Where art modelling and engineering embrace

There is a growing convergence between artistic modelling packages and CAD, accentuating their increasing usefulness in engineering design. Tom Shelley reports



New 3D modelling software developed for the games and creative arts industries is showing great potential for modelling fluids more easily than conventional CFD. This is particularly true when modelling disaster scenarios, while industrial designers are also embracing the benefits – especially the automotive sector.
Autodesk 3ds Max, Maya and Mudbox are all familiar names in games development, and the creation of advertisements and films. Now they are becoming progressively useful for industrial product design and even engineering modelling. This is because they are intended to be used readily by artists – and so not too difficult to work with – while including physical world-based models, so the creations they help to produce are realistic.
Mudbox is a clay modelling package, in which shapes are created by sculpting.
“The idea is to get off the ground very quickly,” Autodesk’s Nick Jovic.
It is recommended that users employ a Wacom tablet and pen, so they can, for example, create ridges of varying height, according to how hard the user presses the pen. It is also possible to use stamps and stencils to lay on textures and add colours by painting.
A typical workflow is to take a model from Max or Maya, which can, in turn, take in and export models to mainstream engineering CAD packages and then bring them into Mudbox for detailed modelling. This results in models with very large numbers of polygons – 2.8 million in the case of the model being shown to Eureka at a preview of Mudbox 2009 in London. However, a ‘Creativity Extension’ for subscribers to 3ds Max Design includes ‘ProOptimizer’, which enables the drastic reduction of the number of polygons in models imported back from Mudbox. It is, nonetheless, possible to retain full details in those parts of models where high definition has to be maintained. A number of car designers are said to be working in this way, but Autodesk has so far declined to reveal any names.
The other package being integrated with mainstream engineering CAD is the modelling and animation package Maya. In the 2008 version, the Maya framework started to allow plug-in modules such as ‘nCloth’, enabling the animated simulation of cloth, leaves or pieces of paper. But with Maya 2009 comes the ability to plug in ‘nParticles’, which allows the simulation of collections of particles or liquids, including the modelling of collision and interpenetration of balls, clouds, thick clouds or water.
As well as allowing a very realistic simulation of liquid spills in and around structures, it can also include factors such as stickiness and a pressure parameter. It allows, for example, the generation of an impressive animated simulation of smoke flowing over a model in a wind tunnel, without all the hassle of setting up a conventional CFD simulation or the accurate simulation of a Newton’s Cradle. Free with Maya now comes a module called DirectConnect, which allows the import of models created using SolidWorks or Pro/Engineer, or STEP, IGES, DWG or DXF files. However, the import of DWG/DXF files into Maya is only supported at present on Microsoft Windows XP Professional and Windows XP Professional x64 Edition operating systems. Running a model with 1,000 particles is no particular problem on a fairly conventional laptop, with 3GB of memory, although more particles require greater computing power.
The other 2009 package of interest to engineers is ImageModeller, which allows the creation of 3D models from 2D digital images, and which has a new calibration engine and improved interoperability with 3ds Max, Maya, AutoCAD and Revit Architecture.



Pointers

* A new nParticle plug-in for Maya allows easy, animated modelling of assemblages of balls, smoke, dense smoke or fluids from a variety of sources. Models can be imported from all mainstream engineering CAD packages

* The ImageModeler package for converting 2D digital images into 3D models has also been improved and enhanced interoperability with other Autodesk packages

Author
Tom Shelley

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