We Reveal a Ford Automotive-Design Secret

Tori Tellem

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What goes on in the design studios at Ford is usually top secret. But we’re going to give you the scoop on one crucial part of the design process, because it’s likely something you have in common with our top designers. It’s something you probably used as a kid, in creating everything from play dinosaurs to houses. That’s right: clay! The styling, fine lines and subtle shapes of Ford vehicles can be attributed to the artistry of working with clay.


“By the 1930s, all of the Big Three designers were sculpting with clay,” said Lloyd VandenBrink, Modeling Manager, Ford Design Studio. Sure, the clay itself and how it’s used has evolved and advanced, and digital design software and innovative new scanning technologies are utilized, but decades later, you could say designers still play with clay.


“We’re constantly creating surfaces on the computer,” Lloyd explained. “We mill that surface out of the clay and then we model the changes by hand and scan those changes back into the computer.”


By making a full-size clay model of a vehicle, the designers and engineers can spot potential issues in both the interior and exterior of the vehicle, things not always apparent on digital or small-scale models. “We are constantly being influenced by new technologies, but when we want to view physical properties early in the process, we still turn to clay,” said Lloyd.


Now, think back to the size of that container of clay you had as a kid. OK, think about the size of an F-150. Ford designers use up to 200,000 pounds of clay every year to construct full-size models. Take the Raptor clay model: that took 1,935 pounds of clay. The designers reuse the clay via a proprietary machine that’s able to recycle more than 25,000 pounds and keep it out of the landfills. Bins are placed around the vehicle models, and as designers shape and tinker, the scraps are collected in tubs. The tubs are then placed in ovens to soften the clay for reuse.


Sulfur used to be the main ingredient in clay, but that was stopped in the 2000s. The clay that is used today is mainly a combo of waxes and oil with filler, but no water like traditional ceramic clay uses. So, technically, the clay doesn’t really contain clay at all!

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