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Nissan's Design: It's All About the Clay

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When developing ideas for new vehicles, automobile designers take advantage of the latest computer graphics technology. But when it comes to visualizing their creations in the real world, they turn to a decidedly low-tech solution: clay. At Japan’s Nissan Technical Center, clay modelers start with auto design sketches and transform them into three-dimensional objects.

The first models are created at one-quarter the size of the real thing. These diminutive versions show the different directions a particular design might take. Each is studied carefully in a series of meetings, and then given a thumbs up or thumbs down. The best designs are created full-size in clay.

Naoki Maekawa helped create the models for the Nissan Note (known in the United States as the Versa). “I’m really proud to see the model on the road,” he said. “If the person who rides in the model looks comfortable, it’s really good.”

While automakers have been using clay for decades, the development of CAD programs has led to a workflow where 3-D computer renderings are produced side by side with clay models. Designers render the vehicle’s parts on the screen, while at the same time, the clay modelers turn them into physical objects.

Once the model is completed, it’s covered with special plastic sheeting that makes the clay look like painted metal. The end result looks so much like an actual car that it would fool anyone who saw it sitting in a parking space.

According to Maekawa, the process is a melding of art and engineering. “There are two types of clay modelers here,” he said. “One type is an engineer and one type is a sculptor. A sculptor can make it cool. I want to become a sculptor, I’m trying.”