Who Knew? – New Model Car Design and Clay

In a time of sophisticated digital technology and 3D modeling what part could a few tons of clay play in the design of new car models?

Surprisingly, clay plays a big part. For over 80 years the automotive industry has used full size clay models to preview the design of a new vehicle.

Talented clay modelers continue to play a key role in new model design. For 25 years computer aided design and automated milling machines have threatened to remove this very human artistic element from the process.


With goals of lowering design costs and cutting the time from conception to final production there has been a push toward total digital design. But, when it comes to final model choices they seem to always come back to clay.

Clay is extremely malleable. It allows modelers to express their creativity. At Mazda they use more clay than any other manufacturer. They take great care to ensure that their planes and lines are harmonious with the whole of the car, but there are limits to how far you can take indentations and bulges.

Clay modelers and designers make compromises while exchanging ideas on finding the designers true intention and the modeler’s creative human touch.


Manufacturers are now increasingly mixing the aspects of clay modelers and the use of digital tools. Doing so can avoid spending hours refining the line of the body only to find it interferes with a structural or mechanical component of the vehicle.

Clay modelers will often design by hand one-half of the vehicle and then use an optical scanner and computer-controlled milling machine to produce a full-size clay replica in about a day.

Today the interior of a vehicle may be totally digitally designed. While executives can use 3D imaging headsets and holograms to see what a new design may look like, they are not willing to sign off on a new model that could cost over a billion dollars to produce without first seeing a full size clay model.

Clay – new model design – who knew.


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