Graphic strides: What you see is what you get

Alain Albert

Visualization has long been the underlying engine of the creative process. Drawings are the most effective way to represent and communicate ideas. In the wood industry, we use three distinct forms of visualization: the conceptual drawing, the presentation drawing and the shop drawing, each having its own purpose and meaning to the manufacturers and their customers.

It has always been an essential skill to be able to represent your intentions by drawing them. Not only can you better communicate your ideas to your clients and colleagues, but it is an essential part of working out an idea in one’s own mind. Using the power of drawing, you can give form to an abstract idea and work out its details on paper and in your mind long before you start making dust. You’ll find that manufacturers with strong visualization skills are also the most creative and often the most successful.

Back in the day, T-squares and set squares were the tools of the draftsperson, and knowledge of perspective and vanishing points was essential. Yet, the effectiveness of the drawing was limited. A shop or presentation drawing was a static image and the customer, or the shop worker often had difficulty interpreting the work and reproducing a true picture of the final project in their minds. Moreover, once you drew a line on paper, vellum or mylar, it was a big deal to change it and start anew.

Move over, drafting tables and coloured pencils, we now live in the age of virtual reality and augmented reality.

3D visualization tools are changing the way we design and build projects. These tools are so much more powerful than just a few years back and our ability to represent an idea virtually is such that it is revolutionizing the wood-products manufacturing industry. Computer simulations are evolving very fast, to the point where it is difficult to discern between what is virtual and what is real, and this will have profound implications in our lives and our businesses now and in the future.

Sketchup software is intuitive and easy to use.

Sketches on paper and crude prototypes were the tools of the designer in the past. 3D CAD software is now able to represent materials, textures and connections is such a realistic way and in real-time so that you can build virtual prototypes of your creation before you need to set foot in the shop. You can see how parts connect to each other, visualize wood grain and colour and check proportions on the screen. You can change attributes on the fly, turn and twist your model in space and inspect details up close or make your parts transparent to picture their inner workings.

The goal of course is to plan the potential work ahead and make it easier to spot errors and challenges before you start cutting a real piece of wood. Design software is becoming more intuitive to use, faster and more effective and valuable to our businesses. The gains in efficiency offered by different software can also give you a clear market advantage. For example, more than helping you design your products faster, you can break down your drawings into components and lay them out on your material to give you the best yield. Some can integrate into a corporate wide ERP system to order components from your supplier if you don’t have enough inventory.

Conceptual or design software comes in many forms, from the intuitive and simple to use Sketchup to full featured engineering software such as SolidWorks or OnShape, not forgetting the basic old CAD drawing software like AutoCAD and DraftSight.

There is another category of design software that is tailored to specific industries. These tools offer parametric design of specific items, which means that you can control the features of the objects using a set of parameters. Case in point, the kitchen cabinet software. Equipped with this software, a cabinetmaker can build a library of standard components that can be customized parametrically thereafter. A new kitchen with different features and dimensions can be programmed in a few minutes. These groups of software each have their own features that make them perfectly suited for different manufacturing environments. Examples of these for the cabinet industry are eCabinet, Microvellum and CabinetPro. Parametric design software is making programming easier in other industries as well, such as for cabinet doors, stairs, sofa frames and roof trusses.

CabinetPro demonstrates photorealistic capabilities to show customers how their projects will look before cutting the first panel.

Now we come to the 3D presentation software. This is where the most exciting technology is breaking new ground and where we’ll see the biggest change from how we conduct our business today. The goal with presentations is to give the customers a picture of what they are spending their money on. If you have a long relationship with specific customers and they trust you, you might be able to sell them something sight-unseen. But for the rest of us, the bar is set higher and the more realistic the rendering, the easier it is to understand the work and to make a purchasing decision.

Most of the software we have talked about until now offer some elements of presentation. You can get some cool images from Sketchup using plugins or from some of the other cabinet software right out of the box. If you need a quick rendering or if your customers understand what they’re getting at a higher level, this might be good enough, but if you need a computer-generated picture or walk-through that is hard to tell apart from a real photograph, then you’re going to need some specialized software.

Dedicated 3D presentation software is a special breed of tool where you can import a design file from your design program and render it using photo-realistic materials, textures and lighting. 2020, 3Ds Max, Rhino, Maya, V-Ray or RenderPlus are all examples of these kinds of rendering software. In the right hands, they can output a photorealistic image that is indistinguishable from real life. This is especially useful for catalogue and website content where the cost of multiple photo shoots with different scenery and many different products would be cost-prohibitive.

Computer and computer graphics have become so powerful in the last few years that we’ve seen a new kind of presentation software that’s able to cross the uncanny valley of virtual product presentations. It is a fully immersive virtual reality presentation where you can move inside a virtual room and you can experience 3D space just as you were walking through the finished project.

Vortek Spaces software allows users to change room lighting configurations, as well as perform virtual walkthroughs.

There is a Canadian company located in Quebec City that has built a presentation software called Vortek Spaces that lets you use a computer screen, a tablet or even virtual reality headset to walk your clients through an immersive virtual showroom. You can now create their design in real time, all from the comfort of their own homes in the space where the project will eventually take form. That is the promise of next-gen presentation technology.

Whether you need to visualize some details of your new product in the design or the build stage or you want to help your customer to understand what they are purchasing, 3D visualization software will breathe new life into your woodworking business, that’s easy to see.

Professionally trained in architecture, Alain Albert has worked in wood as an entrepreneur, in production management, in design and as a digital manufacturing consultant. Contact: aalbert@wimediainc.ca.