Detroit Regional Chamber > Detroiter Magazine > Clay What?!?! Modelers play integral role in producing today’s automobiles

Clay What?!?! Modelers play integral role in producing today’s automobiles

December 28, 2015
By James Amend

Page 28

In an era when supercomputing has penetrated every corner of product development, one of the automobile industry’s oldest design methods continues to play a major role in making the hottest cars and trucks.

Clay modeling dates back to the heyday of American automobile design in Detroit during the 1930s, and the tools of its practitioners, clay modelers, have changed very little in 86 years. Although the digital realm has made contributions to speed up the time it takes to prepare a vehicle for the modeler’s hands, no level of computing power has yet to surpass clay in offering a 3-dimensional glimpse of a future product.

The stakes are high, too. One good clay model could be the difference between company leadership green-lighting a billion-dollar project or sending it back to the drawing board. The same could be said for car buyers, who are lured to a particular vehicle by the spirit of a design first brought to life in a sculpting studio.

“You never get a second chance to make a good first impression,” said Joe Dehner, exterior design chief for Dodge and Ram Trucks at FCA US. “If we can make a good first impression, it works in our favor. … Everything to come out of FCA design studios here in Auburn Hills has been touched by hands. It’s reflected in our products.”

However, during the late 1990s, a trend emerged away from clay modeling. The same digital capabilities for special effects that tantalized movie-goers seeped into automotive design, and automakers began projecting life-size holograms onto their design pads. Entire vehicles were sketched out using math-based software tools. The virtual world was hailed as the new frontier of automobile design.

But Holt Ware, director of Buick exterior design at General Motors, said something was always missing in the digital realm. “You just can’t get there without the hands,” says Ware, who works in the same Warren studios of clay modeling inventor and legendary GM designer Harley Earl. “In order to get that sweetly executed surface, it’s something only humans can do.”

In fact, the promise of math-based design was once so great, Ware recalled, GM attempted a vehicle entirely on the computer. Design leadership quickly changed direction. “We got about one-third of the way and realized it was madness,” he said with a laugh. “It looked like a cardboard cutout.”

Designing with clay takes teamwork, too. Designers bring the big idea to the table and clay sculptors must interpret it into a 3-D model. They often speak different design languages, so each side has to learn the other’s jargon. They also can come from widely different backgrounds.
“They have to be joined at the hip,” Dehner said. “It’s often more words than pictures. It’s also a very free-spirited process.”

Ware compared the clay modeling work inside Buick’s studios to a family. “You might pull your sister’s hair, or she may pull the chair out from underneath you, but everyone respects and appreciates each other,” he said. “We know we need each other to get where we need to be, and we rely on each other’s expertise.”

Paul Snyder, who heads the undergraduate transportation design program at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, said nothing compares to the close relationship between a talented designer and a talented clay modeler. “That’s where great cars happen,” he said.

Some of the creative spirit can be traced to the different backgrounds of designers and clay modelers. Oftentimes, designers can be classically trained experts with a draft pencil. Clay modelers can come from other disciplines, or, as Snyder said, be gearheads with a creative flair looking for a foray into the auto industry.

Whatever their background, he explained, modelers are in high demand. Natural attrition, coupled with a new commitment to the method, has automakers, suppliers and design houses seeking them out through trade journals and word of mouth. “A sculptor who can do an entire body side in clay is as good as gold,” Snyder said.

3-D Printing is Changing the Auto Industry

In the automobile industry, where new technologies emerge every day and consumer preferences can turn on a dime, nothing is more precious than product development time, and the advent of 3-D printing has automakers shifting into high gear.

A rapid prototype technology, 3-D printing combines with proven computer-aided design tools to allow designers and engineers to quickly iterate a life-size, or scale, part without tools and at the fraction of old-school fabrication techniques. “It has made our jobs a little bit easier,” said Joe Dehner, exterior design chief for Dodge and Ram Trucks.

3-D printing uses selective laser sintering and stereolithography to quickly go from a computer model to a one-off part ready for any number of exercises, such as wind tunnel testing, a design leadership review or testing in another global region.

GM leaned on process when it created the Chevy Volt electric vehicle in 2009, and also with its EN-V personal mobility concept shown at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo.

James Amend is an associate editor at