Surfacing 101

What is Surfacing?

In general terms, Surfacing refers to creating the outside shape of an object.  Mainly the visible areas of a product as well as those a person will touch.

Surfacing  has some deep roots going back centuries.

Ship builders developed a version of the curve we use today.  A thin strip of wood, the spline, would be positioned on a table using different sized weights to create a specific profile for the hull of a boat.

Depending on the section of the boat, the shipwright would move the weights to create different shapes.  Once these main shapes were created and spaced along the length of the boat, the cladding would provide a skin bridging between each main section.  The result of  this process was a  smoothly blended exterior, spanning each section.

In many ways this is very similar to how we control curves and surfaces today.

Fast forward to the early years of the automotive age.  The practices of the shipwright creating bow sections and skinning with metal were used when creating the exterior shape of early vehicles.

As the need for further styling of the exterior developed, so too did the process.

Clay was quickly adopted for its ease and speed of modification.  Clay sculpting also somewhat reversed the process by forming the shape of the exterior surfaces or skin first.  Measurements from the clay model were taken and draftsman made incremental sections that would capture the clay model shape.  These drawings were then used to create the stamping tools that formed the sheet metal to the desired shape.
The majority of manufactured goods used drawings to represent the exterior shapes as well as the internal structures and components.  The advent of the computer brought along new efficiencies in creating these drawings, and eventually 3D computer modeling revolutionized how a product was conceptualized and manufactured.  Structures and components were now moved to the virtual world where they were developed as a solid model.  Surfacing however was still primarily a physical clay model function and digitized as sections in the computer.  Some attempts at Surfacing in the virtual world were attempted in early solid modeling software with limited success.  These were still based on incremental 2D drawings meshing together to make a skin surface.  In the 90’s true Surfacing software became available and began to bring efficiencies to the task of surfacing.  Some of the general principles of Clay modeling are combined with those early practices of the shipwright when surfacing in the virtual world.

Today, in one form or another, Surfacing is present in nearly every consumer-centric industry.   Surfacing, along with Solid Modeling, has made it commonplace to design a product entirely in the virtual world.

Several companies offer a dedicated surfacing software. Autodesk, Catia, Unigraphics etc… The tools vary somewhat but the principles of surfacing in the virtual 3D space have not changed much in recent years.

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