Upgrading workstation/software

I work as an industrial designer for a commercial furniture company. We make chairs, desks, screening systems, lounges, custom joinery including for hotels, a lot of upholstered products in patterned fabrics, leather, molded plastic and aluminium, welded steel, gas assisted molded foam, CNC machined timber panels. You name it, we do it.

So I came in and started modelling existing and new designs in solidworks, Rhino with t-splines add in and then rendering in Keyshot. The powers that be really like Keyshot’s VR capabilities so we want something like that in whatever package we end up going with, but I have been asked to investigate a better package for rendering photo-realistic interiors of hotels especially.

I also am running a Win7 64bit, i7 3770K @ 3.50GHz Ivy Bridge on an Intel DH77EB motherboard with 8Gb DDR3 @ 671MHz. Unfortunately I have been given a gaming graphics card (first thing to go) as the guys here just got my an off the shelf PC somewhere.

So I wanted to get some guidance. I’m not a huge computer guru. I know what RAM is and how to install a graphics card, what SSD drives are etc, but I’m pretty lame when it comes to motherboard, CPU, RAM combos.

I’m thinking we will probably go with Maxwell or Modo, maybe keep keyshot for VR, but I need to do animations, e.g. showing a chair reclining, showing an office screening system assembly and that sort of thing. I’d also like something which I have a bit more control over than keyshot when it comes to movement and placement of objects. I like mates in solidworks and it would be good to be able to make a scene in solidworks but then be able to line up new objects with accuracy. All you can do is snap to ground in keyshot, and if you want to use the solidworks add in, things like legs or backs of chairs often don’t come in.

Also, I’m not sure if I can just upgrade this PC. It takes 14+ hours to do a nice big render at 600DPI A3 size, so we want to reduce that as much as possible, maybe with network rendering capabilities.


Hi Azrehan:

  • From your description, the PC you have is already pretty capable. Keep the CPU and motherboard

  • Do you know which gaming card is in there? Gaming cards are basically equivalent to or better than “workstation” cards these days (especially for the money), but some are way better than others.

  • For RAM, maybe increase to ≥16gb of DDR3 1600. Look up your motherboard specs to figure out how many slots it has so you know how many of what size sticks to buy (e.g. 4x4gb, 2x8gb, 2x12gb, whatever). GSkill is the brand a lot of people are raving about lately but Corsair and Kingston are also favorites.

  • You mentioned SSDs: I think this is the most important upgrade. They are still pricey, but get maybe a 256gb drive and move your OS and install programs to this drive, using your old hard drive as file storage.

  • Maxwell is my preferred rendering engine but it is a somewhat extreme undertaking. It has an intense learning curve and every render will take approximately 10x longer than an equivalent Keyshot rendering, but way better quality. It is only worth it for certain companies. If you have multiple weekly deadlines and client meetings, it is not workable. If you have long-term projects it can be a phenomenal tool. I can elaborate more if you want.

  • modo is great, a lot of studio/shops are using it lately. In modo you would have full snapping (mating) capabilities so that’s not an issue. Trying to render environments and animations in Solidworks is basically guaranteed pain.

I have been rendering animations for video and interactivity for a couple years now so I am fairly familiar with where you are coming from!

Have you considered, because you have the unlocked i7 variant, overclocking your CPU? Depending on cooling, people are getting 20-35% stable increases which could take ~3-6 hours off an estimated 14 hour render time. Even with just a small increase in clock speed, you may see a fairly large time savings over 100+ frames. To that end, quality cooling equipment is usually a drop in the bucket compared to high end processors and the like. I have the 3770K as well and it just needed some quick fiddling alongside a Corsair H100 ($100) - if you go this route, look on youtube for “3770k IHS” which will walk you through making the 3770K overclock well. The greater speeds come at the expense of the CPUs operational lifetime but it seems most companies rotate hardware significantly faster than it would fail (Ive read 5 years overclocked vs 8 years under normal usage avg).

I use 3ds max with vRay and, before that, mental ray. Both of these renderers support distributed bucket renders which allow more devices to be used to either render frames of an animation or portions of a large render thereby reducing the total render time. While I am not terribly familiar with Maxwell or Modo, I suspect both would at least be able to distribute frames. If this is the case, you could look at investing in another desktop or two which will give you the best bang for the buck after overclocking. Dell and HP frequently let quad-core AMD towers go for $400 which is less than one might pay for an nVidia workstation GPU. With the distribution, you would have 2+ computers working away on the render queue which would give you the best return - much more so than the best (and most expensive) hardware in just one box.

Off the shelf gaming cards have been great in my experience. In fact, my only workstation card is the only card that has caused me issues. I have not used a Tesla, but benchmarks seem to indicate nVidia’s high-end GTX cards outperform the Tesla and Quadros for raytracing.

And one last thought… Keyshots “patent-pending technology” VR is simply a branded javascript turntable that shows a series of static renders from different angles. You could get the same result from any rendering package coupled with a turntable framework. I have coded a few in both Flash and Javascript - I could walk you through them if you would like.


ETA: When I mentioned GPUs, I totally forgot to complete my thought. It is important to note that in most software today, a GPUs existence (and even less so its performance) has a negligible difference in combination with modern hardware. Some renderers like Bunkspeed’s Shot, Octane, Arion, iRay, vRay RT and the like use GPU tech exclusively (thus the popular growth of $$$ high performance workstation cards) but it sounds like these have little to no place in your workflow. Adobe Photoshop, AfterFX, and Premiere also leverage the technology with negligible difference across performance cards, whether gaming or workstation level. In that regard, I would second Hatts opinion that your graphics card is more than likely well suited for the job.

Good advice above, as mentioned the GPU has little to do with rendering speed. In your case, more CPU is always going to be better.

But consider what program you really want to use and see if network rendering makes more sense. It is cheaper to build multiple quad core machines for a purpose built render farm than it likely is to crank out a single machine.

Also budget is always a question…we needed a render farm so we dropped $10k on a HP dual Octa-core workstation (32 threads total) with 64 gigs of ram and made it a dedicated Keyshot network server which is very nice to NOT have your local machine tied up with renderings. That’s the biggest waste of time during a work day if you have to sit there and wait for your machine to chug through a render.

Frankly, the 3770k is as fast as you’ll find in that price range. You need to jump up to the 39 series or Xeon chips if you want to find something with 6-8 cores or something that can handle 2 CPU’s. Usually it just makes sense to buy a certified workstation at that point.

I spent the weekend playing guitar and researching this stuff. Was quite enjoyable actually.

Anyway, I think I know which way I want to go.

  1. Modo license (as I’ll be doing a lot of interiors and it’s just better than keyshot for this)
    -Solidworks importer/exporter
    -sub-d nurbs add in
    -advanced cad loader
    -training videos
    -studio environment set

  2. Upgrade RAM to 16Gb DDR3 1600 to increase cache

  3. SSD hard drive for all my programs and windows

  4. Leadtek Quaddro K2000D - will make solidworks run better and also preview mode in modo will be faster and better.

If we need awesome renders really fast, I’ll shoot them off to a render farm, otherwise, I’ll use our 6 planning guys pc’s as a render farm overnight with modo’s unlimited render nodes capabilities.

E2442 on NVIDIA GeForce GTX 650

For $500 I’d consider leaving the Quadro till last on your list.

The K2000 is basically (and without googling it’s hard to tell, but I’m willing to bet it’s actually the identical hardware based on specs) the same exact card as the GTX 650 just with the Quadro drivers.

You will get benefit in the drivers but that will come more in features/quality, not heavily in performance.

Consider for the same amount of money you could get a GTX 770 which has a ton more CUDA cores and much faster memory bus. There are pros and cons to each side, but I’d consider reading up more before dumping $500 into a GPU.