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The Long and Winding Road of 3D Visualization

References Cited

3D Visualization

I will never forget my first exposure to 3D visualization.

It was back in 1996 or so. I was assisting on the development of a Crew Return Vehicle (CRV) program at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. There was an executive presentation on the progress of the program and how their new parametric feature-based CAD application was being used. Using alpha 3D visualization software, they brought up the entire vehicle up at once. Everyone in attendance was wowed.

I think most everyone that’s been in the industry for a while probably has some type of similar experience. When 3D visualization tools first started being introduced, the reaction was always something close to amazement. When many started discussing how the technology could be applied to development, one notable word came to mind: collaboration! But that’s when things didn’t progress quite as we all might have expected. Then and now, collaboration is a troubled term. A post I published back in 2010 titled A Framework to Reclaim a Tarnished Yet Worthy Term: Collaboration includes some more details. And as a result or because of that confusion, 3D visualization always felt like a technology looking like a problem to solve. And I think many of us had to temper and reset our expectations.

Blink away 15 years and today, 3D visualization is in a far different place than it was. In general, this technology is being applied in two broad areas. To gauge exactly how far the technology has come, I thought it worthwhile to take a look at each application and assess its value. In the end, I hope we can kick off some rousing discussions.

Ubiquitous 3D Visualization in Enterprise Systems

If there’s one place I never expected 3D visualization to be, its in the background. Almost the non-application.

All that groundbreaking tech back in 1996 has transformed over time to be little granular pieces of infrastructure embedded in all sorts of enterprise systems ranging from PDM, PLM, SDM/SLM, ERP and others. You commonly see it incorporated in search and the home page for any part or assembly. It melded into the background, only noticed when necessary and quickly forgotten.

What’s the value of this sort of thing? Well, for almost any enterprise system today, it’s table stakes. It can be hard to ‘get into the game’ and be seriously considered without it. I guess in some form, it has helped designers, engineers and others make decisions more quickly. But that’s certainly hard to prove with any sort of ROI or justification. It’s merely part of the system now.

Specialization of 3D Visualization Applications

Some 15 years later, where are all those 3D visualization applications? Well, for the most part, they almost don’t exist as they once did. What once were fairly similar applications with generic functionality have gotten more specialized over time. They’ve become more granular applications for very specific roles. Let’s look at some of the categories.

Collaborating on a Design

Can you perform design reviews in CAD? Absolutely. Do you want to do that? Absolutely not.

CAD files include all the gory detail about how the model was built up over time. Sharing that internally may not be a problem, but inevitably you must share it with someone outside your four walls. And then you run the risk that comes with exposing the design intent embedded within CAD models to other companies. That’s not the safest way to protect your intellectual property.

Some 3D visualization applications offer the ability to both comment and interrogate 3D models. The good thing is that these tools don’t expose the features and other mechanisms used to build up the model or any design intent embedded inside.

What’s the value here? Well, this type of workflow replaces what might happen in CAD or on physical engineering drawings. Capturing this sort of feedback in digital form would make it more portable and archivable for decision traceability. I haven’t seen any ROI use cases on this scenario. And I’d be interested in comments with examples.

Communicating an Engineer’s Intent

The scope of design decisions aren’t what they used to be. In the past, engineers needed to take form, fit and function into account. But today, there’s a myriad of other considerations that need to be taken into account such as serviceability, manufacturability, sourcing and so on. That means stakeholders from service departments, the shop floor and the procurement office need to weigh in on the design. For them to do that, they need to understand the design intent of the engineer as context. With that in mind, they can make valuable suggestions.

Can engineers communicate intent through CAD? Perhaps. But it’d be painful. More than likely, the stakeholders from those other organizations don’t use CAD… and wouldn’t care to use CAD. So engineers need tools to let them document their design intent and share it in a format that’s readily consumable by these other stakeholders. That’s where technical communication applications come into play.

What’s the value here? In short, it’s an enabler for DFX initiatives, which are already widely popular. It can make those processes more efficient as an engineer doesn’t have to manually communicate their intent.

Verifying and Validating Operations

While some stakeholders that weigh in on enterprise considerations for the design merely need the engineer’s design intent as context, others need to do more work. Service planners need to verify that parts can actually be removed so the procedure can be completed. Manufacturing engineers need to verify that their assembly operation can be executed. There’s a number of such scenarios where other enterprise stakeholders need to use the 3D CAD model as the basis to do their own verification and validation.

This represents yet another specialization of 3D visualization applications. The capabilities of these tools let users do more than just comment and interrogate the model. This tools allow them to simulate the procedure or operation in question long before actual parts are ever made. This compliments technical communication applications in this regard, which enable the engineer to set the context at the beginning. Technical communication tools let everyone else verify their procedures and operations.

What’s the value here? These other stakeholders could potentially use CAD to verify their procedures. However, getting non-engineers to use CAD is difficult. These stakeholders need something simpler and easier for them to use. WIthout any technology to help them in this regard, they pretty much have to guess or try to draw it out on engineering drawings. Both are poor alternatives.

Consuming Drawingless Deliverables

For many years, there’s been a push not only towards going digital in terms of handing off engineering deliverables to manufacturing, but also in going drawing less. The whole idea here is to document your 3D model in CAD as if you were documenting a drawing. That means annotating the model with dimensions, notes and geometric dimensioning and tolerancing (GD&T) in what is commonly referred to as Part Manufacturing Information (PMI).

While CAD is used to document the design with annotations initially, manufacturing engineers and other folks on the shop aren’t going to use CAD to consume that information. And that’s where another specialized version of 3D visualization comes into play. LIke design collaboration tools, these downstream stakeholders need to interrogate the model as well as turn on and off different sets of these annotations.

What’s the value? Interestingly, this one really has some teeth to it. The whole issue with printed deliverables is that they can be out of date as soon as they are printed. Those errors can result in ECOs, increased scrap and uncovering product issues at the customer. The problem with digital drawings is that they require interpretation by the consumer. 3D models, in contrast, leave little room for interpretation. Of all the specialization of 3D visualization tools, this one seems to have the most heft behind it.

Authoring Technical Documentation

If you think creating views on engineering drawings are hard, try creating an isometric illustration for technical documentation. You can’t simply grab an isometric view from CAD. You have to change line weights. You have to change colors. Some of the lines are hidden. It can be veritable nightmare. But it has to be right. And even if engineering’s design release slipped weeks, you still have to hit your original deadline.

This is yet another place where 3D visualization has become more specialized. There are tools now that allow the user to create illustrations, not views, but real illustrations with varying line weights, colors and cutaways that are very high quality. Furthermore, they can be associative with the CAD model, so that if a design change is made, it is propagated in an automated fashion.

What’s the value here? For the most part, it’s about time and quality of the documentation. But there are more serious cases. Some manufacturers need to do a simultaneous launch of a product across the world. And in that case, documentation often is required as part of that launch. Now again, let’s be clear here. No one is going to delay the launch of a product because of technical documentation. The organization will have every single technical writer, illustrator and even engineers reprioritize their work to get that documentation done on time if necessary. It’s just that… well… you’re messing with people’s sanity. Such firedrills can cause serious employee unrest.

Creating Sales and Marketing Collateral

Is there ever a bad time to sell or market a product? It doesn’t matter if you are trying to win a contract or make your product’s hype cycle as big as possible, seeing a product rendered in what looks like a real world environment can make a huge difference. It might just be images. It might be a product spec. It might be a marketing document. The same concept applies. This is another application where 3D visualization has earned its stripes. These tools include rendering capabilities that make the product look like it exists in the real world. Those images can then be used in a wide variety of ways.

What’s the value here? If you’re a manufacturer who bids on contracts, it very impactful. Showing potential clients what the final product will look like ahead of time is a great way to overcome their objections. So in those cases, it can translate into won deals. From a marketing perspective, the alternative is to wait for real parts and run a photoshoot. And that can take time. In turn, this type of application can dramatically shorten the amount of time it takes to get that collateral on the market.

Conclusion and Questions

Lots to discuss, so let’s have a recap. In general, 3D visualization technology has evolved into two categories.

  • 3D visualization technology that has been incorporated into a number of enterprise systems as a ubiquitous infrastructure.
  • 3D visualization has evolved into a number of specialized applications.

Some of this specialized application areas include:

  • Collaborating on a Design
  • Communicating an Engineer’s Intent
  • Verifying and Validating Operations
  • Consuming Drawingless Deliverables
  • Authoring Technical Documentation
  • Creating Sales and Marketing Collateral

That’s my perspective. What’s yours? What other areas has 3D visualization specialized in? Are there other ways to measure the value of these applications? Sound off and let me know what you think.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

Chad Jackson is an Industry Analyst at Lifecycle Insights and publisher of the engineering-matters blog. With more than 15 years of industry experience, Chad covers career, managerial and technology topics in engineering. For more details, visit his profile.

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  • Duncan Mills

    Then and now, collaboration is a troubled term.  Indeed.
    I’d add also Communicating a Customers intent – especially make/assemble-to-order low volume complex items.
    Cheers,
    Duncan

    • That’s an entirely legitimate point. I might go back and add that to the end of the list. Thanks Duncan.

  • AD

    Chad,
    Great article! It would be interesting to know the preferred formats & platforms to deliver these specialized applications.
    Thanks.
    – ARD

    • Great question AD. Although I don’t think there’s any consensus around formats as far as I have seen yet. I do think there are some requirements and preferences in terms of consuming this information. The less specialized software, the better as far as I can tell.

  • Michael Reed

    Great article.  Another aspect to collaboration for the entire design/build/service life cycle is rarely are the pieces from the same CAD environment.  Using a neutral 3D visualization platform can overcome this situation without any of the suppliers having to expose design intent.

    • Thanks Michael. Great point on the today’s multi-CAD reality. Even if the engineering organization doesn’t have to deal with it, downstream functions do.