One of my earliest contracts was with an aeronautics engineering firm. While this business was small, they worked closely with prominent manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin and SpaceX. One of the issues the firm faced was the design reviews between them and their clients.
No matter how much time, thought, and effort they put into a prototype for one of their clients, the design review would typically boil down to a few CAD renders and an exhausting presentation that would fail to convey the depth of their design fully. This would often leave their clients confused and give feedback that seemed unproductive to the final goals.
To resolve this tension, my client wanted to develop a tool they could use to showcase their CAD designs at full scale in Virtual Reality. This way, they could do full tours of their designs and give a better perspective of how the final product would appear.
Virtual Reality does an excellent job of giving an in-depth and immersive experience of the environment you are placed within. The issue is that engineering designs often go far beyond the depth and level of detail that you would usually see within a video game. This posed several performance challenges when trying to render a complete CAD model within Unity, our game engine of choice.
However, this level of detail is necessary for an engineering design review. Even the little nuts and bolts are potential factors of a successful design or total catastrophic failure. The key to being able to develop this tool was to be able to capture as much detail from the original CAD designs while still being able to render them in real-time within a VR headset and maintain good performance.
To be able to render the CAD designs with good performance in VR, we need to be able to optimize the original models for real-time rendering. Since engineering software such as AutoCAD is designed for generating realistic products that can be converted into blueprints and similar outcomes, they maintain very high-fidelity data to represent the CAD models. However, while much of this detail makes it easier for the software to continue modifying and iterating on the design, much of it does not impact the actual visual appearance of the model to the naked eye.
The first step to solving this challenge would be to create a pipeline that can strip a lot of the unnecessary data from the original model without impacting its original appearance. To do this, we used Blender (our 3D modeling software of choice) to import the original model, reduce its level of polygons and vertices, and export a more optimized model version.
While Blender produced excellent results for optimizing our CAD models, we needed a way to simplify this solution to get repeatable results on all designs we try to use our tool for in the future. Fortunately, Blender allows you to write python scripts that can be run in a command line that will automate most of its functionality!
Ultimately, we wrote an ingestion engine that could take direct AutoCAD exports and automatically run them through Blender’s optimization, then import them into Unity with optimal settings. This made using our VR solution for future design reviews a breeze!
Being able to review CAD designs in Virtual Reality proved to be incredibly beneficial both for the engineering firm and its clients. At design reviews, the engineers caught issues they otherwise would have missed while looking over the design on a 2D render. Their clients were able to understand the designs with little to no explanation and felt that the results were much more tangible. This really boosted the sense of progress and confidence during the design process.
One example I recall after speaking with the head of an engineering firm was that they were designing an area that contained a maintenance shaft that allowed technicians to access critical components. While walking around the area in VR, they noticed the shaft was much too narrow for larger people to be able to fit inside and reach everything they needed to. Catching this mistake during the development of this product could have cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet because they saw it in a design review, it was much simpler to fix.
The VR Design Review tool even proved beneficial beyond its initial purpose. I later learned that our client had begun to use this tool at conventions and in sales meetings to show potential clients better what they could develop and inspire confidence in their brand. What was a relatively small investment to our client has not only saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars but has also helped them close contracts upwards of a million dollars!