchasing decision.
Customer feedback and announcements show that Aesthetica helps
manufacturers to maintain consistency in the looks of their vehicles
through better dimension control of parts and by redesigning, at an
earlier stage, to avoid high imperfection rates [A]. Icona customers say
that application of Aesthetica improves how the quality of
products are perceived at all major phases of the digital product
development process [B,C,D]. Ultimately, Aesthetica helps
car-makers ensure that the final product assemblies are more visually
appealing, matching the looks originally conceived by the designer and
hence satisfying customers' expectations on perceived quality [E].
For example, GM Europe has used the software to refine the lines of the
Opel/Vauxhall Insignia which contributed, in part, to the model winning
European Car of the Year 2009 [E].
Commercial impact — Icona growth, exceeding £1 million sales, private
The company has approximately 30 existing customers, the vast majority in
the automotive industry. Customers include: most western mass-market
automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) (e.g., Audi, Chrysler,
Fiat, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Renault and VW), many premium and
sports car OEMs (e.g., Ferrari, Lotus, McLaren, JLR, Porsche and Bentley)
and growing numbers of eastern automotive OEMs (e.g., Hyundai, Kia and
Ssangyong (Korea), First Automotive, Great Wall, Qoros and SAIC (China)
and Tata Motors (India)) [F].
Since the launch of the commercial Aesthetica product, Icona
Solutions has grown steadily — with total sales of Aesthetica
licences and technical support exceeding £1 million since 2008, and a
current sales pipeline of over £3 million [F]. This is built upon a
network of agents and resellers in every major territory around the world,
including mainland Europe, USA, Brazil, Australia, China, India, South
Korea and Japan.
On the basis of these achievements, in October 2013 Icona Solutions was
acquired by the French- based multinational company OPTIS SA (www.optis-world.com).
(The price paid by OPTIS for Icona Solutions is not public and OPTIS are
not prepared to share this information with us.)
Commercial impact — £25 million savings to customers
Some Icona customers have been willing to disclose to Icona estimates of
the financial benefits they receive from using Aesthetica. For
example, BMW Mini achieved immediate cost savings of over US$100,000 per
year using Aesthetica on an existing production vehicle through
reduced scrap, less rectification (i.e., less work to rectify
imperfections) and a significant reduction in the cost of labour [G].
Similarly, on individual new-vehicle programmes, Porsche used the software
and identified savings of at least €250,000 [G]; Nissan estimates savings
of US$875,000 due to reduced re-tooling, less building of physical models
and faster product development [H].
Icona, and other customers [A], believe that these three examples are
typical of cost savings in the industry from use of its software: the
value of Aesthetica to the automotive industry is therefore
estimated at between £200,000 and £500,000 per product line. Taking
Icona's estimate of approximately 70 different product lines benefiting
from Aesthetica in the automotive industry [F] and assuming a
conservative typical financial benefit of £350,000, Aesthetica has
generated a total financial saving of the order of £25 million to Icona's
customers in the impact period.
Indication of consumer reach
Aesthetica is used by around 20 companies [F] in the automotive
industry and has provided input into the design and assembly of around 70
different vehicle lines [F]. It is therefore possible to undertake a crude
estimate as to the number car buyers who have benefited from the improved
looks and build quality realised by the use of Aesthetica.
The total 2012 car and light vehicle sales in the USA [I] and Europe [J]
from Icona's largest OEM customers (Audi, Chrysler, Fiat, Ford, General
Motors, Nissan, Renault and VW Group) were around six million in each
market. Allowing for Aesthetica having influenced the final design
of those vehicles sold since the start of 2010 (which is a conservative
estimate), around 42 million car buyers in Europe and the USA alone will
have benefited from the application of the Aesthetica software
during the REF impact period.
Sources to corroborate the impact
A. Testimonial from Head of Concepts Department, Bentley Motors, November
B. Right Image, http://www.iconasolutions.com/News_Press/engineering.pdf
(pp 49 - 51 in Engineering Magazine, September 2009).
C. FIAT Implementing aesthetica from Icona Solutions, http://www.pddnet.com/news-fiat-implementing-aesthetica-from-icona-solutions-082310/,
23rd August 2012, Accessed 3rd March 2013.
D. Great Wall Motor Company selects Icona software simulation of the
perceived quality, http://tech.elecbuzz.com/great-wall-motor-company-selects-icona-software-simulation-of-the-perceived-quality/,
4th July, 2011, Accessed 3rd March 2013.
E. Aesthetica Speeds New Opel to Car of the Year, http://www.deskeng.com/articles/aaatmb.htm,
January 3, 2010, Accessed 3rd March 2013.
F. Testimonial from Technical Director and Co-Founder, Icona Solutions
Ltd, May 2013.
G. Presentation on Aesthetica provided by Technical Director and
Co-Founder, Icona Solutions Ltd., March 2013.
Accessed 20th August 2012.
I. US Car Sales 2012 by Brand.
J. Europe Car Sales 2012 by Brand.