Under the hood: 3D graphics engine powers digital twins

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Digital twins rose to attention in recent years, promising to transform the world using digital software models that replicate activity of varied objects and systems. Momentum is growing further as the metaverse, a term describing a collection of interconnected virtual spaces, also gains its day in the sun. As always, there is value in looking under the hood of such “overnight phenomena.” If you want to understand digital twins, for example, it is worth looking at a 3D graphics engine, which is a critical ingredient baked into most digital twins platforms but which is not often listed on the label.

Take, for instance, Tech Soft 3D’s HOOPS. It was initially developed at Cornell University in the 1980s. Today, use cases have grown to include data access, analysis, and data publishing. Like other 3D graphics engines, it dramatically streamlines application development workflows to render highly accurate engineering animations and exchange data between different tools.

HOOPS powers many early CAD and simulation tools, including key offerings acquired or built by current digital twins leaders like Ansys, Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp., and PTC.

Along the way, Tech Soft 3D was acquired by Autodesk and then spun out, acquired key data access and publishing technology from Adobe, and most recently has acquired analysis tools Ceetron and VKI to provide a kind of Switzerland of engineering solutions among industry competitors.

This year, Tech Soft 3D graphics engine tooling for engineering found its way into two new digital twins offerings in the mining industry — from DataMine and MineRP — and in digital twins for shipbuilding from Napa. This is on top of dozens of other digital twin tools, services, and applications already built on the HOOPS platform.

Tech Soft 3D’s SDK tools are often a starting point for new software products and services in diverse industries at the forefront of digital twin–based transformation. These include pool design, sheet metal bending, and light rigging for concerts. These companies often bring specific understanding, workflows, and algorithms from their particular industry — mining, for instance — or even a nuanced part of that industry, like exploration, statistical analysis, or project and material management.

“Our vision is to help engineering software companies of all sizes innovate. Our toolkits make it easier and faster to go to market,” Tech Soft 3D senior manager of developer relations Jonathan Girroir told VentureBeat.

Engineering animation on tap

Subtle differences distinguish 3D data animation in modern gaming and entertainment industries from 3D data animation in digital twins, according to Girroir.

“Engineering visualization is focused on accuracy, whereas other tools, like those for entertainment like the Unreal Engine, focus on visual fidelity, essentially tricking the eye, and photorealism through preprocessing. 3D visualization in engineering needs to be accurate because actual engineering decisions are made using it,” he said. “We can’t simplify models in some workflows to improve performance because measurement may eventually be done using it.”

Another significant difference is that it’s harder to preprocess the data in engineering applications. Video games engines can optimize the models to strike the appropriate balance between performance and visual fidelity. But in the engineering world, objects are continually being transformed, moved, cut, and animated in diverse ways. The animations help engineers make better decisions through sophisticated analytics.

The next milestone is adopting more lifelike rendering that combines the accuracy of engineering with modern GPU-based techniques. For example, Tech Soft 3D has recently added support for physically based rendering (PBR), a method for including multiple texture descriptions, advanced lighting, and environmental effects. Girroir said graphics hardware improvements that further support photorealism are likely to impact engineering SDKs for CAE.

Critical digital twins challenge

Another critical challenge in building digital twins lies in accurately transforming data from one file format to another. All sorts of problems can be missed if a surface or triangle mesh in one format is approximated incorrectly when translated into another.

This same problem shows up when translating across similar types of tools, but also when translating across various kinds of capabilities. Mechanical, electrical, and fluid dynamics design all start with diverse ways of representing data about the same thing.

For example, in the mining industry, engineering and finance teams might want to combine geologic modeling of ore deposits with mine structure analysis for protecting workers, and with electrical engineering for the lights, pumps, and fans to work out how to safely extract the most minerals at the least cost. Mines are not a homogenous thing either, and so may consist of several types of minerals. A digital twin allows a team to prioritize extraction efforts of different ores as the market changes.

3D graphics engine data sharing

“The market for software tools for creating, augmenting, and navigating digital twins is exploding right now,” Girroir said. “Users demand interactive 3D models and all the data that comes with it, including real-time IoT, documentation, inspection plans and data, maintenance records, and other related information.”

He expects to see an expansion of digital twins tools as software vendors, systems integrators, and innovators expand across geoscience, manufacturing, transportation, aerospace, agriculture, bioscience, and building and construction. However, it is up to individual organizations to transition and implement these tools. The current battle lies in convincing organizations in these industries of the benefits of digital twins and assisting them in implementing new workflows and managing change across their enterprise.

Girroir believes the next frontier lies in sharing digital information across systems with location-aware devices like phones, tablets, and even AR glasses. He suggests the metaverse and digital wins are complementary lenses for collaborating around 3D environments.

“This metaverse will impact workflows in most of these industries, assisting workers with more information and context than ever before,” he said.


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