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3D Interactive Product Animation

3D Interactive Product Animation is by some considered the holy grail of 3D; leveraging your existing 3D CAD files on the web for realistic, on-line, real-time display. There are a few companies trying to make this happen, especially with Augmented Reality gaining momentum. Most proposed solutions involve getting locked into proprietary software promising photo realistic, real-time rendering of  super complex, highly detailed products you’ve worked hard to develop. But is it possible?


There are important technical details surrounding the answer that require explanation.

In a nutshell, a highly detailed CAD model translated for display on the web is far too complex and ‘polygonally heavy‘ (translation; requires way too many points and polygons) to accurately show your product (rendered or displayed) by web-based rendering engine. What does this really mean? A ‘real-time, web based rendering engine’ is software designed to produce truly, photo-realistic 3D renderings from random manipulation.

Let’s briefly step through this to understand what it means.

Fully Interactive 3D

A good example of truly interactive would be having a static, un-rendered 3D object sitting on-screen. The user drags a mouse over the object and the object responds as the real-time rendering engine takes information from the model, lighting and surrounding environment to calculate accurate materials producing a realistic object –  in real-time. If you think of some of the more sophisticated video games you’re as close as you’ll get.

Interactive 3D

Instead of the actual 3D model on screen, this method uses a series of already rendered images to display the same product. A good example might be something like the above. This technology uses either photographs or already rendered images to display them as a sequence in response to a user’s interaction. The sequence of images is predetermined and can not not deviated from. What does this mean? It means if you want to stop half-way through a spin and open a door, you can’t do it unless that sequence as already been rendered as part of the image sequence.

The object is pre-rendered in a program like Autodesk Maya or 3D Studio Max as a series of images. The images are uploaded to a server, allowing the visitor to drag the cursor over the object, which loads the series of images to display the object. It’s not ‘real time’ in the sense that it’s not rendering the real 3D CAD object on the fly – the rendering is already done.

Why is this important?

It’s important because most people don’t want to stop at simply having their object spinning around. Their object has doors, and parts, and cool buttons they want potential customers to be able to open, interact with and push.

Unfortunately – this just isn’t a feasible request in today’s web landscape. Not yet, at least, without investing serious money in proprietary software environments essentially trapping your CAD model in that environment, forcing its materials, lighting, constraints etc. to be applied so their rendering engine understands how to display it. And even then, it falls short of ‘realistic.’

Some simplified versions of this can be done – but it’s far from simple, and full of ‘hidden gotcha’s’, never looks as good as the marketing material leads you to believe – and is very expensive.

Where does that leave you?

3D animation from CAD files

CraneDigital takes the rendered image approach for your 3D Interactive Product Animation. We begin with your CAD file. Using photographs for reference, we translate it to our 3D environment. We have virtual photography studios set up with lights and cameras specifically designed to virtually photograph your CAD model.

The process isn’t simply the push of a button. The CAD file is carefully gone through and cleaned up. Materials such as glass, plastic, rubber, any kind of labels, stickers, decals, logos and screens are all painstakingly re-created using your original artwork , then placed in the virtual photography environment. If your screen animates, we animate your screen

The beautified 3D model rendered in any number of sequenced images, from any angle. The object never falls on the floor and breaks, never gets finger prints on it, needs cleaned or has to be suspended in air to be photographed – because it’s all done in 3D.

Down the road, minor revisions are easily made, and re-render as a new sequence and your updated product is back on the web.

It’s comforting to know (for us at least) that there are still some things that can’t be done with the push of a button, or by simply buying a single computer program. Good, 3D Interactive Product Animation still takes good, old fashioned work, skill, patience and an eye for detail. We’ve been at this for a long time and understand what it takes to put your hard work up on the web in its best light.

If you’d like to discuss your next 3D CAD for WEB project, gives CraneDigital a call at (970) 213-1828.

We can help you.

Industrial Animation Case Study: Schneider Electric

Over the years we’ve had the privilege of working on some fun projects. One of them was a series of industrial animations created for Schneider Electric. The goal for these projects was to provide a high-level view of each industrial process where their products and solutions were applicable.

Three primary industries were spotlighted: Steel, Mining and Cement. We began with Steel, following a corporate approved style. Over the next several years the other two projects were created to match. As style evolved, each animation was updated to reflect consistency.

Cement Industry Animation

These were challenging projects. Some of the challenges included identifying the correct pieces of machinery to include in the right locations. Each process was specific and required a good bit of research to accurately represent. It’s a delicate balance: the incorrect piece of equipment and too little detail conveys incomplete knowledge. Too much detail suggests undesirable specifics.

Cement Mill 3D Model. Each 3D model was built from the ground up to be the most efficient representation of an average machine in that process.

A significant challenge was modeling. Each piece of equipment was built from scratch to represent accurate, real world machines recognizable by industry insiders – but not directly promoting brands. Creating individual parts and pieces with real world motion in mind was important. Because the scenes were so large it was vital to create clean, efficient models requiring the least amount of overhead.

One core strength at CraneDigital is using 3D CAD models when available. There are times however, this is not the right approach. Sometimes CAD models are not available. But more importantly, 3D CAD models require extensive optimization, given their size and complexity. Essentially, they’re not the most efficient models to work with – but they are the most technically accurate.

Fortunately another core strength is building 3D models of anything – from scratch. Accurate 3D models may be created from nothing but reference material to represent any object with sufficient detail. These models are easier to manage and animate in large scenes. Often times for large projects this is a better approach.

Steel Industry Animation

Another challenge was camera movement. Not too fast or too slow; not too high or too low. Positioning the camera to dive and dip through complex scenes while not making the viewer nauseous, as if on a roller coaster.

Cement Industry Animation-Schneider Electric

One of the greatest challenges was particle systems. As the camera passed each conveyor belt moving material to the next station, the size and composition of the material needed to appear visibly different. Each process along the way altered the material essentially making it smaller and changing color until finally resulting in the end product. Because the camera moved close to each conveyor, detail needed to be accurate.

But perhaps the greatest challenge of these projects was the sheer file size and complexity of each scene. The Mining animation alone contained over 154 Models, nearly 5,000 separate objects, more than 1,200 different animated objects, and over 5 million polygons. Keeping track of this all required some attention to detail and good strategy.

One of the goals for these animations was a long shelf life because the processes don’t often change. For industries such as this, the ROI is very appealing.

Industrial Animation Case Study: DosaSkid from Milton Roy

DOSASKID is a industrial animation marketing piece created for long-time client Milton Roy. The goal was to show how modular and complete this pre-engineered system is, featuring each major component.

To create this project we worked with the client’s CAD data sets, beginning by optimizing the 3D models created through the CAD translation process. The goal was to keep the total run time to a minute or less, so call-out copy was written and presented as succinctly as possible to be readable, yet not distracting.

Music was chosen specifically to communicate light, classy (note the orchestration) and uplifting. No voice was intended for this piece.

Final bullet copy at the end was easily added in After Effects. The whole project took two weeks from start to finish. The final piece was created both in English and Spanish.

DosaSkid from Milton Roy is a perfect use of 3D technical animation to present your product’s features and benefits. Used with permission.

Radiate for Nutrien Ag Solutions

One of the most powerful uses of animation is when it’s paired with live-action video. For this project CraneDigital worked closely with the team at Nutrien Ag Solutions to help launch their new product, Radiate.

More than simply live action video, more than just 3D animation, Radiate represents a unique blend of both to convey the best of this exciting new technology. Video, graphics, voice and music were all carefully selected to blend with all the important established branding striking the right tone to communicate Radiate’s core features and benefits:

  • Enhance early season vigor
  • Drive maximum root growth
  • Reduce stress
  • Maximize yield potential
  • Support increased profits
Root hair simulation to visualize the difference between applied vs. non-applied roots.

Where appropriate, 3D animation was created to fit specific applications – such as explaining how additional and longer root hairs on plants benefited early season growth. Or visualizing side-by-side the difference between Radiate-treated and non-treated plants.

Visualizing data using 3D graphics is more enjoyable than any spread sheet.
Grower yield data shown over map of the U.S.

Radiate represents an ideal blend of live-action footage and 3D animation to powerfully communicate concepts, advantages, specific applications and value propositions in a short, sweet, compelling, uplifting way.

Motion graphics using actual photographs produced in the lab add credibility to the claims.

Cut-Away Illustration and Animation

Those who haven’t yet considered 3D technical animation as a potential marketing solution and instead rely simply on video or photography – might benefit from this quick mention.

Exploded views are great for parts inventory, and to visualize how things fit together.

In the real world, it’s often impossible to visualize how something works. Our eyes stop at the exterior shell of the object, unable to penetrate and see what lies within.

3D Cutaways are an excellent way to explain your product’s features, benefits and value proposition.

Sometimes you don’t want to show something specific – for example, a proprietary modification you’ve made to your product. 3D Animation can easily omit whatever intellectual property or features you wish to protect.

HACH Scanning Spectrophotometer
  • At CraneDigital we’ve been creating 3D cut-away illustrations and animations for years. Inspired by early artists working before the computer with airbrush and traditional drawing methods, we moved to the computer to perfectly leverage size and scale relationships – and every nuance to perfectly present each object.
  • Ultimately, if the goal is complete flexibility in marketing, an object trapped in CAD is a bit like having built a ship in a bottle. We’re experts helping move your CAD data set to a more suitable high-quality illustration and animation environment.

Optimizing 3D CAD Data Sets for Animation

This year we’ve had the privilege of working on several fun projects with several long-time repeat clients. One of them was Milton Roy Mixing, an arm of Accudyne Industries | Milton Roy.

Translating existing 3D CAD data sets into functional 3D models for animation is step one. CAD data sets can be created in many different CAD software applications. Bringing these different file formats into the animation environment requires a flexible and competent workflow.

On complex assemblies such as machines with many parts this requires patience and attention to detail. Picking through complex CAD models with hundreds or thousands of parts can be a daunting task. Grouping parts and sub assemblies according to how they’ll be animated and textured is one example of how you might organize a data set preparing it for animation.

Often times CAD assemblies will come through with every screw, nut, bolt and widget required to build it properly in the real world. Any object visible to the camera contribute to a high degree of realism. The invisible objects hidden from a given shot are dead weight – only contributing to sluggish performance – and require removal.

Another example is having to remodel portions of the object. Often times the CAD translation process creates a model made up of far more polygons than necessary. Models can be initially optimized during the translation process with software and though a good first step – is not a complete solution. Just as an example, a simple cylinder may translate into many excess points and polygons, but in reality, could be re-created as a simple primitive which is much easier for rendering engines to work with. Though this article is about using existing 3D objects – the necessity to create completely new 3D components to repair objects that didn’t translate well is part of every project. This falls under the Modeling category and will be discussed later.

One final example is large, smoothly curved surfaces (think plastic, injection-molded exterior casings). Often times what should appear smooth and perfect instead appears with creases, edges or even worse – tears in the polygonal geometry. The culprits are rogue “edges” and “smoothing angles” that did not translate well. This can be one of the most difficult things to fix, requiring identifying the offending “edge” and working to resolve the issue. Sometimes you’ll think you’ve got it perfect, then test render from different angles with different light – and sure enough, there it is. Rats!

All of this work is considered Optimizing the model for animation. It’s time consuming but worth it, the end result being a perfect 3D replica of the device properly set up to behave as it would in the real world: accept any motion, camera angle or close-up.

In animation there are always ways to work around an imperfect model, especially if you’re only viewing it from one angle. If the camera doesn’t see it, it’s not there. But in 360° degree rotations or high-resolution still images for marketing it’s impossible to hide imperfections and everything needs to be done right.

CAD translation and optimization is a core competency at CraneDigital. It takes time and attention to detail, but is absolutely necessary to ensure a high-quality project is delivered. Once complete, the model is then ready for any assignment required by the client.