Unreal Engineering: How a Game Engine is Playing in New Industries
Michael Alba posted on March 16, 2020 |
A look at how Unreal Engine is being used in design and industrial workflows.
Epic Games has sponsored this post.

When Unreal Engine debuted in 1998, it was a sophisticated game engine that quickly became popular among video game developers. If you’ve ever played Fortnite, Rocket League or Bioshock, you’ve experienced what Unreal Engine does for gaming.

But all play and no work makes Unreal a dull engine. While still a major tool for game developers, Unreal Engine has evolved to serve the needs of a much wider range of professional users. Today, Unreal Engine is a valuable tool in engineering, architecture, construction and many other industries.

In this article, we’ll explore how Unreal Engine evolved and how it’s being used in design and industrial processes.

An Audi engineer using Unreal Engine for vehicle design. (Image courtesy of Audi.)
An Audi engineer using Unreal Engine for vehicle design. (Image courtesy of Audi.)

Evolving for Industry

“Interactive 3D in general is driven by the consumer market,” explained Thomas Convard, technical product manager for Epic Games, the developer of Unreal Engine. He points to the example of graphics cards, which began as application-specific hardware and have become general tools used across industries.

“And that's what we are seeing with game engines such as Unreal Engine,” Convard continued. “People are starting to use those game engines for simulation, for design reviews, for totally different use cases than video gaming.”

Screenshot of Unreal Engine being used to create a high-fidelity VR simulator. (Image courtesy of CM Labs.)
Screenshot of Unreal Engine being used to create a high-fidelity VR simulator. (Image courtesy of CM Labs.)

Epic Games recognized that its game engine had much broader applicability, and so four years ago the company started the Unreal Enterprise Program and began exploring the development of industrial features. One of the first tasks was to ensure Unreal Engine could integrate into an industrial software ecosystem. To do that, it needed to play nice with professional software such as computer aided design (CAD), building information modeling (BIM) and product lifecycle management (PLM) applications.

Epic Games’ solution was Datasmith, a set of tools and plug-ins to aid asset transfer from CAD, BIM and other applications to Unreal Engine. The actual Datasmith workflow depends on the specific application, as Convard explains.

“For example, for Revit we developed a plugin. Architects and engineers in Revit can select the view and the layer they want to put in Unreal Engine, and with the click of a button they get the 3D model in Unreal Engine,” he said. “And for some other packages, such as CATIA or SOLIDWORKS, we directly import those files into the Unreal Engine editor.”

Currently, Datasmith can only provide a unidirectional transfer of data into Unreal Engine. Any changes made in Unreal engine, such as annotations or path modifications, do not propagate back to the original applications. Many Unreal Engine users have requested bidirectional functionality, and Convard tells us it’s on the development roadmap.

Another Unreal Engine feature for industrial users is Project Templates, which help users get up and running quickly.

“You start with something that is pre-made for you,” Convard explained. “For example, we have the Collaborative Viewer template, which is a design review application so you can collaborate with your coworkers and share the same 3D environment. You just have to drag and drop your CAD file in and then you deploy it on VR or on your PC, and you can collaborate with your coworkers.”

Gentlemen, Start Your Unreal Engines

Outside of game development, the automotive industry is one of the biggest users of Unreal Engine. “Most of the car makers in the world are using Unreal Engine in some type of capacity,” Convard claimed.

Screenshot from Audi’s digital showroom created with Unreal Engine. (Image courtesy of Epic Games.)
Screenshot from Audi’s digital showroom created with Unreal Engine. (Image courtesy of Audi.)

The automotive industry was driven to Unreal Engine by a desire for the highest-quality visuals. Cars can be truly beautiful with the right render, and automotive designers were initially impressed with Unreal Engine’s ability to produce high-quality real-time images.

“That was kind of a Trojan horse to this industry,” joked Convard. “And now people in automotive see that the game engine is really flexible and collaborative and open, so they can do a lot more than just images and animation. They see that they can ingest large CAD models and perform some kinds of simulation and experimentation.”

(Image courtesy of AltSpace.)
(Image courtesy of AltSpace.)

For example, automaker Audi used Unreal Engine to develop a digital showroom for customers to configure vehicles with high-fidelity visuals. Visualization firm AltSpace used Unreal Engine to create an interactive presentation for Robocar, the world’s first purpose-built autonomous race car. Automaker BMW uses Unreal Engine to facilitate mixed reality design collaboration and better understand the real-world feel of its cars.

“With Unreal Engine, we had a very good starting point regarding optical quality,” said Mark Eckel, head of VR Exterior, Cubing at BMW Group. “It gives us flexibility for all the stuff we’re implementing, for the interactions, for all the experience you want to have in the car, and it’s very easy to implement for us.”

Another benefit of Unreal Engine for the automotive industry is the ever-expanding collection of automotive materials. Many of these materials are provided for free by Epic Games, but if users need more, there’s a growing collection of third-party materials and assets available on the Unreal Engine Marketplace.

Unreal Engine Across Industries

Automotive is far from the only industry using Unreal Engine. Companies throughout architecture, engineering, manufacturing, and training and simulation have begun to rely on the platform. There are many examples:

AR/VR firm Inlusion is using Unreal Engine to develop virtual reality experiences for training on aircraft repair and maintenance.

Image from Inslusion’s VR aircraft repair and maintenance training. (Image courtesy of Inlusion.)
Image from Inslusion’s VR aircraft repair and maintenance training. (Image courtesy of Inlusion.)

Construction company Group Legendre uses Unreal Engine to produce VR experiences of early design concepts.

A Group Legendre rendering made with Unreal Engine. (Image courtesy of Group Legendre.)
A Group Legendre rendering made with Unreal Engine. (Image courtesy of Group Legendre.)

HOK, an architecture and engineering firm, aggregates BIM data in Unreal Engine and uses it for quick iteration and client presentations.

An HOK rendering made with Unreal Engine. (Image courtesy of HOK.)
An HOK rendering made with Unreal Engine. (Image courtesy of HOK.)

CM Labs uses Unreal Engine’s visualization and gameplay workflows to complement its high-fidelity industrial simulators.

Screenshot of CM Labs’ high-fidelity VR simulator made in part with unreal Engine. (Image courtesy of CM Labs.)
Screenshot of CM Labs’ high-fidelity VR simulator made in part with unreal Engine. (Image courtesy of CM Labs.)

Architectural design firm HKS used Unreal Engine to create photorealistic walkthroughs of its new baseball stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Rendering of a baseball stadium in Arlington, Texas, created with Unreal Engine. (Image courtesy of HKS.)
Rendering of a baseball stadium in Arlington, Texas, created with Unreal Engine. (Image courtesy of HKS.)

Digital data firm Daimler Protics went so far as to use Unreal Engine to develop a design review platform described as “a multiplayer online game for engineers.”

Screenshot of Engineering Hub, Daimler Protic’s Unreal Engine-based collaborative VR environment. (Image courtesy of Daimler Protics.)
Screenshot of Engineering Hub, Daimler Protic’s Unreal Engine-based collaborative VR environment. (Image courtesy of Daimler Protics.)

As the above examples illustrate, many Unreal Engine users are leveraging the platform for AR and VR, which are increasingly important tools across the design, manufacturing and training space.

“Those devices are a totally new way of interacting with content, which is by nature 3D content,” Convard said. “And if you want to create experiences on those platforms, you need a software technology that is dedicated to that. Game engines are the best for that. That's why everybody trying VR or AR is jumping onto Unreal Engine.”

There are several aspects of Unreal Engine that make it an appealing option for these types of companies. Perhaps first and foremost is the cost—Unreal Engine is completely free to download and use. Epic Games takes royalties from commercial software made with Unreal Engine (such as video games), but the tool can be used internally at no cost. For users who desire custom training, maintenance and support, or the freedom to distribute commercial products royalty free, the Unreal Enterprise Program costs $1,500 per user per year. In either case, Unreal Engine is extremely cost-effective compared to most CAD, BIM and PLM tools.

Another key advantage of Unreal Engine is its flexibility. Users can freely access the source code, adapt it with a full C++ API, and create custom functionality with Python or Blueprint, Unreal Engine’s built-in visual scripting language.

“Unreal Engine is an open platform. People can modify it and really adapt it to their specific business needs,” Convard explained, emphasizing Unreal Engine’s strong commitment to supporting open standards.

The 3D Operating System for All

With its flexibility, cost-effectiveness and collaboration capabilities, Epic Games considers Unreal Engine to be a virtually universal platform for 3D development.

“Whether it's engineering, architecture, movie production, simulation for health care or training for the military, we want to be the 3D operating system for all,” Convard proclaimed.

If you’re interested in learning more about Unreal Engine, read our hands-on introduction to the software: Unreal Engine for Engineers. To download Unreal Engine for yourself, visit unrealengine.com.


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