Optimizing 3D CAD Data Sets for Animation

3D CAD animation
John Deere Undercarriage, a massive CAD data set moved from engineering to the 3D animation environment for explainer video creation.

We’ve had the privilege of working on several fun projects with different companies over the years. One thing they have in common: they had CAD data trapped in engineering applications and need to turn that data into effective marketing communications. Optimizing 3D CAD data sets for animation takes time and attention to detail, and is a core competency at CraneDigital. It is absolutely essential to ensure a high-quality project is delivered. Once complete, the model is then ready for any assignment required by the client.

Exterior ghosted away to reveal interior of how this jet engine from Cahill Heating lives in a trailer able to be transported to some of the coldest places on earth.
  • Fort Collins Graphic Design with 30 years experience.
  • 3D Cut-away illustration: Hustler Turf's Super Z riding mower.
  • Cuaway views of power receptacles
  • 3D illustration from CAD files: Created for Universal Motion Control, this image showcases two premiere products for marketing purposes.
  • 3D CAD animation
  • 3D CAD Animation used in 3D explainer animated videos
  • 3D CAD Animation used in 3D explainer animated videos
  • Product Animation Industrial Technical Animation

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.

CAD animation
3D Animated explainer videos showcasing your CAD engineered product.

On complex assemblies such as machines with many parts this requires patience and attention to detail. Let’s face it – picking through complex CAD models with hundreds or thousands of parts can be a daunting task, and isn’t on every animators list of favorite things to do. Fortunately it is at the top of CraneDigital’s list of favorite things.

3D explainer animated video
3D CAD data set optimized for animation and illustration in explainer animated video

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. Re-organizing and 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.

Product Animation and Illustration using your CAD data.
Product Animation and Illustration using your CAD data.

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-a digital twin- of the device properly set up to behave as it would in the real world: accept any motion, camera angle or close-up.

Medical Device Rendering
3D renderings of medical devices created from your CAD data.

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.

Fort Collins Graphic Designer
Created for Universal Motion Control, this image is from a product animation showing the value proposition of their gear box.

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.