Clay still shapes future of auto design


MELBOURNE—In an era of computer-aided design and 3D printing, the 90-year-old craft of full-size clay modeling is still being used in design studios of automakers.

Inside General Motors Australia Design Studio in Port Melbourne, where cameras and mobile phones are not allowed, design boss Richard Ferlazzo offered us a rare glimpse into his inner sanctum, a workspace filled with computers, giant monitors, galleries of recently revealed concept cars, prototype, and scale models.

This studio is part of a network of design hubs that GM operates in Detroit, India, Brazil, Germany, China and South Korea.

But this one in Australia, according to Ferlazzo, is the only one outside Detroit that is capable of developing concept cars from scratch, and carrying such project to full fabrication.

“We do the entire process here, from a clean sheet of paper to presenting it at a motor show. And we remain one of the main design studios designing cars for all of GM’s brands,” Ferlazzo says.

In fact, Ferlazzo’s department will soon help lead the charge on advanced automotive engineering and design for GM with his team already working on cutting-edge technology such as autonomous and electric vehicles.

And amid the specialized design softwares, virtual reality setups, and modern, cutting-edge technology at Ferlazzo’s disposal, a venerable and defiantly “low-tech” design tool still remains at the center of his studio: life-size clay models of upcoming GM cars.

So, why clay?

Ferlazzo explains that with clay, he and his team can easily make instant changes.

“(Clay) allows modelers to fair a line here, to tuck a curve there, until the body design is perfected. If it’s still not perfect, we could add an additional layer or we could just scrape some away. Interestingly, the shaved clay pieces could be reused, and that bodes well for environment sustainability.”

Moreover, Ferlazzo explains, life-size clay is a great collaborative tool as everyone can get around the model and brainstorm three-dimensionally.

“While we do scale models, and make them as realistic as possible, there’s something about having to gaze at a life-size clay model,” he says.

Whether it’s scaled or full-size, a model is not entirely made of clay, as designers also use a structural frame made of polystyrene (foam), wood and aluminum.

For designers like Ferlazzo, a clay prototype is essential for working up and perfecting surfaces, lines and details.

Life-size clay models allow them to look at the entire car, instead of just focusing on a small aspect, which happens, designers say, when employing the digital method.

It’s always an exciting moment for these designers when they finally see the life-size clay model that they painstakingly sketched for months, now a complete sculpture that they can admire and evaluate.

While some consider clay modeling outdated, Ferlazzo explains that designing a car is a combination of all the different tools.

“Up to this point, we’ve simply never found anything better when it comes to clay,” he says.

Indeed, it seems amazing that a very crucial phase of the design process is still entrusted not to computer-aided designers, but talented sculptors wielding centuries-old hand tools.

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TRIVIA: Did you know that it was at General Motors that the practice of clay modeling for automobile prototypes first started?

Working for GM from 1927 to 1958, Harley Earl pioneered the concept of taking a design from a two-dimensional drawing to a three-dimensional form by producing clay models of his creations.

Earl’s use of clay as a modeling tool greatly simplified and sped up the design process by allowing designers to visualize shapes and forms that were difficult and time-consuming to create in steel.

Regarded as the father of American automotive design, Earl has designed numerous iconic cars including the 1938 Buick Y-Job, the auto industry’s first concept car; the 1927 LaSalle, his first styled mass-produced car; and the iconic 1953 Chevrolet Corvette sports car.

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