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How to Create a Compelling Product Animation

Animation is a widely-used term.  The following are guidelines for creating product 3D animations that are intended to illustrate engineering designs.  The design, or starting point could be based on ideas on napkins to CAD models.   The content below can be used to quickly learn how to create high quality renderings or animations.




It is important to understand and document the purpose of your animation. A specific story will make the animation more effective in delivering a message.  Even for an image, viewers will read it in a certain order. A short animation of a few seconds will convey a story by drawing attention to certain parts of the product, or by the way you move the object.  This is where a storyboard will come in handy.  Due to the time-consuming nature of animating and rendering, usually a fair amount of time is spent on a storyboard.  It is a good idea to sketch out each scene and illustrate what and how you want to animate.

Apply constraints to your story or render. It is tempting to do more but focusing on what it important will result in a better animation.   For example, having a busy lab environment background in an image could be distracting and may draw attention away from your product. The audience must be narrow and specific. If it is made for everyone, it won’t reach anyone. If multiple audiences must be reached, create multiple videos.  If your audience is a group of engineers, it may be valuable to pay more attention to the functional details as oppose to lighting or texturing.

3D Computer Graphics

3D CG is a way to represent three-dimensional geometric data in a computer.  This is achieved by placing “vertices” or “faces” in a 3D space. The rendering engine then calculates how each light path, or ray, travels through the scene moving outward from the camera.  Based on what features are given to these faces, the resulting render can calculate what that surface is supposed to look like.

Here are the three fundamentals when creating an animation;

  1. Modelling

  2. Texturing

  3. Lighting

Most design engineers come from the CAD (Computer Aided Design) world, although it is under the same 3D umbrella, the goal is different.  The original purpose of CAD is to create automated engineering drawings, perform engineering calculations, and generate bills of materials.  The output of CAD models will be the input to manufacturers.   Where as in non-cad oriented software (we’ll call them animation packages), the goal may be purely visual, and you may not need exact dimensions, proper tolerances, or perfect mating.   

Due to the lack of constraints, many concept designers, will use animation packages to conceptualize/visualize their design before proceeding to the fingering work.  It can be done faster, and can generate a physically accurate looking result that will provide the look and feel of a product.


There are many animation packages that can create good technical animations.  Below is a list of some popular ones.  In the animation industry, there is no industry standard, and once you learn to use one package it is not difficult to pick up on another.  The goal and the audience will dictate the level of quality required for the animation.

  • Maya

  • Cinema 4D

  • 3ds Max

  • ZBrush

  • Houdini

  • Lightwave

  • Blender

Blender is the only free and open source 3D creation suite. It supports all aspects of 3D animation, from modelling to video editing.  

It has the capability to match and sometimes outperform some of the expensive software packages mentioned above.  Due to the open-source nature of Blender, there is a larger community of Blender artists (in comparison to other 3D artists) who are willing to help beginners and answer questions.  This is why it is Blender relatively easy to self-learn and develop quickly in.

My primary focus is engineering design.  A valid question is why one should spend time and effort learning and using these tools.    One reason is the impression on the audience.  CAD models can only get you so far, but when you have a fully rendered image or an animation, it gives a project a sense of completion and emphases the effort and passion that was put into it.  This can provide leverage or a hook when presenting to investors or customers. 

These tools are essential for design centric companies.  Where aesthetic and ergonomic design is as important as the function.  Some use it to evaluate the type of emotion elicited by a product. Texture and surface finish can give a product a whole new identity.

Another reason why engineers adopt tools such as blender is to explain complex mechanisms.  It is sometimes difficult to explain advanced mechanisms with just pictures.  A popular workflow is to import a model into Blender from CAD and animate it. Mechanisms where things are deforming are particularly easy to animate in Blender; such as a spring, a wire, or locking mechanism where parts bend into place.  

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