Audi Provides the Inspiration for a Giant Automobile Sculpture

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May 5, 2006

Source: Audi AG

  • Germany. Land of the car. Berlin gets mobile
  • “The Automobile” sculpture unveiled in front of Brandenburg Gate
  • How a 2.5:1 scale model of a series production car takes shape

    Presiding in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin is a gold and silver coloured object: 10.20 metres long, 3.25 metres high and 4.50 metres wide. On April 6,the square in front of the Gate – “Platz des 18. März” – became the arena for an unusual spectacle: the unveiling of a unique, oversized automobile sculpture built to a scale of 2.5:1 and inspired by Audi. A symbol for the innovative flair of German engineering and of Germany itself, the land of ideas. Audi is an official partner of the “Land of Ideas” initiative that has been launched to coincide with the Football World Cup. The giant sculpture “The Automobile” is the third of a total of six monuments which are due to be erected in the centre of Berlin and together make up the “Walk of Ideas”, a sculpture park that forms one of the central elements of the “Germany – Land of Ideas” initiative. The unveiling was nothing less than spectacular, but the story behind it and the sculpture itself are no less sensational.

    What sets the automobile sculpture apart from the other five? For one thing, the design for the extra-large “The Automobile” is the work of Audi’s own design department. “The automobile is Germany’s darling and most important export article,” comments Claus Potthoff, Head of Exterior Design at Audi who oversaw the sculpture design process. The other distinguishing feature is the time reference. Whereas the other extra-large sculptures in the “Walk of Ideas” depict subjects taken from the past, the sculpture from Audi looks ahead to the future. “We quite deliberately chose a brand new model and portrayed our new styling line with the single-frame grille, without losing sight of cherished past values in the process,” continues Potthoff. “An icon such as the original Audi TT must be treated with dignity but at the same time injected with new allure.” The automobile sculpture captures the spirit of the “Walk of Ideas” by fusing uniquely innovative concepts from the past that have stood the test of time with groundbreaking new ideas for the future of the automotive industry.

    The sculpture was actually modelled on the new Audi TT. Why this particular model? “For a sculpture on this scale, the Audi TT is simply the right car at the right time. Even without the logo, it is instantly recognisable. The TT is the car that children find it easiest to draw,” replies Potthoff. “Its emblematic nature forms the ideal basis for a sculpture of this magnitude.” The extraordinary dimensions posed the greatest challenge for the design team. In the case of series-production cars, three-dimensional 1: 4 scale models are normally made to obtain a feeling for the overall impression of the new Audi. “For this sculpture, the proportions were the other way around – we had to enlarge the series-production model by a factor of 2.5, without being able to know what the sculpture’s overall effect would be,” explains Potthoff. “Just the shoulder line is a whole two metres above the floor, meaning that a person of average height can’t even quickly press their nose up against the window,” he goes on to say. With the sculpture weighing in at just under ten tonnes, the wheels were truncated to spread the immense weight pressing down on them.

    The automobile sculpture retains the style of the other models in Berlin as far as the colour scheme, the material and the clarity of its lines are concerned, but it is somehow different nonetheless. “‘The Automobile” is realistic, less abstract – basically, it is the standard product in extra-large,” remarks Uwe Schäfer, Technical Project Manager at EDAG Engineering + Design AG, the firm that secured the contract for manufacturing all of the sculptures for this initiative which was decided by public competition. Why is this? “The enormous sculptures had to be subdivided into segments for the manufacturing process. Consequently, artistic joins without any bearing to reality had to be created for all of the other sculptures; Audi, however, only used natural joins.”

    Potthoff confirms this, saying, “The practical joins in the series-production model were reproduced in exactly the same position in the sculpture.” Details such as the door handles or the tank cap were omitted, but the characteristic flow of the lines can easily be recognised.

    And where did all this begin? After just two weeks of work on the computer, the Audi designers were able to supply the shell, consisting of the basic exterior dimensions, to EDAG. Taking the surfaces of the series-production vehicle as a basis, different variants were simulated to determine the degree of abstraction. In order to gain an impression of the proportions and the level of detail required, photorealistic images were produced including people and the Brandenburg Gate to give a sense of scale.

    At the headquarters of EDAG in the German town of Fulda, production shops normally used for body manufacture were completely cleared to make room for building the giant plastic sculptures. The same material was used for each of the six oversized sculptures: Neopor, a new type of plastic compound developed by BASF AG. Normally destined for thermal insulation of homes, this material serves as the filler for the sculpture. Equipped with the exterior data supplied by Audi, the design engineers at EDAG then got to work on the sculpture’s “interior”. This was a particularly daunting task, as
    Uwe Schäfer describes: “We had to find ways of making it possible to assemble, paint, produce and handle the sculpture, all within a very tight schedule.” The manufacturing process for ‘The Automobile’ was the fastest, taking just two months from start to finish.

    The milling machine was programmed based on the design data. 120 cubic metres of Neopor foam went into making the 16 individual parts which the milling machine’s capacity and dimensions required the sculpture to be divided into. Each of the individual segments was milled from huge, grey blocks of Neopor measuring 5 metres long, 1 metre wide and up to 1.20 metres in height. Alexander Schäfer, who was in charge of constructing the automobile sculpture, explains: “The segments were constructed from the outside in. This defined the constructed space for the stress analyst; the main supporting frame was designed based on the calculated load data.”

    This frame is located in the interior of the sculpture’s body and forms the framework to which the auxiliary supporting frames will later be bolted. In this way, 16 shell-type segments are ultimately turned into a form – the form of the automobile. However, there are many more steps to be carried out first before the sculpture reaches completion.

    The sculpture’s body was laminated with a triple coating of glass fibre to give the hard foam the required rigidity for subsequent machining. “Glider construction is the cradle of the art of laminating,” relates Elmar Krick, who worked for seven years as a model-maker in the glider manufacturing industry before switching to EDAG 14 years ago. His gazes wanders out of the window in the Fulda plant and across to the “Wasserkuppe” measuring 958 metres high and known as the “mountain of gliders”. Fulda is a magnet for gliders who arrive as soon as the snows melt and spring is in the air. Krick’s gaze shifts back to the oversized side section of the automobile sculpture which he is in the process of laminating. For him, the dimensions of these segments are just as extraordinary as the sensation of gliding. 1000 square metres of glass-fibre laminate have been used in all. The hardening time is crucial for laminating, tells Krick: “Every artificial ageing process presents certain risks.” Speeding up the hardening process in a kiln, for example, increases the risk of fracturing.

    The final laminating layer is the tear-away film. When this film is torn away once the laminate has hardened, the surface is roughened for subsequent machining. The 15 millimetre thick layer of plastic gel is being applied to the faces of the segments. The two mixes for the gel run together in a metering device. To the untrained eye, the layer of ten centimetre strips enshrouding the segments looks like a zebra’s stripes. 72 hours later, when the hardening process is complete, the surface is ready to be milled off to six millimetres.

    The finish process involves several colleagues working on the surface at the same time, and calls for a great deal of patience and the utmost care. “The grinder can only be used on straight surfaces; most of this sculpture’s surfaces are curved however, meaning the work has to be done by hand,” says Bernd Schäfer. Another person called “Schäfer” (which means ‘shepherd’ in German)? “The fourth shepherd in the flock,” grins Bernd Schäfer. “We’ve even been called the ‘shepherd department’, although the surname is pure coincidence and we are not actually related in any way to one another.”

    All production processes, from design engineering to milling, laminating and gelling to finishing have so far been performed in the ‘Fulda Nord’ production shop but its gate is five centimetres too narrow to allow the sculpture to be transported away as a fully assembled single piece. The “wedding station”, as it is known in the automotive industry, is a full ten kilometres away in the ‘Fulda West’ production shop where production lines for body shops are usually developed and pre-assembled. With confidentiality being a top priority, high screens surround the assembly area. The primed auxiliary support frames, which are bonded to the rear side of each segment, are now bolted onto the main supporting frame’s steel framework one after the other. A crane hoists each segment to the appropriate height then it is bolted into place by hand. The sculpture slowly starts to take both form and the breath away from its creators when they first lay eyes on their handiwork in all its glory.

    The adage “clothes make people” is no less relevant for the sculpture which needs to be properly dressed to give it a smart, weatherproof finish. “The Automobile” is painted in a special spray booth in Fulda originally designed for trucks. It is the first time ever that a surface area of such enormous proportions – 150 square metres in total – has been painted with automotive paint. The paint used is a three-coat water-based metallic paint which has been specially produced by BASF Coatings. The tremendous respect for the sheer immensity of this sculpture runs like a thread throughout all phases of the production process.

    Finally. the moment has come. The sculpture is readied for the journey ahead by putting on its “pyjamas”, consisting of a sort of fleece material with a paint-friendly protective film. A mobile crane loads the sculpture onto a lowbed trailer which then sets off for Berlin accompanied by a police escort. This all happens at night, of course, to keep traffic disruption to a minimum; the trailer together with its precious cargo measures 24 metres in length and a whole 4.60 metres wide, one metre more than the width of a lane on the Autobahn. Proceeding at an average speed of 70 km/h, the 440 km journey takes eleven hours, with the trailer repeatedly pulling off the autobahn to give the vehicles behind opportunity to pass.

    When the lowloader arrives the next morning, a crane is waiting to unload the massive sculpture and place it in position. The wheels are aligned and the underside is covered up with laser-cut sheet metal plates measuring just 0.8 millimetres thick and painted to match the vehicle’s colour. In this way, the steel framework inside is protected from below too.

    The fact that EDAG supplies prototype parts to Audi as well as providing the firm with design services was of considerable help in this joint project, particularly in view of the tight schedule and the need for absolute confidentiality. EDAG had after all been commissioned to produce an extra-large version of a brand new model still awaiting its launch. As Martin Hillmann, Logistics Project Coordinator at EDAG, confirms: “Confidentiality was one of the greatest challenges we faced. Even when performing the final set-up in Berlin in front of such a prominent backdrop where you are surrounded by construction cranes overlooking the sculpture. Not even four-metre high solid hoardings can help then.”

    “The Automobile” framed against the Brandenburg Gate is now on show to an international audience as the world directs its attention towards Germany and its capital in the run-up to the World Cup when Germany will be seen around the globe as the land of football and the land of the car. And with the “Walk of Ideas”, Berlin is linking the past with the future. Germany – Land of Ideas.

    [Photo Gallery]

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