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Manufacturers increasingly find it advantageous to render computer-aided design (CAD) models of engineered parts and assemblies into technical animations and photo-realistic movies. These technical animations are becoming required tools for companies that build complex machines and systems or that need to explain a detailed process or motion-control concept to customers, partners, board members, investors, or the C-Suite.

It is important to understand the term “rendering,” which is basically the process of taking a computerized 3D model, such as a 3D CAD description, and translating it into a lifelike 2D image. To render an image, the artist (yes, an artist) uses lighting and perspective, words, shadows, parts, and colors to give context to the rendering and its subsequent frames. The artist also weaves each frame into a movie or an animation.

Marketers and communicators have long understood the value of technical 3D animations. It is only recently that technology primarily coming out of the film industry has put such animations within reach of the masses, thanks to the availability of software such as Maya, 3ds max, and Softimage. In particular, advances in computer-generated imagery (CGI) coming out of the film industry have improved workflow for all kinds of animations. What were once heavily modified and scripted computer programs have now evolved into off-the-shelf software. Without the R&D done in the entertainment field, we most likely wouldn't have the software to create technical animations and illustrate products today.

The off-the-shelf software used in industrial animations resembles that used in the film industry for animation. Technical animators just use it in a different way. The main difference is that software for film animation is based on polygonal 3D models (think video games) as opposed to the mathematical curves and data used in CAD software. However, on the finished rendered piece, the differences are not noticeable to the human eye. The primary advantage of the “Hollywood” software is its ability to produce photorealistic renderings and, of course, to provide a means of choreographing any motion one can imagine. Using the same tools as those for Toy Story or Shrek, industrial animators can create visually stunning graphics.

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