It is one of the artistic disciplines involved in new car development. At the same time, it is based on technical knowledge and craftsmanship. Welcome to the world of physical model making.
4. 1. 2022
In the previous episode of Hidden Figures of Design we looked at the Design Modelling and Digitalisation department and showed how digital modelling and new technologies are an important part of model making in contemporary car manufacturing. Digital modelling has a direct link to the building of physical models.
It is essentially a combination of technical disciplines and art. “Lots of our team members studied art or have other artistic experience,” confirms Martin Bogner, head of EDM, the department employing teams of design modellers preparing digital and physical models.
The Česana design centre is one of ŠKODA’s most secret workplaces. It is here that models of future cars or concepts for exhibitions are created. In the case of mass-produced models, the cars are actually created here years before they first appear in public. Once the modellers’ work on a particular car is done, the result remains secret for another two years or so.
Fans of automobile design will be familiar with the traditional clay models carmakers use to gradually develop the look of a car. These days, however, these clay models are enhanced with a number of inserted parts, i.e. tailor-made components that bring the models closer to the real car in terms of appearance. In addition, cars’ interiors are developed in a similar way, with an even greater quantity of various parts.
As Martin Bogner says: “Physical models are still extremely important for us. The touch of the human hand is irreplaceable in this case. We use the models to fine-tune details that might escape our attention in the digital environment. Physical models are also still used when the top management are approving a car’s final design, both at ŠKODA and through Volkswagen Group. These presentations are another of our team’s responsibilities.”
Clay and cutting tools
Physical model making at ŠKODA AUTO is headed by Vlastimil Pažout, who oversees the activities of three studios: exterior, interior and components. The exterior studio is the largest model building workplace – its hall can accommodate up to seven 1:1 scale models. By the way, smaller models are hardly ever made at ŠKODA, the last being the eVoiturette vision from the Icons Get a Makeover series.
“When working on concepts for car shows and for future production cars, we do everything at 1:1 scale, because some details might not stand out at a smaller scale,” explains Vlastimil Pažout.
Visitors to the studio might be surprised by the large milling machines. These are part of the car’s transition from the digital world to the physical one. While modellers used to shape cars out of clay completely by hand, today the milling machine does the basic work. The basis of the model’s construction is a steel frame fitted with foam pieces, and a layer of clay is applied to this skeleton. This is heated to 50-60 °C in a special oven, making the clay very malleable and easy to bond. After cooling to normal room temperature, it hardens. This is also one of the reasons why models are not made entirely of clay. Besides being extremely heavy (they weigh several tonnes even so) and expensive, the clay could crack or even come off in chunks.
“After the base layer is applied, the machine cuts the clay into the basic shape that was prepared by digital modellers in collaboration with the designers,” says Vlastimil Pažout. Once the structure has been given the basic outline, the modellers’ work begins. Using scrapers, knives, trowels and other tools, they fine-tune the original lines, which are usually “a bit sharp” after the initial milling.
The result of their work is then scanned and converted into a 3D model that can be worked with further and used as a basis for further milling or design visualisations and digital presentations. In fact, several alternative designs are created for each car when developing the car’s appearance, and one of them is chosen for the final design path. “Model makers are artists and masters of their craft. Together with the designer, they basically sketch in clay, applying their artistic skill and experience. At the same time they have to be fully in sync with the designer,” says Vlastimil Pažout.
Like the real thing
Modellers in the exterior and interior studios work similarly in this respect. But modellers working on interiors make more use of the services of the components studio. The components studio prepares various parts to look like the real thing. For the exterior, these include radiator grilles, headlights, wheel rims and other similar details, but for the interior there are a lot more components.
“For the interior, you have to deal with the texture of many surfaces. For example, the slats of the air vents and other details would basically be indistinguishable from with the rest of the interior if they were only modelled from clay,” explains Vlastimil Pažout. Some parts, such as the control stalks under the steering wheel or the steering wheel itself, could not be made from clay at all. The inserted parts are made on 3D printers, for example, and then perfected and assembled by hand – it can be really finicky work. The parts are also painted in a dedicated paint shop. The exterior models also get either a paint job or are coated with a special film, so that from a distance the result looks like a real car.
When the design is perfected, a “hard model” is created: this is a model that is no longer made of clay, but of solid materials that do not change shape over time. The production of these models is usually outsourced, based on the data and experience acquired when the clay model was made. “This is a model where everything looks almost like the real thing. The chrome must be chrome, the headlights work and the model is even drivable. It is the model “at the top of the pyramid”, the one we present within the Group, consult with other brands or show to selected partners,” says Vlastimil Pažout. The clay models usually go to a climate-controlled warehouse and are typically used when the given car’s appearance is due for modernisation. After that, their life is usually over – they are not stored indefinitely.
The Design Modelling and Digitalisation department’s work on the final form of models and, by extension, the final design of a car always takes around two years. Several dozen people work on the design, which remains secret and is the basis for making the first prototypes. Let’s take a closer look at the work of some of the team members.
Five modellers from the Design Modelling and Digitalisation department
His first boss at ŠKODA was Václav Capouch, who was involved in the founding of the Czech carmaker’s own design department. “I’ve been here for 29 years and held a lot of different positions in that time,” says Vlastimil Pažout, who has been coordinating the entire model building team since 2014. But his job is not only about coordinating the teams of individual studios: he has to cooperate with other departments as well. As he says, “I am here to stand up for the interests of the design department, on the other hand we always have to reach some kind of compromise. So we address a lot of issues with development and construction, with technology specialists and with other professions,” says Vlastimil.
Klára Valentová prepares the production of inserted parts for the models. “The data from designers and modellers describe the individual visible surfaces of the car, but my job is to give physical form to the details,” explains Klára. In the 3D “sketch” of the car, the radiator grille is only an external outline, so Klára has to “separate” this part from the model and create a discrete 3D model for it, which can then serve as a basis for making a real prototype of the part. “Our work on these prototypes is very intensive, we work and fine-tune the parts literally until the last minute,” she smiles.
Petr Erben is another link in the exterior model building chain. “My job is to make sure the modellers have everything they need, such as insert parts. We work out which ones will be needed, how to make them and so on,” he says. He oversees and manages the model production process, while constantly consulting with the designers on both the overall appearance and details. For example, he works with the Color & Trim department on colours or details such as the design of the radiator grille and other contrasting parts. “The fact that I interact with a wide range of colleagues and professions at work perhaps partly makes up for the fact that I don’t really get to talk about work at home or with friends over a beer,” says Petr.
Martin Hlušička has a similar position to Petr Erben, but this time in the interiors modelling team. “We deal with a lot of small parts in our field, and the 3D printer is our main ally,” he says, describing the production of components for interior models. One challenging aspect of his work is that the models have to be extremely precise. “In the first phase we deal in millimetres, but when we get to the final form it’s more like tenths of a millimetre,” he explains. The clay that forms the basis of the models is great in that it allows for continual changes, he says. “We can change shapes quickly, so we can try out various options. A lot of things are tweaked time and time again. Sometimes it might work the second time, but sometimes you need maybe ten attempts to resolve a detail,” he says.
Andy Settle joined ŠKODA from Audi together with Dirk van Brackel, the designer of the first generation of the new ŠKODA OCTAVIA. As a model maker, he was therefore one of those who shaped the modern face of the brand. And in his role as a “sculptor”, he continues to help shape it. Although Andy is fun and communicative, it’s mainly his tools that do the talking for him. When he shows how he trims the clay from the model with either delicate or expansive strokes, it’s like a virtuoso performance. “Hand-tweaking the design is extremely important. Whereas, say, twenty years ago there were greater differences between cars, today’s cars are very similar technically and also in terms of quality. And the design is what sets us apart,” says Andy, explaining why never gets tired of his work as a modeller. “We do a lot of fine-tuning with designers, the result is a collaboration between the modeller, who puts all his skill and experience into it, and the designer and his requirements and ideas,” he says.