Last Updated November 2018
In this article, I will answer some common questions on how product design CAD compares with other types of 3D modelling such as CGI, digital effects, and game design. In particular, I’ll cover the following questions:
- How does product design CAD (like Rhino) differ from CGI and digital effects 3D modelling tools (like Cinema4D) or real-time video game modelling tools (like Maya)?
- Why should CAD and 3D modelling people learn to draw and sculpt?
- I designed a ring with Google SketchUp. Why can’t I 3D print it the same way rings can be printed from Rhino?
- Is it really possible to move from a CAD class at a jewellery school into computer graphics for video games, or perhaps go from computer graphics to jewellery design?
Different Types of CAD
CAD itself is an extremely broad subject. Under the most basic definition, you could include just about any form of software which can design or make imagery using a computer. As design itself is such a wide discipline, this means CAD comes in many different forms.
Perhaps the easiest way of differentiating different categories of software is by function.
2-dimensional CAD software can be divided into digital painting and technical illustration tools.
- With Digital Painting, we have Photoshop, Corel Paint, and all the other pixel based tools. These 2D design tools are all designed with visual effect in mind, at the expense of any precision or technical uses.
- For Technical Illustration tools, we have Adobe Illustrator, Corel Draw, Inkscape, and similar vector drawing tools. While they are capable of many different visual effects as well, that is not their original purpose. These tools are designed for precision line drawing,
and the vector lines they create are intended for maintaining their perfect shape and form regardless of how they are resized or manipulated.
For 3-dimensional CAD software, we can divide the various types of specialty programs down into 3 different disciplines:
- Digital Effects Software (sometimes called Computer Generated Imagery or CGI) is what most people think of when they think of 3D models. These are the tools which make characters and environments for movies. Their primary purpose has always been to make the image (or sequence of images) look as beautiful as possible, regardless of the cost. In some cases, that cost becomes quite high—The original Toy Story took a warehouse full of top of the line PC’s 5 years to render all the frames for the final feature film!
- Real Time Computer Graphics is a form of 3D visualisation where the models are dynamically generated on the spot, as you would typically see in video games or the various types of augmented and virtual reality. With these 3D models, RT 3D modelling software designs 3D models for one purpose: speed. More specifically, the models must be able to load quickly, be rendered believably in real time (hence the name), and in many cases even “adapt” to the distance from which you are viewing them via a property called Levels of Detail. All of this comes at the expense of precision and sometimes even quality of image.
- Product Design software (often referred to simply as CAD/CAM) is the least flashy of the 3D CAD field, but perhaps this is more because the finished products of these programs are the buildings we live in, the cars we drive, the tools we use, etc. Product design CAD’s purpose, of course, is precision—the surface of these CAD objects has to be physically perfect, down to thousandths of a millimetre. Because of this focus, speed of rendering and fancy effects become irrelevant, making these models ill-suited for digital effects or real time.
It’s interesting to note how, even within these disciplines, software differentiates based on specialist fields. For example, real time animation has software designed for video game design, flight simulator design, or even Google Maps.
Jewellery design, of course, sits as a specialist focus under the last discipline. It’s own particular requirements from CAD set many of its tools apart from most of its closest relatives within product design. Even the closest analogues use very different types of tools to work productively within their software.
Changing From One CAD Discipline to Another
And thus we come to the problem of conversion between different types of software. Each different discipline above is designed with different modelling priorities in mind, usually at the expense of others. This means that, if a particular 3D model was made using real time animation software, for example, it will tend to be optimised for use in that particular area, and will be poorly suited for digital effects or product design. That’s not to say it cannot be converted (it usually can), but making it work in a satisfactory way in the new type of software can be time consuming, and can require some amount of redesign.
When talking about converting a designer’s skills from one piece of software to another, the transition is a bit easier. While the quirks of the user interfaces and specific ways of working makes each program are different enough to require fresh training when switching between them, the core concepts of designing models in 3D may remain similar throughout the various disciplines.
A bigger issue with conversion is knowing the other aspects of the trade. Whereas CAD skills can potentially be transferable, some other types of industry specific knowledge may be less so. For example, if you wanted to move into CAD jewellery design from 3D animation, you’d have to learn about the various ways in which jewellery is manufactured, both traditional as well as automated.
Fortunately, CAD designers hoping to switch from animating with 3D Studio Max to making jewellery with a tool like Rhino need not despair— once you’ve learned the basics of one tool, learning another tool seems to be much easier. There are several transferable skills you learn from working with 3D, such as basic IT skills, visualisation, spatial perception, and mouse control. These skills remain relatively similar throughout the field of CAD.
Back To the Drawing Board
Chief among these skills, of course, are visualisation and spatial perception. All the design technology in the world won’t help you if you can’t come up with original ideas or understand 3 dimensions. While 3D CAD is a viable way of developing these skills, it’s certainly not the only way, nor is it the best if you believe 3D schools like the Gnomon School or the Art Centre in Pasadena. The traditional art disciplines of drawing and sculpture are a much better place to start. Perhaps this is why so many 3D gaming artists include (and why so many companies demand) traditional drawing and sculpture in their professional portfolios.
The question ultimately comes down to transferable skills. While any time spent in CAD isn’t wasted, and once you’ve become sufficiently good at one CAD software within a single discipline, learning another is much easier, it’s the time spent understanding the basic concepts of 3-dimensional visualisation and construction which are the key points. It is the understanding and application of this which carries from one discipline to another. The rest is user interface.
(This post is part of my series of Frequently Asked Questions. See the rest of the FAQ pages.)