Live from LA: Behind the scenes at BMW DesignWorks

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I’ve just spent an incredibly interesting few hours with BMW DesignWorks in its headquarters in Los Angeles.

Owned by BMW, the design consultancy has a hand in the development of BMW and Mini cars, but I didn’t realise that as much as 50% of its work is carried out for third parties.

With projects ranging from sunglasses and shavers to yachts and aircraft interiors the work is diverse to the say the least. But what makes the company so interesting is the way that it encourages its design teams to draw influence from each other regardless of the projects they are working on.

The new Saeco Xsmall by BMW DesignWorks

Housed in a light airy open plan office, and naturally lit, making the most of the seemingly endless Californian sunshine, projects are constantly on show on giant LCD monitors and designers are encouraged to print out their work so everyone is exposed to the widest range of projects beyond those within their own remit. And with 10-15 different projects on the go at any one time, this creates an extremely interesting environment for cross market influences.

In terms of technology BMW DesignWorks uses a huge range of digital tools, including Catia V5 for automotive, Pro/E for industrial design and Alias and Rhino for conceptual work, but designers are also encouraged to use physical models for product development.

For ergonomics testing this is essential, which in the case of a recent electric shaver project, was not only used to test out applicability for left and right hand users but also to test out innovative designs to help making shaving easier for men who wear glasses.

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In automotive, clay sculpting still rules, and a whole range of rapid prototyping technologies are also used, but much of BMW DesignWorks’ physical output comes from a giant gantry CNC machine, the largest on the west coast I was told.

On any given week this can be used for carving out foam models of full size cars, or mobile phones. The CNC machine, driven by Tebis CAM software, takes IGES data from the wide range of digital design applications it uses, starting out with soft foam for conceptual studies and then as the design develops and detail increases stepping up to harder materials and finer tools.

Design for a new ThermalTake gaming tower, developed by BMW DesignWorks

As I’m sure you can appreciate, many of the projects at BMW DesignWorks are top secret, and a rather expressionless security guard enforces a strict no camera policy inside the design office. However, I will get to talk about one specific project next week as it comes out of embargo, so check back here next week.