How VR, 3D modeling, and craftsmanship help Ducati design alluring motorcycles

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The passion that fuels Ducati’s design studio is palpable.

The firm’s small, tightly-knit team of stylists skillfully blend craftsmanship and technology to create some of the hottest, most alluring motorcycles ever to carve a corner. They’re based on the outskirts of Bologna in northern Italy, the town the company has called home since its inception as a humble manufacturer of radio components in 1926. Digital Trends got a rare opportunity to sneak behind the scenes and learn how a Ducati goes from a sketch to a roaring, race-winning production model.

Every project big or small starts with a concise set of guidelines. Designers, engineers, and executives meet in brainstorming sessions to outline the bike’s target positioning, and the technical specifications required to place it right where they want it. During this phase, the team in charge of development incorporates market analysis, competitor analysis, and customer analysis data. They paint a picture of a bike that doesn’t exist yet, a task that’s more difficult than it sounds. Giving it a nickname helps.

Ducati called the original Diavel it introduced in 2010 the Mega Monster. It was a design-driven bike that blended elements of different motorcycles, and it took the brand into a segment it had never competed in before. Riders loved it, so executives had solid foundations to build on when they started writing the guidelines that shaped the Diavel 1260 introduced in 2018. When they knew what they wanted, they transferred the design brief to the design department, and sparked a heated internal competition.

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Paper, .JPG, and VR

Andrea Ferraresi, Ducati’s charismatic design director, runs a tight ship that balances the future and the past without tilting too far on either side of the spectrum. The studio he oversees is smaller than a car company’s design department. And yet, there are no freelancers; everything is done in-house, and nothing is outsourced. Before diving into the design process, he told Digital Trends every designer that reports to him needs to learn how to design a Ducati.

“The bike is sexy if the people present at its unveiling walk up to it and start touching it.”

“There is a golden rule to apply: the design must be sexy. How do we know? Well, the bike is sexy if the people present at its unveiling walk up to it and start touching it,” he explained.

Designing a Ducati also requires a very thorough knowledge of what makes a motorcycle tick. Mechanical parts normally hidden on a car – like the exhaust system, the engine, and the suspension components – are visible on a motorcycle, and they’re very much a part of the design. Stylists and engineers must work hand-in-hand to reach a solution that suits both sides.

After examining the design brief, up to six stylists independently begin the design process by putting together what Ferraresi refers to as a mood board. It’s a deep well of inspiration they tap into the second their pencil meets a blank sheet of paper. The photos on the mood board answer questions. If the bike was a car, which one would it be? If it was in a movie, which one would it be in, and who would ride it? Architecture and fashion items also appear on the mood board. On the Diavel 1260’s mood board, we saw photos of cars (including the Bugatti Chiron and the Porsche 911), high-end watches, and even motorcycles made by Ducati’s competitors.

“Tech doesn’t enter the equation until the designers are fully satisfied with what they’ve drawn and ready to move on.”

The early sketches evolve over the course of one to two months as designers experiment with different shapes and proportions. The bike’s length, its height, the shape of its fuel tank, and the size of its wheels are all subject to change during this phase. This is all done by hand. Technology doesn’t enter the equation until the designers are fully satisfied with what they’ve drawn and ready to move on.

When the sketches are finalized, each one is loaded into Photoshop for fine-tuning. They’re then shown to a hand-selected group of 20 Ducati employees who are seasoned motorcycle riders. Ferraresi explained this phase is like a customer clinic without the risk of high-profile leaks. The members of the panel are asked to point out what they like about the bike, but more significantly what they don’t like.

Every sixteenth of an inch makes a difference. Ferraresi told us designing a motorcycle is like designing a car interior because there are a lot of details “that have to play together like an orchestra.” And, damn, it sounds wonderful when it comes together.

Projects sometimes stay at the Photoshop stage for three months. It’s important to set the height of the seat and the handlebars, among other parameters, before moving on. When needed, Ducati puts two designs in a virtual reality room located in its design studio to get a better idea of which one looks best.

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Only one design makes the transition from a digital CAD file to a clay model. Company CEO Claudio Domenicali (no relation to Lamborghini CEO Stefano Domenicali) helps select the finalist. The winning designer continues working on the bike, while the designers whose work isn’t selected start another project.

20 years ago, Ducati designers started with a solid block of clay (a material which costs as much as meat, according to Ferraresi) and sculpted it into a bike for days on end. In 2019, they feed the CAD data to a milling machine which works on its own to create what’s best described as a rough draft. This practice is common on the automotive side of design, too. Sculptors then smooth out the rough edges by hand, and make tweaks when necessary. Seeing a clay model of the bike can reveal a part that’s too sharp, for example, or a seat that’s a few sixteenths of an inch too tall.

Ducati uses Point Cloud software to create the motorcycle equivalent of system restore points on a PC. Thousands of tiny, black dots positioned all over the clay model are recorded by a scanner to create a digital 3D image of the motorcycle. The prototype – a work in progress – is scanned weekly, so designers can go back in time if they make a modification that they decide they don’t like.

3D-printing sometimes enters the design process. It’s notably used to test how an engine fits into a chassis. As of 2019, Ducati 3D-prints parts for prototypes, and for some of its race bikes, but it doesn’t send 3D-printed parts to its assembly line because the technology isn’t suitable for volume production yet.

Ducati uses Point Cloud software to create the motorcycle equivalent of system restore points on a PC.

Point Cloud technology also helps designers turn the final clay model into a 3D digital model used to build the first prototypes. By this point in the process, key aspects of the bike – including its technical specifications, its shape, and its dimensions – are frozen, so changes are costly and time-consuming.

While one team builds prototypes, another uses the 3D scan to put together a color palette for the paint and the upholstery, and to design the bike’s emblems. This is the last leap before the start of series production, and it’s one of the most stressful parts of the whole process. “The important part is to not lose control of the design from clay to production,” Ferraresi affirmed.

The bike is then put through its paces on road and track before it receives the green light for production. Seeing it on the road for the first time is one of the highlights of a designer’s career. “It reminds us we are not creating stress or meetings, but motorcycles,” explained Giovanni Antonacci, the man responsible for the Diavel 1260.

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Future-proofing Ducati

Ferraresi played a key role in creating this process; for example, he tirelessly pushed the design and engineering departments to work together. He’s satisfied with what he has created, but he is already looking ahead to the challenges that await him and his team in the coming years.

Ducati is developing its first all-electric model, which will likely compete in the same space as the Harley-Davidson Livewire. He told Digital Trends that “electrification will change bike design more than it will change car design” because an electric motorcycle doesn’t need a fuel tank or an exhaust. Ducati is also working with Bosch to bring electronic driving aids like adaptive cruise control to the world of motorcycles, so Ferraresi is simultaneously seeking ways to integrate sensors into his designs.

“It will be a problem,” admitted Ferraresi. “It’s not so easy, but you have to face it.”


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