April 29, 2013 8:30 AM
By Claas Kuhnen
While Blender is an excellent tool for creating content for games or animated movies, it is also now a highly usable tool for product design. Specifically, the introduction of Ngons and Blender’s new Cycles render engine has elevated the usability of Blender dramatically in that area. Ngon was a milestone to close the gap between Blender created polygon models and converting them into NURBS surfaces.
I have a very big interest in exploring the possibilities in how to utilize tools or technologies from animation and motion design into a workflow applicable to industrial design. Traditional industrial design applications can be very pricey. But often that focus on precision can result in a limited flexibility when you would like to creatively explore your design ideas. This is the typical clash between engineering vs. freeform modeling approach.
In this article I would like to show you how I have used Blender’s animation and modeling/modifier tools to create a workflow in which I was able to quickly explore the design idea and virtually test-drive it. Our goal was to create a bent plywood furniture piece that has movable parts that would adjust to the weight of a human body.
What was extremely useful in Blender for us, besides the great modeling tools has been the use of modifiers to simulate a somewhat parametric approach.
We started this project by creating the flat base mesh for the seat and backrest plate.
The solidify modifier with using units enabled us to give a real measured thickness to those flat sheets. In the next step, using a mirror modifier, we bend those thickened meshes into the shape we desired by using the curve modifier together with NURBS curves. Using curves to bend a shape is a very efficient method compared to hard-modeling such deformations right into the polygon mesh. If a quick adjustment has to be done, it can be simply done with few mouse clicks by modifying the bend curve.
Ergonomics is a very important aspect in furniture design. We used a posed figure to fine-tune the bend curves and also as a reference to how the bent plywood sheets would have to rotate to generate the seating experience we were envisioning.
As you can see we parented the half mesh together with the invisible bend curve to an empty and with local space orientation were able to rotate the parts and explore how the parts would move and how visually that would actually look.
Having studied photography and graphic design as well, I always felt that commercial render solutions for product designers often were very limited in their functionality. Their main focus is delivering a somewhat acceptable image fast. But I rather prefer being in full control. Blender’s new GI based render engine provides all the shader blocks I need to logically rebuild realistically-looking materials quite efficiently and set up the render environment the same way as I would do in a physical photo studio.
Something I found extremely helpful, and which made my layouter heart beat faster was the ability that you can apply an image with a transparent background to an empty. As you can see in the lower two images, I used the empty to place a layout mock-up in-front of my camera and was then able in Blender to rotate and pose the lounge chair perfectly onto the composition. In previous projects, I rendered different views and put them together in Photoshop and rendered new perspective views, when needed. With this approach you have much more control over how the finale composition can look like, even before you actually render.
While in this case study, we used Blender more as a tool to explore the possible look of a non-existing product, I am very excited to see that in the industry polygon modeling is becoming a more accepted approach to create the CAD model for manufacturing.
While each method has their unique advantages and disadvantages, the beauty is in being able to utilize both approaches in a consistent workflow that makes use of the tools out there rather than excluding them.
While Blender is free, it does not mean anymore that it cannot be taken seriously. In terms of modeling, it was actually much more creative and usable to rapidly explore and validate the design idea. What was the biggest surprise was the blazing speed improvement GPU rendering with Cycles provided us with. Being a more complex software, Blender with Cycles and GPU is actually dramatically faster now than many commercial render products that focus on simplicity and speed. And I think that is something the Blender team should be very proud of, that they not only created some equally powerful, but actually better than the commercial options out there for industrial designers.