Donal Reddington on mass customization, crowdsourcing and digital manufacturing

Caterham to crowdsource design of its next car

Caterham, the specialist British sports car manufacturer, has launched a crowdsourcing initiative for the design of its next model, in association with PerformancePR, an automotive public relations company.  The project, named Splitwheel, which is described as “a revolutionary online project to design and build a new performance car based on the collective decision-making of its members”.

Members will discuss, debate and collaborate on all aspects of the vehicle’s design through the website.  Key design decisions will be decided by a regular vote, covering everything from the chassis layout and engine choice to hundreds of more detailed decisions on the suspension, interior, body and all other aspects of the car. The project managers will provide users with in‐depth analysis on the key issues around the car.

The website will use a combination of forum discussion, a Wikipedia-style user-edited knowledge base and a comprehensive voting system to turn user input into a workable vehicle design.  Along with acting as a liaison with Caterham’s engineering team, Project Splitwheel will also provide guidance and input from other automotive suppliers and experts as required.

Caterham will work with Splitwheel members on translating our specification and designs into a real world prototype vehicle over the next 2-3 years. Providing that Project Splitwheel provides a realistic specification and business case for the car, Caterham will commence build of the prototype in 2010.

While some petrolheads may be dreaming of designing a rival to the Bugatti Veyron, the design to come out of this process must also be a viable, saleable product for the real world that Caterham can realise.  The most important factor is that the car must be enjoyable for an enthusiast to own and drive in its own right.

While the objective of the project is to put the completed design into full production, this will inevitably depend on many factors, including production and material costs, economic conditions and market demand.

The project is open to ordinary car enthusiasts, and not just trained engineers.  The Splitwheel website states that:

Whilst expert technical input will be welcomed and sometimes necessary, first and foremost we want to recruit ‘ordinary’ car enthusiasts. Anybody with a passion for cars is welcomed. Any technically complex issues will always be broken down and explained in plain English.

The website currently has explanations of the project and other related information, but the crowdsourcing element is not yet active. It is expected that the full site will be launched before the end of 2008 , with the project starting in earnest in the New Year.

Members who contribute a worthwhile idea or suggestion to the Project will have their efforts “recognised by the team”, although it is not yet specified what form this recognition will take.

For those who are unfamiliar with Caterham, it is a British sports car manufacturer that originally bought the rights to the Lotus Seven when the Lotus company discontinued that particular model. Caterham continued to develop the car, with a wide variety of engines used over the years. However, today’s Caterhams retain the distinctive ‘cigar-shaped’ bodywork of their Lotus forebear. The company’s products are generally highly rated by the motoring press. The Caterham is designed to be a lightweight, well-handling car, rather than a massively powerful one. Its agility and lack of weight means that it is often quicker on a track than many more powerful cars.

I recall a television documentary during the 1990′s which followed Caterham’s efforts to move away from the ‘cigar shape’ to a more modern design. The result of that process was the Caterham 21, which was not a commercial success. The 21 was expensive, but what really killed it off was the re-appearance of other lightweight sportscars such as the Lotus Elise, with which it could not compete.

In view of its past experiences, Caterham will probably be hoping that the Splitwheel project produces a design that is in line with the spirit of the existing Seven.

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