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Why do we still use clay models in car design?

Back in the early 1990’s when Alias-Wavefront was first making a pitch to the automotive design studios, one of their big talking points was how creating digital 3D models would optimize the design process dramatically, since the data could both be used to mill out models as well as be exchanged to the engineering departments for integration with their data.

Well, integration with engineering has fully happened. We had some hiccups with file formats and how surface data was created to be workable for engineers, but all of that got mutually resolved. The process mutated into separate areas for initial 3D surface design development and an area for Class-A single span clean data ready for engineering, all done within Autodesk Alias of course. A true optimization of the design process.

GCM02When Alias first became a big deal, it was generally anticipated that it would at least dramatically reduce the amount of clay models used, if not almost completely eradicate that profession. It seemed inevitable. The creation of digital data was supposed to be done by the designers themselves, since they were best suited to get exactly the design characteristics they intended into their 3D model proposals. It was supposed to be very similar to what was common practice at Mercedes-Benz, where the designers were supposed to create their initial 1/5th scale clay models before the modeling staff touched clay.

It has not happened. In contrast, we now have several new groups for the digital modeling on top of the development of manual clay models, often still in the same way as done way before the digital era. Instead of reducing the design lead time, in most cases it has led to the hiring of a whole new category of people for the digital data creation on top of the existing crew. The clay modeler who actually tried to make the switch from analog to digital are few and far between.

So why?

In my opinion it has a lot to do with management, and management’s lack of creative imagination. Of course, very big budgets are involved, and you can only spend each dollar once, but management with decision power seems to come from non-imaginative educational backgrounds like business schools, accountant areas and sometimes even engineering.

As a result proposals from the design department will be reviewed by people who are challenged to judge sketches and renderings and imagine what a photo-realistically rendered 3D model looks like in real life.

So when the time comes to reserve a budget for milling a full size model from 3D data it’s a hard sell. The proven methodology has worked in the past, so the safest bet is to continue that way. There really is no rhyme or reason to it other than that. Surfaces can be evaluated properly prior to milling, can be made perfectly symmetrical, and can be checked for accuracy by engineering prior to milling. All reasons why using digital models should improve design lead times and costs.

Surprisingly often, we still see companies develop a clay model by hand in parallel to the digital development, and more often than not, find they are different in the end.

Of course every model needs to have the final touch of perfection by subtle manual manipulation, which then is scanned and put back into the digital data, but I am convinced that we could be a lot more efficient in this process if we had decision makers who would trust the opinions of their staff.

GCM24I admit that it might be difficult for people to interpret subtle details surfacing issues on a monitor, which inevitably leads to the fore mentioned manual optimization after milling, but a lot if very close to the way it’s supposed to be from original design intent.

With the recent onslaught of very detailed VR technologies, it is increasingly easy to portray a very realistic portrait of the design proposal, allowing it to be judged in detail up-close as if it were really there. This could allow improvements in the design decision making, but only time will tell.

I wonder how the current youth, those who are used to all technologies and VR, will grow into decision-making positions and finally make full use of what today’s technologies allow in optimizing the design process.


This article was provided by guest contributor, Cornelius Steenstra of Foresee Car Design.

Cor Steenstra is a Dutch born car designer who was trained at the Royal College of Art’s famous transportation design course. Cor has since worked for Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and Mazda before starting his Foresee Car Design consultancy in Europe and California, pioneering the usage of Alias in live demos at the 1994 Geneva International Motor Show. He has been consultant for Porsche, Honda, Hyundai/Kia, Nissan and most other OEM’s throughout the last 22 years, specializing in using Alias and VRED.

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