Advanced Effects in SOLIDWORKS Visualize
Creating high quality marketing imagery from CAD files can be done with SOLIDWORKS Visualize. It is very easy to drag and drop materials and environments onto your models and render them. But while it is easy to get started in Visualize, there are a number of advanced and little-known techniques that can improve the quality of the final renderings when used correctly.
There are many materials in the SOLIDWORKS Visualize library of materials, and more materials are available from the “cloud” library which can be toggled on at any point. But to add the final polish to a difficult rendering, it’s useful to understand how to define custom materials.
Visualize supports many different categories of material, from specialized gemstone materials to more commonplace metals, plastics and clearcoat paint. These appearances support varied texture channels such as bump, roughness and alpha, each of which have an impact on the resulting appearance.
An example of a customized brushed metal texture is visible in Figure 1 below:
Figure 1. Appearance texture channels.
Simply experimenting with modifying the textures and magnitudes for these channels can greatly improve the effect of the final rendering. Adding a mild bump map to almost any surface is a great way to prevent rendered surfaces from looking too smooth, which is a common giveaway of prerendered graphics. A bump map, for instance, can represent the grit of a textured plastic, or the spray pattern on a painted or powder coated part.
The fidelity of the texture becomes more important the closer the camera is to the model surface.
Complex materials and surface imperfections can be represented easily by taking advantage of multi-layer appearances. Like the name implies, these are stacks of up to four appearances that can be laid over each other in an adjustable order.
Straightforward applications include selectively adding scuff marks, texture or defects to an otherwise pristine surface to create a weathered or used look. See Figure 2 below, where multi-layer appearances were used to add fingerprint marks to the touchscreen.
Figure 2. Multi-layer appearances.
This appearance is combining the default Solid Glass material with a custom Fingerprints appearance created using free textures from poliigon.com.
To learn more about multi-layer appearances and textures setup in general, check out this video.
Custom Backplates & HDR Environments
Like materials, it’s easy to rely on built-in environments and backplates. Environments especially are crucial as they define the lighting in the scene—assuming you aren’t using custom defined lights in Visualize Professional.
If you ever want to convincingly fake overlaying your product onto an existing image, it’s a requirement to modify the environment. This is because in addition the lighting, the environment is the source of the reflections for the geometry. If you are using reflective or shiny appearances, simply swapping out the backplate without adjusting the environment will result in inaccurate reflections that will reveal your image is a rendering.
Figure 3 below shows the stock Camaro file with an 8k HDRI environment from HDRI Haven loaded. Note how the reflections of the sky and surrounding ground are reflected in the vehicle hood.
Enabling floor shadows and caustics can help improve the feeling that the object belongs in the environment.
Figure 3. Custom 8k HDRI environment.
High resolution HDR environments (8k and 16k) can replace the need for backplates all together for lower resolution outputs. For the best quality, though, it’s recommended to use an environment with matching backplate. If you are using your own backplate, try to find a matching HDR environment that will emulate the lightings and reflections.
It’s also quite easy to edit or create HDR environments yourself. Most newer Android smartphones have the capability of capturing a “photo sphere” or 360 degree photo, which can be brought into Visualize as an environment. iOS devices can use a similar function through the Google Maps app. HDR environments can be edited in a photo editor such as Photoshop or GIMP to make precise adjustments.
Created by NVIDIA, MDL materials are a standard for physically-based materials that SOLIDWORKS Visualize now supports. These materials offer even more capability than the user defined materials in SOLIDWORKS Visualize, allowing them to accurately represent difficult materials such as textiles and liquids.
An extensive library of over 2,000 MDL materials, called the vMaterial library, can be downloaded directly from NVIDIA.
Since each MDL material is “physically based,” it will have unique adjustment properties for each class of material. In Figure 4 below, special properties for a metal weave material are displayed on the right. A sample rendering combining mahogany, hammered copper and floral carpet MDL materials is displayed on the left.
Figure 4. MDL materials in Visualize.
The materials in the AEC category are especially helpful. These include common building materials such as flooring, and commonly used interior/exterior materials as well as many different grades of metals.
To get the MDL materials into Visualize, you’ll have the best luck using the Windows File Explorer and clicking and dragging the relevant .mdl file from the vMaterial install location to the Visualize project.
Figure 5. Material library in File Explorer.
As visible in Figure 5 above, the .mdl files are accompanied by .png thumbnail previews of their different variants. This is useful to choose the .mdl to add to your project. Note that for many materials, adding one .mdl file will result in many appearance variants being imported.
For this reason, it is recommended that you do not batch import the .mdl materials, as this will inflate project size and reduce performance. It’s better to drag them in as needed per project.
Custom MDL materials can be created with 3rd party tools such as the procedural texture generation program Substance Designer.
IES Light Profiles
Continuing the “physically based” theme, IES light profiles allow for definition of standardized custom light sources in Visualize Professional that represent real world lights. This can be very helpful for more accurately representing complex indoor lighting.
Figure 6. IES light profiles. (Image from SOLIDWORKS help files.)
You can learn more about IES light profiles in the What’s New section of the SOLIDWORKS Help Files.
Model Sets & Configuration Import
Model sets are a feature of SOLIDWORKS Visualize Professional that won’t make a rendering look better, but will make the process of batch rendering much easier.
Model sets themselves represent various states of the model inside a single .SVPJ file by increasing the polygon count active at any given time. This lets many different versions of the product be represented and stored efficiently.
As of SOLIDWORKS 2021, Visualize Professional can now batch import SOLIDWORKS configurations for parts and assemblies into corresponding model sets. All that is required is flagging the configurations you want to import with a Display Data Mark inside SOLIDWORKS beforehand, as seen in Figure 7below.
Figure 7. Adding display data mark.
Model sets are also useful to manually create an exploded view inside Visualize by translating and moving parts around, or to represent a product through different states of its range of motion.
Decals & Video Decals
Decals allow placement of externally sourced images such as labels, markings or in the case of LCD displays, the screen image. In additional to importing an image for the decal, Visualize allows applying an appearance to the decal.
This means that things like metallic labels and stickers can easily be represented by applying the appropriate material to the decal. For screen images, it makes it easy to apply an emissive appearance to the decal to create a more convincing render.
Visualize Professional also allows usage of video decals in animations. Rendering a screen image directly into the project adds realism that would be very difficult to accomplish in a video editor in post.
Figure 8. Video decal with emissive appearance.
To create the animation in Figure 8 above, a screen recording was performed on a smartphone, and this recording was inserted as a video decal beneath the glass of the virtual phone display in the Visualize project. Then an emissive appearance was applied.
This combination of layering of materials adds a significant amount of realism to the final rendering, which would be very difficult to achieve in a video editor—especially once camera motion is added. To learn more about this process, consult this video.
Adjusting the camera properties can add some artistic flair to any static rendering or animation.
Parameters such as depth of field focal distance and focus target can be adjusted between shots or keyframed in an animation to pull the viewers attention to a specific area. In cinematography, this is known as “rack focus” or “pulling focus” and the basic effect is illustrated in the animation in Figure 9 below.
Figure 9. Rack focus demonstration.
Another great parameter to explore is the perspective amount or focal length of the camera, which can also be animated. Combined with controlling the distance of the camera, this can recreate effects such as “dolly zoom.”
The Denoiser option can dramatically improve rendering performance, especially for accurate mode renders. With complex lighting, it can take multiple rendering passes to remove grain from the image due to the many light bounces that are required. Enabling the Denoiser option from the toolbar will remove noise from the rendering with an AI algorithm.
Figure 10. Denoiser toggle.
In many cases, this reduces the required number of rendering passes by a factor of 10x or more. Additional information on the denoiser is available here in SOLIDWORKS Help. In my experience, it works best whenever the camera is not very close to detailed rough surfaces, such as cast metal or frosted glass, as some of that detail may be artificially smoothed over.
While much of the focus of this article has been on physically correct or physically-based materials and settings, sometimes requiring the desired artistic effect involves faking things. When it comes to tweaking the final rendering, render layers are a valuable tool.
Figure 11. Render layers output imported to photo editor.
Figure 11 above shows the render layer output options available in Visualize Professional. For the 2021 version, this type of rendering output has dramatically improved performance.
It is recommended that you import the various render layers as layers into your photo editor of choice and experiment toggling the layers and trying various overlay modes such as multiply or lighten only. This is a great way to artificially increase or decrease the effect of shadows, or make the output appear more shiny/glossy than the original render.
You can learn more about the individual render layers here in SOLIDWORKS Help.
SOLIDWORKS Visualize makes it very easy to get convincing output out of the box with its built-in materials and environments, and it is a huge step up over the materials integrated with SOLIDWORKS and PhotoView 360.
This article outlined a number of methods to take your renders even further and create truly convincing product representations via custom material creation, custom HDR environments, physically based MDL materials, decals/video decals and artistic tricks such as overlaying render layers or modifying camera properties. Hopefully these tips give you some inspiration for your next photorealistic rendering project.