Engineers increasingly use rendering tools to create photorealistic visualizations of products as they evolve throughout development to speed concept approvals, identify problems, and sell products.
We’ve all seen them; glossy, slick, perfectly lit product shots that look as if they were taken with a pricey, high-end camera. The vast majority of the time those product shots aren’t real at all, but rather computer-generated, photorealistic renderings of products, many of which don’t even exist yet in the real world. In addition, engineers and designers—not teams of CG specialists—are often creating these renderings.
Product visualizations created with rendering software help the product development process in myriad ways. They help “sell” ideas or concepts long before they exist in physical form; communicate important product information to customers, such as instructions on how to assemble or use new products; help engineers identify design problems; and can shorten time to market.
Josh Mings, an engineer, popular CAD blogger at SolidSmack, and marketing manager at Luxion, explains how today’s rendering tools facilitate collaborative design. “Designers and engineers have incredible opportunity to visualize their ideas. In the past, we were limited to whatever screenshots we could work up or, at best, arduously creating an exploded or cutaway view,” said Mings. “Now, 3D rendering software allows us to create visuals that look as real as the end product, communicating the idea before a piece of material is even cut.”
What is rendering?
Rendering is the process of creating an image from a model by means of software. Used in architecture, simulators, video games, movies and visual effects, but this article will focus on its use in design visualization. These product visualizations can be used throughout the design process, from communicating early concept ideas to assessing customer interest in proposed product ideas to helping “sell” final products online or through marketing and sales collateral.
Rendering gives the final appearance to models with visual effects, such as shading, texture mapping, shadows, reflections and motion blurs. Thanks to improved rendering algorithms and hardware acceleration, the software is more powerful than ever. Add to that the fact that high-end engineering workstations are now available at all-time low prices, no one should be left out of the rendering game.
While rendering was once done exclusively by specialists, more engineers and designers are embracing these tools. Kathleen Maher, vice president and analyst at Jon Peddie Research, has covered rendering technology for years and has seen its evolution from being a tool used by specialists to more widespread use by CAD users.
“Rendering has always been part of the design process, though it has usually come at the end off the design process and has been a function of marketing,” says Maher. “Renderers have often been specialists, and given the complexity of design models they have frequently found it more efficient to recreate models rather than use the original 3D models. That is changing as the CAD companies adapt to new capabilities.”
Where rendering fits in the product development process
Product designers and engineers typically render product models during several different stages of product development. Rendering is commonly done both early during concept development to facilitate buy-in and then again after 3D CAD models are completed to create the visual assets used to sell and support the final product.
L.A.-based industrial designer Gary Fitzgerald uses The Foundry’s MODO software to create photorealistic renderings to speed up concept approval by his clients in the automotive, transit and product design industries. His process is somewhat unique. He uses MODO as a 2D/3D mash-up for what he calls “sketch modeling” in the early phases of concept development. For him, the ability to work in 2D and 3D simultaneously is a big advantage.
Fitzgerald starts with a 2D sketch underlay, followed by quick, loose 3D geometry. Then using MODO’s 3D painting toolset, he can quickly sketch detail ideas directly on the 3D surface before looping back to create 3D geometry again. This iterative process is “about getting the right decisions made, not that each design is perfect,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s about getting the right decisions made in a timely fashion.”
Dave Vogt, an industrial designer at SkullCandy, says that his company once outsourced rendering to a service bureau but has brought it in-house, saving significant money and time with turnaround time “now days not weeks.” He explains how the process is different, depending upon the stage of development.
For concepts, the process is fairly organic; designers have room to decide colors, look and feel. After engineering, however, the final look of the product has been specified in detail and the process of rendering is more constrained. “There’s a lot of things that are flushed out through costing and production—whether it’s form or complexity of a part or materialization of a part,” says Vogt. “So when we get the 3D model back, I pretty much know exactly where things are going to go, how things need to be materialized, etc.”
Chicago-based MINIMAL is a product design firm that creates and markets its own products but also delivers customized design consulting services to outside clients. Dustin Brown, an industrial designer with MINIMAL, says that MINIMAL designers render models throughout the design process.
“At MINIMAL, we begin rendering very early in the design process with quick 3D models that capture basic mechanical or aesthetic thoughts, which are presented to clients in the form of photorealistic renderings,” says Brown. “We continue to update renderings during development as new features are added or other changes are made to project requirements. At the conclusion of a project, we typically provide high-fidelity renderings for our clients’ internal use.”
For the company’s in-house brand LUNATIK, the designers take rendering one step further and create multiple views of its products for use on its e-commerce platform as well as for sales, advertising, and marketing materials. The detailed CAD models are created using several CAD packages, such as Rhino, SolidWorks and PTC’s Creo.
Vendors develop renderers that fit CAD-driven workflows
Rendering software vendors have worked hard over the past several years to gain a foothold in the CAD market. Considering the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of users in the entertainment world, but million of users in the CAD space, it’s a smart move. To do so, however, they have had to take into account how engineers work and the workflow as it pertains to product design, which is clearly different than folks making movies, videos and games.
Maher explains how CAD vendors have made it easier for engineers and designers to incorporate rendering into current product design processes. “CAD users’ desire to integrate analysis, simulation, and rendering into the workflow has resulted in the development of better tools to prepare models, to pare models down to the essentials but keep the information connected,” said Maher. “So rendering can also be performed throughout the process to better understand how changes will affect how the end product will look in the real world.”
One such feature developed to improve the integration of workflow between rendering and design enables a user to continue to develop their CAD models and renderings simultaneously. When changes are made to the model, the rendering software automatically updates the render file to reflect those changes. In KeyShot, this functionality is called Live Linking; in Bunkspeed, it’s called Live Update.
SkullCandy’s Vogt describes a common scenario in which Keyshot’s Live Linking would be useful. “If I had to change the 3D model a little bit, for example, to slightly change the position of the cable. The headphone assembly, which is made of many different components, is fine but the cable needs to be moved over two inches. It’s a pain to start from scratch to redo all that, but with Live Linking, you can just update the file and it recognizes what parts changed and it updates the Keyshot render file. That’s super helpful.”
Rendering in the Cloud
One issue with rendering CAD models is that it requires substantial computing resources, especially when working with large, complex assemblies. Another issue revolves around the cost of the software and the hardware necessary to run it. Start-up Lagoa has introduced a solution that eliminates both of those issues: cloud-based rendering.
Lagoa is a web-based platform for 3D visualization and rendering that enables users to create high-quality, photorealistic images quickly and easily without buying any high-end hardware or software. The platform supports over 40 different CAD formats, including assembly and part files.
The company offers a Community version that users can try out for free. The Professional version is available for $50 per month and includes 100 GB of cloud storage and unlimited rendering time. For companies that need rendering tools on a limited basis and don’t want to take the time to learn how to use rendering software, the Lagoa platform might be the ideal solution.