Auto Show Engineering

January 17, 2011

The North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan is known for showcasing the latest in automotive engineering. The new concept cars are the stars of the show but perhaps not the most interesting attraction to a structural engineer. Each year, the car companies also spend millions of dollars on elaborate staging and exhibits to build a dream world for the fantasy vehicles.

This year I had the chance to catch the show before the show, and by that I mean the construction of the exhibits. I was called down to structurally review a particularly large stage that included four vehicle ramps, a turntable, and a car elevator! While I was there, the production team decided to test all the elements for the first time with a live car. It’s always a little nerve-wracking when the team looks to “Mr. Structural Engineer” for the OK to proceed. Fortunately, everything went smoothly.

Ford Vertreck Concept, IMG Link from Huffington Post

Ford Vertreck Concept, IMG Link from Huffington Post

After completing my work, I had the chance to walk the main exhibit floor with another consulting engineer who was overseeing much of the construction on behalf of the building. He was a great tour guide. I had been to the Auto Show as a spectator in the past, but I had not truly appreciated all the work it took to prepare the exhibits. As we continued the tour, I frequently had to jump out of the way of forklifts and contractors hurriedly shifting the materials around the exhibit space.

I learned about the loading requirements that all of the exhibitors are instructed to comply with. This includes limits on floor loading and, more critically, ceiling capacity. The criteria still allow for some amazing structures, including multi-level car stacking, floor-to-ceiling partitions, and even waterfalls.

Many of the exhibits contain complete buildings in their own right. My guide had consulted with some designers to develop elaborate cantilevered viewing platforms. One company even engineered an inclined track for giving rides in their concept cars. They also developed a hydraulic lift to flip over a truck, so visitors can view the vehicle’s undercarriage. This required no small amount of engineering.

Ford C-Max, IMG Linded from Huffington Post

Ford C-Max, IMG Link from Huffington Post

The latest interior architecture is also on display. Unfortunately, I learned that many of the finishes are just thrown out after each show. I thought about coming back afterward to pick enough fancy tile out of the trash to redo my kitchen. Every modern flooring and wall material seemed to be on display.

The variety in the exhibit spaces matches the diversity in the companies represented. In addition to the North American auto makers, companies from Italy, Germany, Japan, China and other are represented. In some cases, the car companies have sent representatives from their home country to oversee construction of the exhibit space. Sometimes language differences and poor understanding of the local building code complicates the work.

I’m not quite sure how the crews manage to accomplish so much in such a limited time. The logistics of bringing in material and navigating around competitors seems an impossible task in itself. Each year the work gets done, though. And each year the designs seem to become more spectacular. Maybe the exhibits themselves will some day receive equal recognition as the vehicles for innovation in design.

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