Hollywood studios do it. Shipbuilders do it. Architects do it, too.
What is “it”?
It is 3D visualization.
Before a single piece of steel is forged or a circuit board is sent to the fab, engineers rely heavily on 3D models to understand their designs in virtual reality before committing vast sums of money and time in actually building them. But now you don’t have to be a multi-million-dollar design firm to take advantage of this technology. The cost of virtual reality and augmented reality is plummeting as competition in the market heats up in 2016. This means that just about anyone, including fledgling startups and makers, can get take advantage of 3D visualization.
I would like to share a very lightweight workflow that I use for conceptualizing various aspects of my projects including the enclosure, mechanical components, PCB fit, and user interface. The best part is that I am leveraging near no-cost tools and free (as in beer!) services to make this happen. Here is quick rundown:
Image 1-2: The early concepts for the Tricorder Project. Photos courtesy Green Shoe Garage.
1. Create a 3D Object: There are a lot of tools out there to create 3D files from scratch. The tools range in complexity, from the professional grade AutoCAD and Catia all the way down to those built specifically for the basics of 3D design such as Tinkercad. I tend to gravitate towards SketchUp and virtual 123D Design. I rely on these tools to design the enclosures and mechanical components of a project. For the electronics, any popular PCB layout tools now offer the ability to export 3D models of a circuit board design just for this purpose. Then it’s a matter of integrating all the components into a single model so you can test fit and form aspects of your design. At this point, you need to get your design into one of a few popular 3D file formats, preferably the .OBJ or .STL file formats. With a model in hand you can move onto the next step.
2. Get the Apps: Google Cardboard, launched at a developer conference in 2014, is a dirt cheap virtual reality solution for those with a fairly recent Android or iOS device. The app itself is free and the “goggles” that your wear can be found for as low as $5 (USD). For the truly adventurous, Google provides a design that you can build yourself if you have some cardboard leftover from your last Mouser order. Combine “Cardboard” app and cardboard googles, and presto, you have an instant virtual reality setup for less than the cost of lunch. While the Cardboard app itself does come with a few built-in 3D demonstrations, it is primarily just the 3D visualization engine. For our purposes of viewing custom built 3D models, I leverage another tool called Sketchfab.
Image 3-4: Cardboard turns many smartphones into VR Goggles. You, too, can look this cool for a mere $10 worth of plastic and lens. Photos courtesy Green Shoe Garage.
3. See the 3D Model: Sketchfab is web-based service that allows users to upload a variety of 3D modeling files to be shared and viewed online by other people around the world. You can sign up for a free account and upload the .STL or .OBJ file that you created earlier. Then, view the file on your computer to verify everything uploaded correctly. But to get the full power of 3D visualization, fire up the browser on your iOS or Android device. Navigate to the Sketchfab website and select the 3D model you wish to view on your goggles. Click the little VR goggles icon and then place your smartphone into your goggles. Presto! You are now viewing your 3D object in 3D stereolithographic goodness!
The Collaborative Power of 3D
By sharing their designs online, people from around the world can collaborate without being in the same physical space and without any tangible hardware to touch. It is really difficult to explain just how empowering 3D-enabling technology is unless you see it and use it yourself. The time and energy invested upfront in a 3D modeling effort will save an incredible amount of time and money later by catching the fact that the LEDs of your PCB don’t align to the holes in your custom enclosure. You can get a user experience (UX) expert’s opinion on the look and feel of your product before you submit an order for 10,000 units. These things are a real possibility now for a new market of professionals and amateurs alike, thanks to an explosion of these new low cost tools.
Michael Parks, P.E. is the co-founder of Green Shoe Garage, a custom electronics design studio and embedded security research firm located in Western Maryland. He produces the Gears of Resistance Podcast to help raise public awareness of technical and scientific matters. Michael is also a licensed Professional Engineer in the state of Maryland and holds a Master’s degree in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University.
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