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Nvidia to take CAD rendering to the Cloud with RealityServer 3.0

Published 21 October 2009

Posted by greg corke

Article tagged with: nvidia, the cloud, tesla, gpgpu, realityserver

Nvidia and mental images are reaching for the Cloud to offer ray-traced rendering over the web using stacks of GPUs (Graphics Processing Units) instead of CPUs. Set for official launch at the end of November Nvidia’s RealityServer 3.0 platform will enable architects, automotive engineers and product designers to send 3D scenes up into the cloud with the rendered results streamed back over the web. The major sell for this is significantly reduced rendering times, but the tech will also be able to stream interactive 3D to any web connected device including mobile devices - though of course bandwidth will be an issue.

The platform is highly scalable, and more users can be serviced simply by adding more GPUs. Nvidia is already talking to a number cloud computing providers and expects to announce partnerships with several of them later this year, one of them being Amazon EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud). The cost of cloud-based deployment is expected to be less than one EURO per hour.

While the Cloud computing aspect of the technology is sure to dominate the headlines, of equal interest is the fact that RealityServer 3.0 can be deployed within the confines of a firewall, not only as a GPU-based ‘render farm’ to serve up rendered scenes in double quick time, but also as a means to distribute interactive 3D graphics throughout the enterprise.

The background to this technology is Nvidia’s CUDA programming architecture that enables Nvidia GPUs to carry out computationally intensive tasks usually reserved for CPUs. CUDA was used to devise a new GPU-based rendering mode called iray, which is based on mental images’ mental ray 3.8 rendering engine. This is different to most rendering technologies which rely on CPUs to do the calculations.

On the hardware side, RealityServer consists of multiple Nvidia’s GPGPU (General Purpose GPU) Tesla cards, which are used to render out the scenes plus a few CPUs, which are really just used for housekeeping, says Nvidia.

The technology is already primed up to be exploited a number of 3D CAD companies. There are over ten major CAD applications that already use mental ray, including Autodesk (3ds Max, Inventor, Revit), SolidWorks, Dassault Systemes (CATIA), and most recently PTC (Pro/Engineer Wildfire).

The critical technology here is mental ray 3.8, which is due for release later this year and will enable GPU-accelerated mental ray rendering for the first time. Once these vendors implement mental ray 3.8 into their core products, they would have all the tools to hook up to RealityServer, says mental images, but for some CAD software, particularly the more mature products that carry a lot of ‘architectural baggage’ the implementation would not be trivial. That said, mental images told DEVELOP3D that development is already underway at many CAD companies and it expects to see applications supporting RealityServer next year.

While mental images was unable to name all the names it did confirm that all of the aforementioned CAD developers are already working on systems that would allow them to virtualise their applications or to at least have server-based collaborative solution directly connected to their applications. As a result the company is confident that this technology is well placed to take a lot of work off the CAD developers’ plate as they are essentially offering them a whole suite of tools to get started faster instead of doing everything themselves. mental images also disclosed that Autodesk showcased the technology at a conference in Munich, Germany only yesterday.

In terms of the actual rendering technology RealityServer is a progressive renderer, so users are able to get a good idea of the final render in seconds or minutes, even though the final rendering may take hours. For comparative render times between CPU and GPU-based solutions it was hard to draw mental images on exact figures. However, the company did provide an example of an architectural scene that took 45 mins to render on a four Tesla cluster system and 8-10 hours on a more traditional four core CPU-based system. That said, it was wary of comparing apples and oranges as the scenes were not identical because the GPU renderer is slightly different from the CPU renderer in terms of shading technology. The company did say that it that would be providing benchmark results from customers next month and the early results are encouraging.

While for most CAD uses the emphasis is likely to be on using Reality Server as a rendering server, mental images was keen to point out that it also provides a platform on which companies to build applications that utilise the technology in different ways. In the automotive sector, for example, it is already working with a number of manufacturers on projects to develop and enhance their in-house design / review pipelines. A dedicated car paint shader is also in development and will be released early next year.

For those that wish to set up their own facility there are three different packages. In true American style there is no small - instead just a M, L and XL. Medium is a 2U rack mounted system with 8 Tesla GPUs and is suitable for smaller architectural offices and product design teams with 10s of concurrent users. Of course, this depends on the intensity of use and some customers may need to dedicate four GPUs for a single task. The ‘Large’ package features 32 Tesla GPUs for 100s of concurrent users, while ‘XL’ features 100 Tesla GPUs for serving 1,000s of users over the web.

Nvidia is still working on overall system costs, but with a single Tesla cards costing in excess of 1,000 EUROS one may speculate that a medium system would cost around 15,000 - 20,000 EUROS just for the hardware. On the software side, however, customers should expect a one-time licensing cost of 2,000 EUROS plus 20% maintenance per Tesla card.

From complex architectural visualisations and 3D city modelling to product design and automotive styling, the CAD-centric target markets for RealityServer are huge. And with mental ray already the rendering engine of choice for most major CAD developers, one may speculate that it’s only a matter of time before RealityServer becomes a widely supported platform for CAD.

What makes this technology particularly interesting is the fact that it is designed to use GPUs in the Cloud and not CPUs, but this is also a current barrier to deployment. None of the large Cloud service providers currently offer GPUs in their facilities, but Nvidia expects this to change early next year. This coupled with the expected release of RealityServer-compatible CAD products should make 2010 a very interesting year for rendering in the Cloud.

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In search of Elegance #4: Surfacing. Without the headache

Published 19 October 2009

Posted by Al Dean

Article tagged with: design, delcam, powershape, in search of elegance, surfacing, intelligent surfacing, hybrid modelling

Basic construction of a Viking sailing ship. Boat design is one of the most elegant forms in the world of engineering. Simple, efficient and timeless (and when I say timeless, I mean, since 1500 BC). Image courtesy of the good folks at

Here’s something I was reminded of recently on a trip to see the team at Delcam (in their HQ quarters, a scant 15 miles from my home, rather than 8,000 miles away in Korea this time). If you’re not familiar with it’s solutions, Delcam has a huge range of technology which often solves real, live problems faced in the heady world of design and manufacture, rather than, as some vendors choose, creating solutions looking for problems. While there’s much elegance in many areas of Delcam’s offering, one thing lept out at me – and that’s how it’s flagship modelling system handles surface creation.

Surfacing is a complex business. From first principles, when you’re trying to create sculpted, complex forms, you’re looking at an inherently more complex workflow than when working with prismatic features. the geometry is more complex, so the creation of it is going to be more complex, right?

Traditionally, yes. Absolutely.

Surfacing requires that you first build a network of curves and the precise form of those are controlled by not only the form you want to create, but how you want to create it. There are many types of surfaces. Planar surfaces are flat and the simplest. Then you have four sided surfaces, n-sided, bi-rail surfaces, extrudes, lofted surfaces, swept surfaces, blends, flanges, fillets. Filleting in itself is a very complex art depending on your form requirements. If you’re working to corners, then you’re looking at trying to merge three or more surfaces converging on a single point and at that point, you might want different fillets, different set-back value.

All in all, its a complex and often daunting prospect – particularly for those that have learned their trade-craft using mainstream, solid modelling applications. Knowing what forms you’re aiming for is essential to create curves (often referred to as wires), before you even get to actually creating a surface.

Delcam’s PowerShape has been on the market for about ten years or so and the company has been through revision after revision to give its users a set of tools that allow you to work with complex geometry, fix it, prepare it for manufacture That’s given it a perspective that is only shared by a handful of vendors. Delcam has a set of tools that are used by a community that’s both a) demanding (as they need flawless data – which begets flawless tool forms) and b) very used to dealing with crappy third party data. These are the people that take crappy data and turn it into a manufacturable item – something that requires highly efficient tools.

Perhaps the perfect example of this is how PowerShape handles surface creation. As we’ve discussed, you’re often facing multiple decisions about what curves to create, then what exact type of surface you want to create, before you even start to think about creating any geometry. What Delcam has developed is Smart Surfacer and it takes many of these decisions out of your hands – or at least, gives you a helping hand.

Basically, you create the curve network you want, then invoke the Smart Surfacer command. This presents a simple dialog box. With this active, you then start to select the geometry, either from curves or from existing surface edges. The system inspects your selections, looks at the types of surfaces it can create, then presents you with the best guess is has for the best type of surface you could create based on that selection. As you add more geometry to the selection, it reevaluates the choice and switches the surface type and displays a preview.

1. Take this simple geometry set – two circles and a connecting arc.

2. Select the smaller circle and you get a planar fill surface.

3.Add in the connecting arc to the selection and it’ll switch to a drive Curve, to push the arc around the circle.

4. Adding in the large circle maintains a Drive Curve, but runs it between the two circles, using the arc as the Drive Curve.

Here’s another example

1: Rectangle, helix, circle. – selecting the rectangle gives you a planar surface.

2: Adding the helix into the selection gets you a drive curve that’s very similar to a swept feature.

3: Adding the circle in switches the Drive Curve to push between two forms, creating a smooth transition.

Of course, these are pretty simplistic demonstrations for the purposes of getting the concepts across, but the usefulness and the simplicity of the tool should be clear. Quite often you’re not dealing with singular surfaces such as these, but rather, dealing with the complexity of trying to finish up that set of surfaces, to squeeze that final last few in that tie together the whole form, the points where form quality is won or lost – and that’s exactly where this tool comes into its own. Rather you having to rework other surfaces in the set to patch in that final surface, the system can find the optimum solution and present it to you for inspection and fine tuning. there are also more manual tools avialable from the command, such as the Composite Curve creator, which can assist greatly when you have multiple, disjointed surfaces meeting at one area.

PowerShape’s Smart Surfacer is a perfect example of what I’m looking for in this search – it’s a deceptively simple tool that collects together best practice, knowledge and experience of dealing with some of the worse geometry known to man and presenting it in a tool that adds that intelligence in an unobtrusive manner, while giving you the freedom to dive in and edit things manually if needs be.

PowerShape-E is avialable for free, to play with at your leisure at – I’d recommend doing so to anyone with a passing interest in complex shape description.

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Z Corp launch integrated monochrome 3D printer

Published 15 October 2009

Posted by Al Dean

Article tagged with: prototype, rapid prototyping, z corporation, zprinter 350

Z Corp have released the latest addition to it’s range of 3Dprinter products with the launch of the ZPrinter 350. As many readers will know, Z Corp is one of the leaders in the 3D printing world, where speed and low-cost are absolutely key to support the product development process. While the company always grabs headlines with its colour printers, there’s still a big market for monochrome machines. Running costs are lower, the machines cost less (due to the reduction in complexity) and for many, the ability to quick create a series of prototypes, discuss them around a table and progress design is all that they want.

What this brings to the product line-up is an advancement of the existing 310 monochrome product, adding in the integrated post processing capabilities of machines like the 450 and 650 (which we took a look at a while back), to give you a system that builds quickly, provides you with the tools to break out the model from the build chamber, recycle the unused material and post process the material. It also takes advantage of Z Corp’s most recent build powder (ZP150) which gives you a much whiter model (which is ideal for concept development and for architectural users, is ideal) and a much more robust green model (green refers to the state before you infiltrate the model to ‘fix’ it).

Build volume is a very usable 203 x 254 x 203 mm, it builds just under Z Corp’s benchmark 1” per hour (they quote 0.8” per hour), with layers in the 300 x 450 dpi resolution range (no mention of layer thickness). One thing I did find interesting was the discussion of the affordable nature of the machine.

The ZPrinter 350 costs around $25,900.

While that’s a cheap machine by historical standards, there are much lower cost commercial machines from traditional vendors on the market (the Solido machine and Dimensions’ uPrint spring to mind). The 350 pulls things back in cost of consumables and a greater build volume, but there’s changes afoot in the RP market. One of the other low-cost hopefuls, Desktop Factory, got into financial trouble recently and the assets got picked up by 3D Systems – the results of which still seem uncertain.

Alongside this, there’s the homebrew market that is gaining huge interest amongst many users, purely because of the ability to create parts with very low cost hardware, often self built. Take the MakerBot, the RepRap project (which is now on its second generation).

I’m not for a minute suggesting that professional designers and engineers are going to foresake investment in professional level technology that solves a serious requirement, but there’s a home brew enthusiasm for this type of technology which is now 30 years old in many areas.

Another thing to consider is that many of the original patents are now starting to expire and that always means that the technology can be freed from the stranglehold (a morally correct one I might add) that the originators have on it.

There are interesting times to come for 3D printing. Very interesting indeed.

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In search of Elegance #3: DriveWorks Solo

Published 14 October 2009

Posted by Al Dean

Article tagged with: solidworks, in search of elegance, driveworks

Phillipe Starck’s 1980 Juicy Saliff for Alessi. Often seen as an iconic design. Is it elegant? As a form, yes, undoubtedly, it’s lines are clean and refreshing like the lemons that it juices. Is it an elegant product? No. It’s rubbish. It spills juice everywhere, skids all over the worktop and generally annoys the living crap out of almost everyone that buys one, unless they’re just putting it on a shelf. Now let’s look at something useful.

We’ve already talked about the concept I’m trying to get across here and taken a look at what Siemens has been up to with NX 7.0 and HD3D. For this post, I want to look at a much different vendor from Siemens, namely, DriveWorks. One of the benefits that I’ve had, doing this strange job that I do, is I’ve had the chance to meet a lot of people over the years and seen them develop new tools, new ideas and grow their businesses from the very beginning. One of those that always springs to mind is DriveWorks.

The British company is a provider of design automation tools the SolidWorks community. I believe I first met co-founder and CEO Glen Smith when he worked for a now-defunct SolidWorks reseller, back in the late nineties. The occasion of our meeting was a trip with him to visit a customer of that reseller who had adopted an automation system that Glen had developed for them to automate the design of some very complex automotive products (I won’t mention the name as many years have passed and they might have changed their strategy). I got to see the company get a presentation of the barebones of what would become DriveWorks, based on Access databases, Excel spreadsheets and a whole host of custom API programming done by Glen himself. That was over ten years ago now and the company DriveWorks, now headed up by Glen alongside co-founder and Vice President, Maria Sarkar, has been through all manner of changes, buy outs and strategic decisions that have brought the company to its current position as providing an integral part of SolidWorks’ offering (DriveWorksXpress) as well as it’s own products that are sold by resellers across the globe. It’s been a true delight to see a company grow and become highly successful from very humble beginnings.

Only a few months ago, I got a call to come up and see Glen, Maria and the team to talk about something they had brewing. Not even a Swine Flu scare kept me away (even if we all agreed not to bother with the usual handshake or hug), this team always have something interesting to say and always something interesting to show.

What they had to show was DriveWorks Solo, a system that bridges the gap between the DriveWorksXpress product that almost all SolidWorks users have as part of their solution, and the high-end, web-based DriveWorks Pro system. DriveWorks Solo is meant to find that sweet spot where an organisation can make heavy use of automation of its products, but doesn’t need all the bells and whistles. The product is sold on the web, supporting digitally and while it’s early days indeed, seats have been sold within days of its launch. So, how does DriveWorks Solo fit into this series of articles?

The answer is something like this.

Automation is something that, when you strip it back, makes a huge amount of sense for many design and engineering based organisations. While most won’t be able to automate everything, there are a great deal of organisations that have design and engineering resources tied up in repetitive work. Standardisation is something that many organisations took to heart ten years ago and the ability to create custom solutions for customers, based on a set of standard components, can give you a real advantage. Custom solution, but without having to redesign everything.

Parameter and input capture is relatively simple, as is rules definition.

While that’s true, being able to do that digitally is somewhat difficult. Using a standard parametric modelling system to try and automate the design of even the most modest sub-system or modular product can be very difficult. Its theoretically possible to do, but once you start to do it in anger, you’re generating one hell of a lot of data that can very quickly become messy.

What you need is a set of tools that allow you to do that, but in a sensible and efficient manner. Hence, Design automation technology. Many of the higher-end solutions (such as NX, Catia, Pro/E to some extent) have knowledge-based automation tool, but even these are incredibly complex processes and not attuned to the needs of the mainstream.

On the other hand, DriveWorks Solo most certainly is.

The team has completely reworked the interface to build a system that runs within the SolidWorks UI. It steps you through the process of capturing a starting assembly, identifying the parameters and rules that drive the automation, then building a user interface on top of it, making it possible for anyone to jump into the system and create a customised product or sub-system, using performance and customer inputs, and have the system generate not only the 3D description, but also the supporting documentation in terms of drawings. None of the custom programming, none of the consultancy, none of the painstaking rework of existing products. It’s designed to be done by the designer or engineer and maintained by the same.

DriveWorks Solo gives you the ability to create a UI for automation, making it much easier to deploy and make use of.

The benefits that an organisation can derive from this are many fold. By automating design (without impacting other work), you have the chance to both remove the drudgery of repetitive work by your team, and can have them working on the ‘non-automatable’ (yes, I made that word up) parts of a design project, finding new areas for exploration and new potential. It’s done easily, cost effectively and could bring huge benefits to many SolidWorks users.

To my mind, that’s an incredibly elegant solution. It’s easy to use assuming you understand how your products are defined, it’s affordable and can pay real benefits. Benefits to both your personal productivity – who doesn’t prefer working on the challenging product, rather than the crappy-same-soup-reheated-work. And of course, for business in terms of more productivity, greater potential for innovation.

There you go, another example of how things should be. I wonder what’s next. Stay tuned to find out…

NB: We took an in-depth look at DriveWorks Solo in the September issue, which is available here.

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