For nearly 100 years, car companies have been using clay models in the design process of automobile development, but now with all the technology available to them, why are they still using the technique?
The answer is simple. According to Car Insider, digital technology may make it seem like artisans are creating a 3D image, but in reality, it is a 2D image presented in a 3D space. At some point, real 3D must be seen to see and touch the design.
Soil models also bring realism to the design. A design that works great in the digital world can sometimes seem awkward when viewed as a real object, and the flexible clay helps to literally smooth out the proportions of a car.
Clay allows designers and engineers to quickly make the necessary changes without the need for multiple drawings and accurate sketches. This is especially effective in air tunnel testing when a small change can dramatically affect a vehicle’s air efficiency. Renting an air tunnel for testing can cost thousands of dollars per hour, so a quick change is needed. The clay model not only allows for this, but also a very detailed change with subtleties that do not match a computer.
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Lastly, and most importantly, it is important to have a physical version of the design to see what it looks like in natural light. After all, the vehicle will spend most of its life outside, so it will have to pass the test under the sun.
Harley Earl was the first company to use clay models in General Motors’ design process in the 1930s. The first full-scale clay models allow designers to see and touch the design in three dimensions, allowing them to better understand curves and shapes. Moreover, the car made of clay was actually simpler and faster than designing it in a traditional way – making steel panels from scratch.
Modern clay models start with a steel frame with wheels attached, most of which are shaped with foam. Clay forms fine details of the outer skin and is usually 1-2 inches (25-50 mm) thick. Both clay and digital work together for most of the design work using a CNC machine to rough out the original shape.
Clay models can cost automakers thousands of dollars to produce, but are still a necessary part of the design process and will probably remain so for the next few years.