Future of auto design still in clay modelers' hands

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — In an era of computer-aided design and 3-D printing, one traditional craft remains in automakers' design studios: full-size clay models.

For 80 years, clay modelers have used their hands and tools to make real the two-dimensional car designs sketched on paper. Clay is extremely malleable. It allows modelers to fair a line here, to tuck a curve there, until the body design is perfected.

"We're good with the technology, but nothing speaks to 3-D like a clay model," said Joe Dehner, head of Dodge & Ram Truck exterior design for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, inside the automaker's Dodge design studio in Auburn Hills.

At FCA US, formerly Chrysler Group LLC, advanced software and innovations such as milling machines that can duplicate a clay modeler's design overnight, help aid modelers and designers — not replace them.

"We work with the new technologies and digital modeling groups," said Advanced Design Studio clay modeler Nate Facciolla, standing next to an 5,400-pound clay mockup of the 2015 Chrysler 200. "It's not that they're trying to take over what we do — it's more so they're helping us along, helping make our job easier."

Twenty-five years ago, as milling and computer-aided design programs transformed the design process, it seemed clay modelers would be all but extinct. Bean counters saw the new technologies as a way to shorten the design process and cut costs.

But carmakers found they were turning out lackluster vehicles due to a lack of hands-on interaction and being unable to effectively evaluate styling.

"There was an infatuation with the technology where there was a rush to do totally digital," Dehner said. "I still think there's a desire in the design ranks to be more technically savvy, but the one thing about this is you're adding the human element."

Shrinking pool of students

Clay modeler Gene Paye talks about how 3/8-scale models, such as this 2013 Dodge Viper, are made with 3 inches of clay over foam to reduce weight.

The importance of that human element has made clay modelers such as Facciolla and Todd Wilburn, of the Dodge and Ram Design Studios, highly coveted by automakers. The number of skilled workers in the field has fallen because of digital processes, and not many universities offer training.

FCA US focuses on six design schools when looking for new clay designers. One of the top institutions is the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.

CCS has offered automotive clay modeling for more than 20 years, and is known as a proving ground for those looking to enter the automotive industry.

Clay courses start with rudimentary introductions to the materials and how to mold the surfaces, followed by more advanced structures and practices. Students cannot earn a degree in automotive clay modeling, but they do receive a certificate upon completion.

"Talented clay modelers, physical sculptures, are in really high demand," said CCS undergraduate transportation design program head Paul Snyder, an internationally recognized automotive designer and alumnus. "These guys can basically write their own ticket if they're really that good."

FCA officials, including head of design Ralph Gilles, regularly talk up good-paying auto industry careers such as clay modeling to students who might not know they exist. Clay-modeling positions can pay a salary of more than $100,000.

"Some of the young artists that do become aware of it realize this is a really good living and environment," Snyder said. "Working in the studios of the (automakers) is actually very creative, very relaxed."

From sketch to sculpture

Clay modeling is a meticulous process that involves modelers and designers working closely with one another, repeatedly redoing the details of car and truck exteriors.

Joe Dehner, head of Dodge & Ram Truck exterior design, says nothing beats clay for getting a 3-D feel of a new product.

"It's an interpretive dance, basically," Dehner said. "It's the part that amazes people when they come in. You see a sketch and you see a sculpture, how do you get from there to there?"

Exterior designers start with computerized sketches of different designs. From there, small clay models that can fit on a desktop are produced.

Modelers and designers communicate throughout the process to ensure the small clay models accurately reflect the designer's vision before moving to what FCA US calls a "design bake-off." That's when managers look at the models and determine what designs should move forward. Typically, Dehner said, one or two designs advance, which then gives modelers the go-ahead to sculpt a full-size mockup.

To make the full-size model, modelers start with a framework of the vehicle, typically made of foam. Over that, they smooth thousands of pounds of clay over one half of the car.

Designers continue to work with modelers, who can spend hours sculpting a single panel or piece of a vehicle, and then have to do it all over again if changes are made by management or designers.

"It's all about change," said Dodge-Ram clay supervisor Gene Paye, who spent a decade as a clay-modeler for the automaker. "You don't fall in love with a surface, because you're going to change it."

Once designers have half a model complete, they use an optical scanner to digitize the design. A milling machine replicates the design to the other side of the vehicle, which can be done overnight. Modelers and designs then dance between clay and digital renderings.

To give modelers an idea how a design will look painted, they may stretch thin, colored film over the model.

The entire process can take months. The clay model can be completely replicated for a second model be used for wind-tunnel testing.

At the end, clay models are typically stored to reuse for refreshes or redesigns.

"It's a profession that's still going to continue, and there's a lot of opportunity out there," Dehner said. "But a lot of people just don't know about it."


(313) 222-2504