Auto designers use tape to perfect vehicle styling

Tape is not just for wrapping presents. Ford designers rely on low-tech tape to hone the styling of any new vehicle.

The design process of a vehicle is a long and artistic journey that begins with designers sketching ideas on paper. From there, the team moves to scaled-down clay models and 3D CAD drawings, eventually milling full-size clay vehicles to analyze body styling options. Clay is the ideal material for vehicle models as it allows the modelers to carve away or add lines and accents. Ford designers refine the surface language to make a vehicle that is appealing to customers.

As clay prototypes of new vehicles are created, designers take tape to the malleable material to show modelers the lines they want perfected on the car. Designers and modelers use tape this way to communicate with each other throughout the design process of all Ford cars and trucks.

“Great design is about proportions,” said Kemal Curic, Ford exterior design manager. “From the beginning, we need to focus on creating the right structural lines – the skeleton of the car. Then our job is to tailor the vehicle body to enhance the figure. This is a process of editing every single line to find the perfect balance of concave and convex angles. We achieve this on the clay model, and tape is what we use to decide which lines to move.”

For vehicle designers, tape is its own language. Even with modern 3D digital imaging, automakers still rely on clay to sculpt and mold vehicles as the design develops. Tape brings a measure of precision to a process that results in a life-size 3D visual that cannot be duplicated on a computer screen, complementing the digital process.

“Tape gives us a defined line that is like a carpenter laying a level line on a building,” said Larry Pelowski, Ford master modeler, exterior design. “So when the designers put tape on the model, there is no question what their intent is.”

Tape offers both precision and artistry unmatched by other tools, said Pelowski. He explains it is a flexible material that can be retaped over and over again until the designers find the line they want to pursue. A tape line maintains the integrity of the width of the line; this is especially important when drawing a line with an arch that might otherwise be difficult to keep at a consistent size.

Artistry with tape is not a new phenomenon; auto designers once drew entire vehicles with the malleable adhesive.

“Tape was the medium of choice for creating life-size drawings,” said GarenNicoghosian, Ford exterior design manager. “They’d stretch Mylar on large boards and do a full-size tape drawing, which captured the essence of the car. The idea of tape drawings has evolved over time; we’ve integrated digital media now, and have technology that allows us to view full-size models based on CAD data, on very large display screens. In the past, tape was used because it was the first opportunity to see a full-size vehicle, it was the best way to draw accurate lines on a 1:1 scale.

“Today, the artistry of tape continues, but we use it primarily on clay models,” he adds.

How much tape does Ford use every year? Plenty. If one were to stretch the black tape used on clay models by the Ford design team, there’d be about 250 kilometres (155 miles) of tape a year.

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