By Joelle Scheldorf
Media designer Ruben Jauregui studies one of two widescreen computer displays on his desk. It shows an image of an industrial machine, dense with rollers, servomotors, and other mechanical components.
“It’s called an Embosser,” Jauregui explains. “It’s used for combining two paper plies together. This model took me three weeks to make. It can take less, but this one was pretty complicated.”
The machine is a digital 3-D model, but it is detailed enough that it could almost pass for a photograph. Jauregui created the model based on diagrams from the equipment manufacturer and on photographs from the paper-making company that commissioned this project.
Jauregui moves his mouse and taps his keyboard, and the embosser rotates in three-dimensional space. He is in the process of placing virtual cameras around the machine. The placement of these cameras will allow him to “dolly” around the machine to focus on the different sections.
Jauregui works for Convergence Training (http://www.convergencetraining.com), a company that produces 3-D-animated training courses for the industrial and manufacturing sectors. In the finished course, these 3-D animations will accompany a spoken voice-over script that will explain how the machine works. The videos created for this specific project will be placed in a computer-based system at the company’s facility, to be used as introductory and refresher training materials for machine operators and management.
Most people’s exposure to digital 3-D animation comes from either movies or video games. But for a growing number of manufacturing companies, 3-D animation isn’t just entertainment; it’s a tool for workforce education. With this technology, companies can create highly customized training videos that reflect their own site-specific equipment configurations and procedures.
Industrial facilities often involve complex machinery and processes. It can be hard to understand a facility’s processes just from looking at the equipment or from studying a static diagram or written description. 3-D animation lends itself to this kind of educational purpose for the same reason it is popular in movies and videogames—because there is practically no limitation to what can be shown. 3-D animators can make parts of a machine transparent to show its inner workings; they can slow down a machine’s movements to make its operations more clear; they can “fly” through a machine to show how product moves through it.
More Powerful Software
Digital 3-D modeling and animation technology has been used for decades in the scientific, architectural, and engineering industries, but its high cost has limited its use in more common, everyday applications. Before 2005, 3-D animations occasionally might have been used in some training videos, but it was rare to see its extensive use outside of very high-budget productions. Over the last decade, the steady increase in computing power has resulted in much faster and more powerful 3-D modeling software.
Autodesk is a company that produces some of the most popular 3-D modeling and animation software on the market. Sean Young is a senior Product Marketing manager at Autodesk, and has seen computing power increase remarkably. “A few decades ago,” says Young, “3-D technology required notoriously complex workflows, with special hardware that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Both in terms of hardware and software, we’ve come a long way. The drop in price has opened the technology up to more mainstream markets.”
Kenny Dellavalle, Operations manager at Convergence Training, describes how their use of the software has changed over time: “When we first started out in 2001, it was very slow. It could take days to render a few seconds of a simple animation. The software licenses are still fairly expensive, but the software is a lot faster and more powerful. We’re able to get so much more work done.”
As the demand for its services has increased over the years, Convergence has hired more artists. It now has 18 full-time visual artists and four instructional designers on staff.
Convergence uses the Autodesk software called 3-Ds Max. This is the same software used by many Hollywood film companies and video game producers to make their computer-generated imagery (known as CGI in the business). Recent movies that have used this program include Avatar, 2012, and the Harry Potter series.
Shibai Bagchi is a product manager of Autodesk Factory Design Suite, a program that lets users design and lay out factory plans in a 3-D environment. Autodesk 3-Ds Max Design is part of the Suite and is used for creating high-quality photorealistic animations and renderings of machine lines and factory layouts. “In general, 3-D representations are highly useful because you get a more realistic assessment of reality compared to having that information in written documentation or a 2-D format,” Bagchi says. “For users, 3-D is able to convey a good sense of what it’s like in the physical world. We have seen our customers use the technology for creating animations and ergonomics tests of machine lines. Customers also have used it to create robust training content and things such as assembly instructions.”
The nature of the services provided by companies such as Convergence sometimes can be difficult to communicate to potential customers. According to Scott Rise, a Convergence Training salesperson, the idea of high-quality, site-specific training videos is a relatively new one for many people. He says many people associate the words “training video” with off-the-shelf VHS videotapes, which can have a bad reputation. But Rise says there is a growing awareness of the 3-D animation format in the industrial sectors, and he expects that to increase in the coming years.
With continuing technology advances, there likely soon will be other significant changes in what is affordable and commonplace in workforce training. “I think it’s just the beginning of what’s going to be possible,” says Dellavalle. “We’re going to see mobile training devices, so people can get trained on the job, or out in the field. We’re going to see more digital simulations of equipment, like the military and high-tech companies already use. 3-D modeling and animation are just the beginning of how technology is going to change manufacturing training.”
Joelle Scheldorf is a chemical engineer and instructional designer.