Is Purely Digital Modeling The Future for the Car Industry?

Traditionally sculptors would use modeling plasticine for making small models or ‘maquettes’ before starting to carve in marble. Carving in stone requires great skill because, not surprisingly, once cut from the block, material cannot be put back on to the sculpture.

William Harbutt of Bathampton in England invented plasticine in 1897. It was a mixture of oils, waxes and clay minerals. Unlike modeling clay used by ceramicists and sculptors plasticine could not be fired in a kiln, heat caused it to soften and disintegrate. It could however be easily worked with simple wire tools and material could be added, removed or used again, although plasticine does slowly lose its malleability and cannot be very smoothly finished.

To overcome these shortcomings a different material, ‘Plastilin’ was developed and patented in Germany by a scientist, Franz Kolb, in 1880; ‘Plasteline’ was developed in France by Claude Chavant in 1892, and became a registered trademark in 1927. These materials became known as ‘Industrial Plasticine’ but today they are known as modeling or styling clay and are widely used in automotive design studios for producing both scale and full-size models of future products.

Until recently the modeling process was entirely done by hand; a thick layer of pre-warmed styling clay was laid onto a buck or armature made from wood and high-density polystyrene or polyurethane foam. Highly skilled clay sculptors, using ever more refined tools, then carved the clay until a perfectly surfaced form was produced.

In recent times computer aided machining is used to create a basic design form from data derived from an initial Alias 3D CAD model. The clay sculptors then take over the model development guided by the designer.

The relationship between designer and model maker is a crucial element in producing an outstanding design. The designer has to demonstrate that he knows exactly what he wants the form to be and the clay sculptor needs the skill to interpret that concept into three-dimensions. Quite often that successful understanding of the designers intensions by the clay sculptor and the development of a close working relationship can ‘make’ a designer just as a poor working relationship can limit the career prospects of a young designer.

Three-dimensional design using just the computer and a CAD modeling program can easily produce very badly resolved forms and surfaces but a skilled modeler will have the experience to guide the designer and point out surface treatments that cannot be made to ‘work’ in three dimensions.

Harley Earl, founder of General Motors’ Art and Color Section is credited with introducing clay modeling to the automotive design studio. In the late 1920s and 1930s the executives at GM viewed Earl’s conceptual ideas as flamboyant and without any sense of reality, Earl struggled to legitimize his design methods against the conservatism of production-oriented executives. As head of the newly formed section, he was initially referred to as one of the “pretty picture boys”, and his Design Studio as being the “Beauty Parlor”. But with the support of GM President Alfred P. Sloan he persevered and all designers these days owe a debt of gratitude to this colorful man.


Founded in 2012, Form Trends tirelessly covers the automotive design industry in all corners of the globe to bring you exclusive content about cars, design, and the people behind the products.