From clay models to 3D scans | An appreciation of change

Photograph Courtesy Nissan

Working as an independent automotive designer in this modern age presents some unique challenges. The opportunities to create something of value in such an already congested environment are rare indeed simply because the word “independent” doesn’t really mesh with an international industry filled with highly complex corporate design teams. 

Instead of being left alone to create independently, they are normally set up to operate at the direction of a remote marketing division that exists solely to determine and direct what it collectively thinks the public wants. Such specious information, often gathered by randomly collected “focus groups,” usually has such conflicting opinions that it’s essentially valueless. This is easily proved by the morass of tasteless junk that constantly fills our highways.

Still, for me, the rare opportunity to design independently occasionally arises. The chance to create something aesthetically pleasing, ergonomically satisfying and environmentally efficient is exciting to say the least. 

That’s occurring now in my life, and I’m genuinely excited. The chance to use new materials and the latest technology is incredibly stimulating, as each provides the opportunity to work with new people expert in their specialized fields. 

Having been originally schooled in the time-honored techniques of pencil work on a drawing board, it’s been interesting over the past few years to watch the industry’s almost universal transition to electronics for both artistic and engineering solutions. Computers have allowed the unification of creative thought and precise hardline engineering because of the practical demand that all involved be able to operate on the same screen at the same time, whether across the room or in another country.

Since the late ’20s, when a young Californian named Harley Earl brought the use of styling clay and the element of aesthetic exterior design to General Motors, that carefully hand-applied substance has been used almost exclusively to sculpt forms unique to each of America’s automotive design eras. 

In addition to pencil work, I also learned how to design with clay when I attended Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design back in the ’50s. I have continued to use that unique skill to sculpt new ideas in quarter-scale whenever the prospect presented itself. In the past few months, I’ve spent hours on a new design that may actually see production within the next year or so. 

What has changed in recent years is that my self-trusted clay skills have become almost obsolete in favor of electronic modeling that has become so sophisticated that current computer-delivered renderings appear almost real. 

However, I still trust my abilities in 3D, as I feel there’s still nothing equal to working subtle surfaces by hand and eye. Understandably this takes hours, and modern industry has little appreciation for time lost to what has been accepted as a superior method to achieve the equivalent result. 

What has really improved, though, in the modern design process is the transition from scale to full size. Any designer who has sketched new ideas in clay soon learns that scale models seldom transfer to full size successfully. The eye sees miniatures and full size in an entirely different way, so any new automotive form must be seen outside in full scale to determine its real aesthetic impact. 

Full-size clay models have almost disappeared from modern automotive design studios. Instead, full-size prototypes are now rapidly sculpted from huge blocks of hard foam with sophisticated five-axis CNC machines that deliver almost perfect renditions in hours instead of weeks. In an industry where time is critical, the advent of electronics has almost completely obliterated the hand-sculpted art form. 

For someone like me, essentially a dinosaur from a past era, the change has been both exciting and overwhelming. Now an electronic scan of my quarter-scale creation can be converted to a full-scale replica in a matter of hours. If it’s approved, I may be able to show you the real thing in a few months.

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6/14/22 4:54 p.m.

Almost everything these days is designed using 3D CAD computer software.  At the top of this list are Solidworks and Catia, which are both highly technical and require a long learning curve to use effectively.  Not to mention a lot of money to access.  Certainly, there are many other 3D packages that are cheaper and easier to use, but these do not have the technical capabilities required by automotive and aerospace engineers.  Making the needed molds for the many high end carbon fiber cars would have been virtually impossible to do using traditional wet mold making methods - a plug and lots of schmutz.  The hard foam Brock refers to is most likely Ren Board which is both CNC machinable and heinously expensive.  Plus, the HAAS five axis machining center to do all this, along with the tooling, is similarly expensive.  And, if you want a carbon fiber body, you need lots of pre-preg carbon cloth and a giant autoclave to cure it.  Lots of clean space would be nice also.  So, car building these days is not a cheap or a small company endeavor.  

msterbeau New Reader
6/15/22 9:42 a.m.

I'm a car/transportation designer schooled in the mid-80's - towards the end of the non-digital era.  All my digital training and skills came during the 90's and later.  I also taught classes in the early 2000's at College for Creative Studies in Detroit. I'm mentioning these just to establish that I'm in the industry and have an intimate understanding of how the design process has evolved the past 30 years. 

I totally agree with Brock that hands-on clay time, where you work through some parts of your design is really meaningful.  No matter if you initially sketch out your design on paper, vellum or digitally with a tablet and Photoshop (Or Sketchbook or Painter, etc) you eventually have to get it in three dimensions.  These days that process is usually started in CAD (Autodesk Alias mostly) and once you have a rough model you can have it milled into a scale model in clay.  There you start seeing what your surfaces are really doing.  You can make changes in clay, working out awkward or unsatisfactory regions without getting caught up in the CAD process, which is often counter-intuitive and a drag on creative thought.  Once that's done it's scanned and brought back into CAD to be refined.  

As you continue with the design process engineering and cost realities start getting introduced and the model(s) evolve to suit the new requirments.  At some point the model is milled at full size and you start really seeing what you've got.  As Brock mentions, there are things you see in full size that were not apparent in the scale model.  Adjustments are made and the process continues.  If this sounds time consuming - it is.  Design is an iterative process.  Getting to a satisfying result while meeting practical realities requires trying many solutions and going down dead ends.  It can be difficult to decrease development time while still respecting this process's needs.

One thing I disagree with in Brock's article is that clay is going away.  Time and again, over my career, mangement has tried using tools like virtual reality to try to reduce costs and minimize development time.  Every time they went back to clay because humans perceive them differently.  I still see and hear of clay being an integral part of the car design process pretty much everywhere.  It's often obvious when a smaller company tries to circumvent it for cost reasons. Will we ever get rid of clay or other forms of full size models?  Maybe.  It's certainly conceivable that someone will figure out how to resolve the differences in perception between them.  That day is not here, yet.

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