Car Designers Still Need Clay to Perfect Their Model

All the major automakers still rely on the decades-old process
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 10, 2017 3:54 PM CDT
Modern Cars Still Rely on Old-School Clay Models
Clay modelers Todd Wilburn, left, and Nate Facciolla, right, apply clay to this 2014 Chrysler 200 clay model on March 10, 2015 in Auburn Hills, Mich. For 80 years, clay modelers have used their hands and tools to make real the two-dimensional car designs sketched on paper.   (Todd McInturf/Detroit News via AP)

Carmakers may be on the cutting edge of digital technology, but they still turn to clay when it comes time to test their latest designs. And that's true for every major company, including Mercedes, Tesla, and Toyota, reports the AP. They use the ancient, flexible, forgiving material to sculpt windows, doors, dashboards, and the tiniest details such as barely visible creases in the hood. Then they take those models outside for a crucial test: to see how they look "in the wild." Design is now the key differentiator between brands—at least according to the design director for Buick exteriors at General Motors.

"A car is a product, yes, but it's a very emotional purchase," he says. "The work we do here in design is very, very important in terms of distinguishing our product from the rest of the competitive landscape." And clay, he adds, is "still the best." His team gets their clay from German supplier Kolb, and it takes about three to four years for a car to roll off the line after it was first sketched by a designer. There is plenty of software deployed throughout the process, with virtual reality tools a major player, but another designer says that ultimately, "You have to be able to mold it and shape it as it is, in front of you." (These cars sat the longest at dealerships in 2016.)

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