Remember when achieving a funky organic shape or quirky lighting effect was a major accomplishment that pushed the limits of 3D modeling? Today, those small wins are table stakes as engineering teams kick up the level of realism a notch while expanding use of digital prototyping.
As more companies come to rely on a digital representation in lieu of physical prototypes, it makes perfect sense that a detailed 3D model would fall short of providing a non-CAD user with the full picture of a proposed product design. Sure there’s been advances in surface modeling and simulation capabilities in recent years, but it’s still difficult to get a proper sense of the rich texture of a leather car interior, for example, or how light reflects off a stainless steel appliance with only a traditional 3D CAD model. Because of these limitations, a CAD model has lower utility for certain types of tasks, including design reviews that bring customers and non-engineers into the discussion loop as well as for the creation of high-end marketing materials and client proposals.
Younger engineers entering the workforce have also heightened the expectation for more realistic 3D modeling. After all, this is a generation born and bred in the digital world, raised on computer games and 3D animation. Engineers accustomed to seeing individual blades of grass on the turf fields when playing Xbox’s Madden Football are hardly going to accept anything less than the same lifelike attention to detail when using professional tools in their daily design workflows.
For these and other reasons, the ability to create photorealistic images of product designs has become far more important to a much wider audience. It’s no longer just the industrial designer or dedicated engineer that’s going to devote their time and computing resources to embellishing a design concept in advanced rendering software to sell it through to a client or to hand it off to marketing for use in the latest sales brochure. In order to effectively communicate and collaborate in any kind of extended design review, it’s now a requisite for the digital model to be viewed instantly as part of a virtual scene, complete with all the shadows and materials that make it seem as lifelike as a real-world prototype.
Yet it’s one thing to demand this higher level of realism and quite another to pull it off effectively. Traditional CAD has had limited capabilities in this area, so teams have typically turned to dedicated rendering tools to achieve the desired results. The advanced rendering software, usually unfamiliar to mainstream CAD users, is also very demanding in terms of performance. As a result, it is common to lock up a dedicated workstation for hours, maybe days, to complete complex rendering jobs. This becomes a problem for engineering teams looking to avoid unnecessary downtime and inefficient use of design resources.
Thankfully, there are a number of trends making advanced rendering functionality more accessible throughout the design process. For one thing, more powerful GPUs (Graphics Processor Units) supporting the rendering of complex virtual worlds are now available on affordable workstations, putting technology that was previously only available through expensive, high-end computer platforms well within reach of mainstream users.
There has also been plenty of work on the CAD front to incorporate advanced rendering functionality and to create seamless integration with dedicated rendering tools. For example, partnerships like the one between PTC and Luxion ensures that CAD tools work seamlessly with standalone, real-time ray tracing software so it’s easy for engineers to create photographic images of designs in minutes, no matter the size of the digital model.
CAD providers are also extending their offerings with sophisticated rendering functionality. For example, the PTC Creo Advanced Rendering Extension (ARX) is a full-featured, high-end rendering tool that delivers a variety of special effects such as textures, reflections, shadows, and depth of field while also providing 200 material types to add a higher degree of realism to evolving designs.
As the digital prototype becomes the primary means of evaluating designs, advanced rendering will become less about glitz and glamour and more about a real need to close the gap between the virtual and physical worlds.
[Ed. PTC Creo 3.0 added several new graphics capabilities. Download your free trial.]