They travel the world and find their way to all kinds of events and tech shows, but is there more to an auto show than meets the eye? Kieron Salter, CEO of KW Special Projects (KWSP), explains more about the complex engineering behind these exhibits.
“Colleagues who are engineers are often surprised at the amount of work that goes into developing show cars for car manufacturers and motorsports teams, such as Formula 1,” explained KWSP CEO Kieron Salter. “From design and mechanical engineering to electrical engineering and quality control, we bring it all together to create something that is perceptibly identical to the real thing while being different enough to protect intellectual property and confidentiality, if necessary.”
KWSP has worked extensively in the design and production of Formula 1 show cars and concept vehicles for car manufacturers, having completed more than 50 in the past decade. For motorsports projects, KWSP begins the process with the original CAD geometry of the vehicle (or by 3D scanning the real vehicle if the data is not available) and then designs the rendered version of the vehicle.
“Success and accuracy depends on the quality of your data, so it’s a step we take the time to get right. We then go on to engineer the design of the car, build it in Catia or Solidworks to complete flattening, solid modeling and technical drawings. We obviously have different considerations for the actual car, we try to match quality and visual attributes, and we sometimes make minor changes to improve parts manufacturability or make changes to protect IP, not necessarily re-creating the vehicle itself.”
The team at KWSP evaluates all required components and classifies them on a class system, in order to understand which parts need to be most similar to the real vehicle. This also plays into the choice of materials, as most of the cars on display use a combination of metal, composite and polymer parts.
“We are fortunate to have our sister company, Digital Machining Centre, close by. It specializes in the manufacture of polymer and metal additives and allows us to produce components with very short lead times and without investment in tooling. The nature of the additive also means that we can often combine parts, improving Ease of assembly, or quickly making jigs for composite materials or other manufacturing methods.”
Much like a real race or road car, show cars can sometimes require a fairly large supply chain. This supply chain management requires close supervision and control, as show cars are often directed to debut at certain events. Since almost all parts involved are one-offs or very low volume, it is not a simple task and confidentiality must be protected in cases of new product launches.
“When you’re building show cars, all parts are in very limited quantities. For a racing car, that’s fairly straightforward, but if you’re talking about a new concept car of an established brand and model, the required management can match a production car, with Relying on the entire supply chain and sometimes linking it to a prototype program.”
Depending on the project, there may also be additional custom requirements. For example, Formula 1 teams often order additional symmetric steering wheels to be built, in addition to front wings and display mounts. On the other hand, for OEM concepts, this could include integrating existing vehicle systems, such as infotainment or a complete powertrain.
Fit and finish is perhaps the most important aspect of ensuring that the cars on offer meet the standards expected by Formula 1 teams and car manufacturers. Since vehicles will spend most of their lives under bright lights and taking center stage, every dashboard has to be perfect—especially when it comes to paint.
“For show cars, you need a world-class paint job, the demands are overwhelming,” said Salter. “Their whole goal is to be on display, between the public and the industry, so we put a lot of time and effort into ensuring the perfect finish. For race cars, that also includes matching the color and using exactly the same decals, which adds to the authenticity. To the untrained eye, they look identical. And that’s kind of the whole point.”
Once painting and finishing is complete, the KWSP team moves on to assembly – pre-fitting and final installation. With extensive experience assembling actual race cars and supercars, you would think the cars on display would provide some welcome relief for the team. However, Salter points out, they bring their own challenges.
“Because the vast majority of parts are small and you put everything together for the first time, creative solutions are often required. In a perfect world, everything would fit together and you’d be done, but anyone who has ever worked on a vehicle prototype or specialized engineering project He’ll know it’s rarely that simple. With that being said, by the time the cars are finished, they’ll look exactly as they were envisioned.”
As one of the world’s most valuable physical marketing assets, a motor show presents a unique engineering challenge. While they may not need to be as exacting as their real counterparts, the burden of getting them as close as possible presents some interesting engineering and delivery challenges. The next time you see a Formula 1 car on display, see if you can tell if this is the real deal.
Kieron Salter is the CEO of KWSP