• Michiel van den Brink

VanderHeide carbon fiber motorcycle - Design process - Part II

I hope you enjoyed Part One of the VanderHeide Motorcycles design process. Here is Part Two, about how we shaped the full scale styling model out of wood, foam and clay. I had not expected this to become such a messy process...

The average design process in the automotive industry goes something like this:

2D sketches -> 3D digital models -> 1:5 clay models -> evolved 3D digital models -> full scale clay models.

In general, life size models are not often made during the experimental phases of a design process. In the car industry they mostly create multiple scale models first before moving on to full scale models. These 1:1 models are very useful to get a realistic impression of the design, to refine the many details and to communicate with the management staff and/or client.

In our case, we started directly with the build of a full size experimental mock-up out of wood, foam and clay. This helped us to get a good impression of the dimensions, proportions and ergonomics in an early stage. We skipped the scale model phase, because modelling a full scale motorcycle is only a bit more work than sculpting a 1:5 scale car. We continually combined the output of the 2D sketches, Rolf's digital 3D model and the life size physical model, going back and forth when needed. The 1:1 model didn't need to become perfect, because I only used it to communicate with Rolf and his 3D software. We didn't need a fully detailed presentation model to impress any staff members, investors or potential clients. The final result, the real motorcycle, would serve that purpose.

We also didn't use any computer-controlled milling machines, because we were still in the experimental phase in which we continually tried and changed many different things. The model was cut up many times before we finally reached the shape we were looking for. With dust, scraps, chunks of materials and tools all over the floor, our workplace looked like a mad sculptor's workshop.

This physical 3D phase turned out to be more important than any other phase of the design process. Surprisingly, the final shape of the bike was never the direct result of any 2D sketch. The 2D phase helped me to get a grip on the concept, the overall structure and to get a direction for the basic shape, but it did not lead to the final design in a straight line. Our carbon fiber monocoque got its shape mainly thanks to the physical work on our full size clay model.

The wood & foam mock-up

The Aprilia RSV4 engine was digitally scanned by Martin Dijkhof's company in Achterveld, The Netherlands. Rolf used the scan data to build the digital 3D packaging model and to build a dimension-correct wooden frame as a base for me to sculpt the foam model.

Then it became messy. Not only on the back porch of my home, but also in my head...

With expanding insulation foam I made a big, ugly blob. Please don't be fooled by its toad-like appearance, because inside this mixture of wood and bubbly foam hides the clean and sexy design of the VanderHeide monocoque.

I swear! It's there!

I only had to find it...

First, I tried to sculpt the sketch you see below, but without the aluminum tubes, because we already decided they had to go, as mentioned in Part I.

That was easier said than done...

What works in 2D or maybe even in the 3D digital world, does not automatically look good in real life as well. After many attempts of getting the lines and surfaces right in all directions, I had to admit this was not going to work. I could continue foaming, shaving, cutting and sanding, but the more I tried, the more the object and myself suffered. I got myself a sculptor's block...

A sculptor's block (same as a writer's block) occurs from time to time and there's often not much you can do about it, except for letting the object rest for a while and change some conditions. Sculptor's, writer's, painter's and designer's blocks are simply creative depressions and go hand in hand with the current emotional state of the artist.

- Negative emotions / bad health / financial sorrows Bad design or no design at all.

Rolf van der Heide and I often spoke about this and luckily he was very understanding. Rolf knew never to put any pressure on me at critical moments, because he had also seen what I was capable of if the conditions were good and creativity flowed freely.

- Good vibes / good health / good income Good design.

Rolf has had his share of set-backs as well during the engineering and build process. Luckily we had no investors breathing down our necks and we both took the time to get things right. It eventually paid off with a truly unique and beautiful bike, if I may say so myself. I am not ashamed to show the 'failures', because all trial and error led to a result to be proud of, but I will still spare you the dirty details and pictures, except for this one.

Clearly, this foam model was going nowhere. Luckily I had worked on the left side and could still start over on the other side. And you know what? The right side turned out to be the right side! The quest for the perfect shape continued!

I decided not to look at the 2D sketches for a while, but to 'freestyle' directly on the foam model with a knife and black marker. Rolf added new layers of foam where needed and I attacked the surface with my knife. This made me happy again and I could now finally envision the shape as we know it today.

Here you see Rolf test-fitting the mock-up. Rolf is quite a tall chap and I am no shorty as well and there are very few bikes able to accommodate us comfortably. One of the few suitable superbikes fit for tall people is the KTM RC8 and this model became our benchmark to perfect the seating position.

The rewarding clay process

I really love clay! It feels nice, it listens to my hands and it can easily be reshaped, removed and added where necessary. I was happy to leave the rough work behind and to move on to the more sensitive part of the modelling process. I just love detailing and perfecting shapes!

Rolf grinded the foam model about two centimeters down and added a thick layer of clay. Every time I came over Rolf had done the prep-work in order for me to focus on the design and finishing touches. Using various scrapers, spatulas, knives and a spoon, I got to work and enjoyed every minute of this very time-consuming, but very rewarding sculpting process.

The lines and shapes of the work in progress below tell you I am feeling good. In the meantime Rolf was enjoying himself with his 3D-printer. Look at his printed small parts like the brakes, the indicators, the chain tensioner and the foot rests. The moving parts actually work!

Generally, when I sketch a vehicle, I start sketching the front end first and work my way to the rear. All lines, surfaces and details must work together in order to tell a linear story from front to back. Your eyes expect to be guided along the entire vehicle, so if one line ends it needs to be picked up by another or there must be some interesting details for your eyes to rest upon before moving on to the next line.

This front-to-end-procedure was not possible with the VanderHeide, because of its very unusual front suspension and steering system. The design started around the steering system and from there I had to work towards both the front and rear. Your eyes want to spend some time around the area of the tank and I believe this is one of the main reasons for its distinctive appearance, because this is where the unique engineering features are.

If I had drawn the lines starting from the front fairing, the design could easily have become very different. The lines to the rear and around the knee feel quite logical, but the red lines around the tank may just as well have never existed if I had begun sculpting at the front.

I spent a lot of time integrating the front fairing into the tank. This was a lot more difficult than anticipated and we tried at least three different versions, but I'll save this for the next part of my design story.

I will tell more about designing the many details in Part III.