CAD, VR, AI and… Plasticine?

CAD, VR, AI and… Plasticine?

Automakers rely on cutting-edge technologies to create today’s cars. They also rely on the past.

There’s one place inside a major carmaker you’re unlikely to see and that’s the working areas of its design studios.

They’re secure facilities.

The reason you won’t get inside is the need for secrecy.

Carmaking is competitive. It’s also time-consuming. It takes years to develop new and updated cars.

Automaker’s don’t want their confidential development work on a new-model car to be made public before it’s official unveiling. If it did, it would destroy years of painstakingly crafted market advantages worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

It’s why you’re unlikely to set foot inside one of their design studios. And it’s a shame, because even if you’re not a fan of cars or design, they’re fascinating places.

One thing always hits you when you walk into the nucleus of a carmaker’s design studio.

It’s not the stunning interior styling.

Or the outdoor-like interior lighting.

It’s not the life-like, full-scale drawings on show.

Or the silence.

It’s the smell.

The distinct waxy aroma inside new-car design studios comes from clay. Not any common clay but a particular modelling clay. It’s an industry-specific plasticine-like material. It’s used to shape scale-size and full-size models of future new vehicles.

You might be wondering why an industry synonymous with terabytes, lasers and microns is playing with plasticine to create cars.

Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and Virtual Reality (VR) are used every day in automotive design studios. They’ve shortened the time it takes to style a new-model car. They also deliver other big advantages, such as creating complex shapes once not possible.

But despite their speed, accuracy and realism, they still create images that can’t entirely depict the nuance and detail of a real surface in real light. And this is where clay modelling comes in.

First used in the 1930s, styling a new car’s exterior and interior with clay lets designers see a future car’s true shapes, proportions and forms relatively quickly – and without the cost of creating prototypes made from expensive materials.

Clay models, whether they’re smaller-scale or life-size, also play a big role in a new car’s aerodynamics development. Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) and other CAD simulations can speed up aero-related design choices; but refining a clay-model car inside a working wind tunnel can save a lot of time and money.

That’s the power of clay. It validates a design. It lets designers see what’s going on before any (very expensive) production tooling is built.

But it’s not only clay at play inside these global businesses. There are other surprising processes and materials.

Take safety development.

Crash testing is a major part of creating a new-model vehicle. Computer-based impact simulations help engineers and designers understand a future car’s likely safety performance in different situations, without the need to destroy a vehicle.

It helps speed up the new-car development process. It creates understanding of what different impacts will likely do to a vehicle. And doing all this without destructive testing helps reduce costs.

But new-car safety development doesn’t occur exclusively inside computers. It still requires automakers to crash-test lots of actual test cars during their multi-year development process. Despite the gargantuan processing power of today’s computers, smashing real test cars in controlled environments is still the only way to validate their safety development data.

Another place you’ll find old and new working alongside is inside a carmaker’s prototype workshops.

The first working examples of a new-model car are built here. They’re usually assembled by hand.

Alongside all the million-dollar five-axis machining centres (where computer-controlled machinery cuts out complex-shaped metal parts) are tools you might recognise: old-school machining mills, welding gear and basic metal-working tools. They all play a vital role in creating these first precious test cars.

It’s the same in the most extreme versions of car-making. A few years back, an industry colleague visited the Red Bull Racing Formula One team’s UK workshops. Huge and complex computer-controlled lathes and mills were busy making micron-accurate parts for the team’s wind-tunnel models and race cars. Sitting amongst them was a 1960s lathe, used for cutting out metal components.

“Perfect time-saver for quickly turning up a one-off part”: that was the answer my friend got when he asked why they used these old hand-operated machines.

For context, it was the same model of lathe he trained on at Chisholm TAFE in Dandenong many years earlier.

Working with OEM carmakers as well as defence and aerospace gives my team and I a rare view.

I can tell you this: carmaking sits next to (and sometimes ahead of) those other two industries when it comes to technology and know-how.

CAD, VR, AI, CFD and other powerful digital tools help create the cars we drive today. They’re essential to create better and more affordable new vehicles for consumers. We’ll use them for years to come.

They help make it possible to mass-manufacture automotive components to accuracies within half the width of a human hair. And they let us produce new cars that use more than 100 million lines of computing code (Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner uses only 14 million).

Facts and figures like these show why carmaking needs proven necessities, not popular novelties.

Carmakers know the value of using proven older-world processes. Our parents and grandparents might have developed them, but they still ensure car-making is affordable and possible.

What about your industry? What “old-school” approaches might give you an advantage?

Bernie Quinn – Engineering Director, Premcar Pty Ltd


About Premcar – Premcar Pty Ltd is a leading Australian vehicle engineering business that specialises in the automotive, defence and aerospace industries. For more than 25 years, global car-makers have made Premcar their go-to partner for the complete design, engineering and manufacture of niche-model new cars, full-scale new-vehicle development programs, and electric vehicle (EV) conversions and manufacturing. As the name behind more than 200,000 new cars and 55,000 new-vehicle engines, Premcar’s body of work is extensive and has delivered technical and sales success for major car brands from Europe, the USA, Japan, China and Australia. Visit


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