As we’ve talked about before, digital fabrication requires a workstation – not a PC – to dependably handle the required software programs at the same time. Just as important is a CAD-oriented graphics card to quickly view designs and renderings.
Rendering software takes a 2D CAD drawing and generates a 3D photorealistic image. The process requires a CAD-oriented graphics card because of the millions of calculations necessary to process the geometry, viewpoint, texture, lighting, and shading information.
But shoppers will experience some sticker shock, particularly in comparison to consumer-grade graphic cards for gaming. The cost is justified by the high quality of renderings, an essential sales tool to help customers visualize their dream kitchens or custom furniture, for example.
A CAD-oriented graphics card is designed and built to process digital visual information more accurately than gaming-oriented graphics cards. This means the graphical processing unit (GPU) chips, even though they come off the same assembly line, are better. Chips are selected that perform just a bit better, consume less power and run cooler.
Another difference is a larger video frame buffer with error correction technology, which means that intermediate images can be stored rather than processed, thereby saving processing time and speeding production. And the drivers, a piece of special software, are written to integrate the card with a given CAD program, which also ensures more accurate images that are generated faster. This all means lots of people, time and money are devoted to making sure the cards and software function flawlessly.
A deeper dive
Computers process information and then output it as 1’s and 0’s. It takes mathematical algorithms and the various processing units in the computer to change those 1’s and 0’s into words, numbers or images on the monitor and/or output them to a printer as words, numbers or images.
A graphics card is primarily designed to remove the graphical processing tasks from the central processing unit (CPU) or random-access memory (RAM). A graphics card has a dedicated GPU and a dedicated RAM known as VRAM that helps the graphics card process graphical-oriented data quickly. Modern graphics cards need a heat sink and fans to efficiently remove the heat from the GPU since they run at the same high temperatures as a CPU.
Modern CAD-oriented graphics cards with their GPU rasterize the visual electronic data, the 1’s and 0’s, which can be thought of as millions of dots, known as pixels, that form geometric shapes. These pixels are the precursors of the images that end up on the monitor as the CAD design or rendering, which are clear and colorful enough to be zoomed, panned and orbited.
Choosing a CAD-oriented graphics card is a difficult assignment. The simple method is to ask questions of the CAD software developer for its recommendations. The developer’s tech support has day-to-day experience with its software users and has accumulated substantial amounts of information in the process. Most software programs have an online forum, which have lots of questions and answers, as well as insights into every aspect of the software and its interaction with hardware. If a search does not turn up any relevant information, post a question and wait for answers.
The harder way to analyze a CD-oriented graphics card is through the manufacturer’s websites and online reviews. These sources tend to focus on different technical specifications and a variety of tests to develop benchmark statistics. So, you will need to relate these tests and their outcomes to the task that will be completed on your workstation.
Prices for CAD-oriented graphics card run from the hundreds to thousands of dollars. It is hard to image a woodworker needing the highest priced GPU-graphics card but expect to pay about $1,000 if you’re looking to run several monitors.
In the end, all the time and effort put into deciding on a CAD-oriented graphics card will pay off with faster production by a designer and better rendered drawings for the customer.
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue.