Acura Design Studio, Los Angeles

A Look Inside the Acura Design Studio in Los Angeles

It’s a beautiful spring day in Torrance, California, and we’re sitting in the heart of the Acura Design Studio. Dave Marek, Executive Creative Director for Acura, is sketching a car on the white board, breaking down the car deign process into architectural terms; first laying the foundation – two ovals that will become the wheels – then drawing a line above them. This is the first story.

Walking through the various thought processes that go through the designers mind when sketching a vehicle, Marek finishes the sketch and abruptly erases his creation. With only the wheels and a character line left, he starts to change what was a coupe into a CUV, showing how a simple change in surface proportions can create an entirely new design.

Even for seasoned designers, this exercise was quite fun – and we should mention Dave Marek has some serious whiteboard sketching skills. This was just the start of a unique experience Acura opened up to a select few members of the press to show a glimpse of their design process, and demonstrate how Acura designers are driven by ‘Precision Crafted Performance’ in everything they do.

When Acura launched in the US, it initially shared its design studio with Honda. Acura’s President and General Manager Jon Ikeda compared this to sharing a bedroom with an older sibling – it can work, but as you get older, you need some space. So, in 2007, Acura built a completely new studio at Honda’s R&D headquarters in Torrance, California, where they’ve continued to develop their vehicles and brand behind closed doors.

Acura has always been a challenger brand, taking on a unique position in the industry as both a performance brand and luxury brand for Honda. In the early days, the design team was having fun, trying to push the limits in both performance and design. The NSX was the pinnacle of performance, the Legend was the pinnacle of Honda’s luxury, and the RSX easily summed up what happened when great functional design, spunky performance, and a bit of fun were mixed together. Those were the three iconic vehicles the designers referred to as defining vehicles in their history.

But Acura has come a long way since those days. The new NSX set a new benchmark for form following function, and their Precision Concept released in 2016 is their guiding light for their current and future generation vehicle designs. While ‘Precision Crafted Performance’ may sound like a marketing term, it is actually the result of years of focus, design, and marketing distilled into those three words that guide the team – and it has resulted in highly successful vehicles, such as the new RDX Crossover, which was used to showcase their design process at this event.

Acura’s design studio is a unique, open, and beautiful space that is the dream of designers. One aspect that makes Acura’s studio exceptional is that every aspect of design is housed in this one building – from exterior and interior design, color and trim, Human Machine Interface (HMI) to product planning and marketing. In addition, in each section of design, Acura has a handful of design and engineering experts to help the design process move efficiently before consulting with the full engineering teams in Ohio.

The openness lends itself to open collaboration between teams so that collaboration takes place more naturally. While the studio may be in a high security part of Honda’s R&D Campus closed off from the rest of the world, inside, collaboration between teams is constantly taking place, leading to shared inspiration, and thus more unique design solutions.

Visitors to the studio arrive in an outdoor courtyard that is used to evaluate scale models, from 1/4 scale to full scale. Crossing the courtyard, you enter into the first floor, a vast open space with tons of natural light along with several ‘pads’ for clay modelers to work on creating their models. This makes it very easy to quickly roll models outside for evaluation and bring them back into the studio for modifications.

A series of CNC mills, scanners, and tool chests sit to one side of the studio, but many of these tools are mobile to allow designers and modelers flexibility as they work. A sort of mezzanine sits over half the width of the modeling floor.

Further back on the first floor you will find a large lab for the HMI team to test out concepts. The centerpiece of the lab is a highly technical ‘buck’ that looks like a huge erector set, with a mockup of the front cockpit of a vehicle. Screens and cameras are mounted all around it, along with a floating windshield, and TV screens in front. Think of the most advanced racing simulator you’ve seen, and then take it up a notch or two. 

This is where the HMI team tests their concepts, screen placement and user interface components. This lab lets them get instant feedback without having to have an actual vehicle built, and because of the modular nature of the buck, it can be reconfigured for a sports car like the NSX to their largest crossover. This is a far cry from the plywood bucks of years past.

Up on the mezzanine are a few offices where the HMI and interior design teams work away on future Acura vehicles. The exterior design team is in the open part of the mezzanine that looks over the modeling floor. At any given time a designer can get up from his or her desk and look over the edge to watch the clay models taking shape.

There is a meeting room further back, but it is pretty much standing room only – when teams run into issues they meet here to quickly solve problems.

Throughout the studio, artwork created by in-house designer Gypsy Modina lines the walls.

One of the most amazing aspects of the whole space is just how flexible the building space is, and how functional it is as well. It literally is precision crafted to perform for the designers.

As Acura redefined their design language around precision crafted performance, they took this ethos seriously. This resulted in the decision to be ‘honest’ with all of the materials they use in the interior, for example.

Aluminum trim is actually extruded aluminum as opposed to a thin appliqué. Wood trim is made from sustainably sourced wood – and it is genuine thick pieces of wood instead of a thin laminate or veneer. This took considerable work on the part of the interior design and color, materials and finish (CMF) teams to work with suppliers who could reliably create and execute these parts.

When the CMF team was developing the color palette for the Precision concept and the new RDX, they worked tirelessly with suppliers to develop completely new colors using nano particles to give totally unique sheens to the colors that could accent the volumes of the cars surfaces.

In addition to these details, the exterior designers worked extremely hard to find innovative solutions to keep specific design elements intact. On the new RDX, lead exterior designer Randall Smock explained how they developed a single-piece rear lift gate panel in order to avoid having a parting line splitting panel in half like most crossovers.

On the front of the RDX the clay team worked tirelessly in order to hide the front bumper bar behind the ‘floating spoiler’ design element. In fact, when Dave Marek saw the clay model for the first time he didn’t believe that the team had been able to hide the actual crash bar.

Achieving work like this is possible in part thanks to the fusion of 3D CAD modeling combined with traditional clay modeling can bring about. One surprising detail of Acura’s workflow is that Matthew Mantz, the lead clay modeler, actually carves a 1/4 scale model based on design sketches before a model is ever milled out or a curve is drawn in Alias.

This is surprising as many studios around the world will develop the 3D model, mill out a general shape, and then let the modelers finish the process.

Acura actually starts by crafting the first model by hand, scanning that, and then building the 3D CAD model around that. Then the iterative process of perfecting the design both in clay and on the computer starts.

During this process the mills get used a bit more to speed up the process. The CAD team lead by James Robbins is quite innovative as they have developed a process that incorporates fast subdivision modeling techniques with industry standard NURBS-based modeling in order to be able to quickly iterate designs and incorporate changes and feedback.

Visualizing these changes before any clay is touched is done in a dedicated room with a floor to ceiling projection screen where the model can be shown in a multitude of environments. Acura even scanned their courtyard so they can virtually review a design without having to physically go outside.

While Acura may use a lot of the same processes and tools as any other car company, the way the team works together, the collaboration, and their studio is totally unique, and it could definitely be felt during the event.

So what does the future of Acura look like 20 or 30 years from now? How do you move a performance-oriented brand into an autonomous world, a world where consumers are less interested in ownership, and more interested in being connected?

Fuse Autonomous tech with Connectivity and an Electric drivetrain and you get the ACE concept. While just a vision for now, Acura showed a glimpse of a vehicle that could let the driver relax while being autonomously driven, or take over the wheel and race a virtual projected F1 car, creating a totally unique performance experience.

For now, we were duly impressed with such a unique chance to get an inside glimpse into how Acura creates their vehicles, and we’ll be keeping an eye on how the design team’s process influences future product.


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