What Roles Do Graphics Play in Design and Engineering Software?

16 Jan, 2019 By: Gavin Bridgeman

Graphics work in different ways to support 2D and 3D design applications, computer-aided engineering, metrology, and more.

Design and engineering software has long catered to two primary markets, serving up a range of offerings to manufacturing and AEC professionals. These software applications help users with everything from design and analysis to creation and validation — and beyond.

But if you think graphics work the same way for all the different applications used at each of these stages, think again: Graphics take on different roles — and provide different benefits — across the engineering software spectrum. Let’s take a closer look by starting at the beginning, with design.

How Do Graphics Support 2D and 3D Design Applications?

Because we naturally perceive the world in three dimensions, 3D software provides an intuitive environment for design. However, for creation and manufacturing, 2D is the primary way we communicate dimensions and other essential information.

Over the past decade, model-based definition (MBD) and Industry 4.0 have been promoted as ways to address this discrepancy, by bringing 2D information into a 3D world. MBD refers to a 3D model that includes associative product and manufacturing information (PMI); this defines the product in a manner that can be used effectively for manufacturing without a 2D drawing graphic sheet. Industry 4.0 is a trend of manufacturing automation that leverages a digital copy of the physical world for decision-making; a master and up-to-date 3D model is critical to this initiative.

These two business strategies have had major impacts on productivity, because getting 2D and 3D to work together is always challenging, and particularly so when it comes to graphics. For example, users may require annotation text to behave like regular text part of the time, so it maintains screen alignment and specific size, regardless of zoom level; in other cases, they may want it to act like regular 3D geometry.

Improvements have been made in all aspects of the product lifecycle, including quoting, design, machine programming, planning, and quality control. The primary benefit is better decisions that result in less rework due to incorrect interpretation of design intent. (Good decision-making requires good data, and the ability to visualize it!) This in turn yields a reduction in the waste that comes from rework, and increased availability of engineering expertise for innovation (as opposed to personnel being occupied with resolving problems or sorting out confusion around design intent embodied with 2D information).

A 3D model with PMI indicating manufacturing tolerances. Image courtesy of Tech Soft 3D.

Given that the model and its associated annotations are so fundamental to the design stage, this data needs to look as good as possible. From a graphics perspective, this requires producing sharp text, as well as crisp-looking edges and lines, and supporting anti-aliasing that allows the software to work on high-resolution devices without triggering memory issues that can impair performance. Aliasing is a common problem in computer graphics: Smooth curves and other lines appear jagged because of the resolution of the graphics device. Anti-aliasing is a computationally intensive technique that diminishes these “stair-stepped” lines.

What About CAE Applications?

Computer-aided engineering (CAE) is widely used to optimize designs for manufacturing. The two primary technologies under the CAE umbrella are computational fluid dynamics (CFD), which focuses on fluid flow, and finite-element analysis (FEA), which addresses rigid structures. From a graphics standpoint, each presents its own set of challenges.

CAE software generally subdivides surfaces and solids into elements, then runs solvers on those elements (solvers simulate physical conditions and performance factors such as stress, heat distribution, and fluid flow). In a pre-process analysis context, the software needs to display both edge and facet data, and allow users to select at a very granular level as they manipulate the mesh. In the post-process phase, the software runs solvers on these elements and displays the results.

From a graphics standpoint, this is accomplished through the use of color interpolation, flow lines/vectors, and a variety of other techniques, such as ribbon paths, 3D vector fields, and isolines. The needs of each are different, depending on whether CFD or FEA results are involved. Needless to say, none of this is simple; a rich and powerful toolset for representing analysis results is a necessity.

A CFD analysis showing fluid flow through a vessel. Image courtesy of Fluent.


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About the Author: Gavin Bridgeman

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