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An Engineer Reviews KeyShot Rendering Software From Luxion

By Chris McAndrew, October 24, 2012

As an engineer who has moved into marketing, I was interested to review KeyShot, a 3D rendering and animation software developed by Luxion. I had heard that it turns regular CAD data into dazzling imagery - often an aspect critical to the success of a product. Screenshots of engineering designs go only so far when pitching products, reviewing concept designs, creating marketing materials, or designing final product packaging. In all these cases, renderings help illustrate the idea and present the design material professionally.

Product renderings and animations also at times remove the need for physical models, photographers, or extensive graphic design work - all of which can be time-consuming and costly. I downloaded KeyShot eagerly and began using it, thinking of how it could become part of the workflow in an engineering department that interfaces with other disciplines.

KeyShot Import and Setup

With a super simple UI, I found it a breeze getting started in KeyShot. After launching the software for the first time, there were no tabs, no extensive toolbars, and no hieroglyphic-looking icons. Instead, the KeyShot workspace is clean, with the rendering and animation workflow laid out in a dockable toolbar. (See figure 1.)

Figure 1: The clean startup screen of KeyShot with a simple toolbar at the bottom

The six buttons (seven with the optional KeyShotVR add-on) provided at startup stepped me through the process for the detailed aspects of rendering (see figure 2). To get me started, the Import button is placed conspicuously at the front of the toolbar.

Figure 2: The simple KeyShot toolbar

I clicked Import, and found that a variety of 3D file formats can be imported from other programs. (The full list is found at the KeyShot website.) One of the fun things I discovered here was importing SolidWorks assemblies: I saw individual parts and found that the assembly structure and colors were retained. Good to know that the hard work done in SolidWorks is carried over into KeyShot.

Figure 3: Changing renderings parameters is as easy as drag'n drop.

Moving models around is easy, but the critical portion of setting up a great rendering is ensuring that the lighting and composition is right. The clean UI helps here. Drag and drop to change materials or environments - I saw the changes immediately. The realtime view refreshed with each change, but the progress was almost instantaneous (figure 3).

The KeyShot Web site highlights the speed of the software, saying that KeyShot rendering technology is "CPU based", capable of using all available cores of a CPU. This is opposed to "GPU based" software, which needs specific types of high-end graphics card. Looking into it further, my system showed that KeyShot was using 100% of CPU while rendering. In figure 4, the left image shows the CPU load while KeyShot is rendering; on the right, the drop off is shown, following the completion of the rendering.

Figure 4: Dual-core CPU usage during (left) and after a KeyShot rendering (right)

Because I did not need to stop and render images to see what they looked like meant that it was possible for me to set up scenes quickly, and that lengthy rendering times could be saved for batch processes or networked rendering. It also meant that setting up a scene was relatively simple. Certainly, there are more details available to power users, but novice users can create great renderings quickly simply by clicking around and selecting options.

The KeyShot Library

KeyShot comes with Material, Environment, Backplate and Texture libraries. Materials provide the appearance, environments provide the lighting, backplates provide the background and textures provide additional detail to a material, if desired. There are many options for each, and each can be applied by dragging and dropping into the scene or onto a part within a scene.

The power of lighting your scene resides in environments. Environments are complete images in a spherical shape that surround the model, and are made of HDR (High Dynamic Range) images that include the information needed to light the scene (figure 5). I could rotate the environment, change the height and size, and adjust the contrast and brightness to achieve the right lighting effect on my model.

Figure 5: Selecting an environment from the KeyShot library

KeyShot comes with a number of indoor and outdoor environments, as shown in figure 6 - just enough to get a feeling for their capability. The bulk of the environments are "Studio" environments that help with the lighting of product shots. Each mimics a physical photography studio (for large objects) or a light box (for small ones). These ensure imported models are the sole focus of the rendering. If the environment I need for my project is not included, then I found that I could import new HDRIs or else edit the environment with KeyShot's HDRI Editor (but found in the Pro version only). I found environments easy to apply and adjust, even with just the handful of selections provided.

Figure 6: Some of the studio environments available in KeyShot

Many CAD models use a range of materials and textures. Fortunately, the KeyShot Material Library covers all major material types. They are sorted by glossy, matte, and textured finishes for many popular types of metals and plastics; additional textures are found in a dedicated Textures tab. Everything from metals and plastics to light and liquid are available - I admit I was amused at the selection of liquids. (See figure 7.)

Figure 7: Choosing materials, in this case liquids

Along with preset materials, I had the option of assigning the Material Type from the Project, Material tab. One material in particular is special: the Advanced material allows adjustments for every parameter, making it possible for me to create unique materials should one of the pre-defined ones not be suitable to my needs. For instance, I selected one material (glossy, blue plastic) and then turned it into another material (rough, pink plastic) by making changes to the material settings. Changes can be saved to the Material Library for reuse.

With "over 700 materials" there are a lot of materials, folder, and subfolders to wade through. A search bar helped me find materials, but I found that folders in the KeyShot Library can be renamed and moved around (figure 8); if necessary, I could add and delete folders to save and display only the materials I usually work with.

Figure 8: KeyShot's folders for materials can be edited
Animations and VR

The KeyShot Web site shows that great product images are possible with KeyShot, but what about interactive visuals or animations? KeyShot Animation is a $500 add-on that includes an Animation Wizard with preset operations. Within 30 seconds of first launching the software, I was rendering a simple turntable animation. Additional animations can be applied to parts, copied, duplicated, mirrored, and adjusted along the Animation timeline.

The Animation Wizard stepped me through the creation of Part and Camera animations (figure 9). I could apply multiple animations to multiple parts, then adjust each one independently to do things like create exploded views. All animations can be played back and edited in real time, without the need of having to hit the render button first. It’s a simple way for an engineer to really impress the boss or marketing people, while at the same time avoiding the costly fees associated with outside rendering services.

Figure 9: Using the animation wizard in KeyShot

KeyShotVR is another add-on, available for $1,000. While double the price of the animation add-on, it would allow me to create interactive, touch-enabled, 3D visuals that can be viewed in a Web browser without a plug-in. I happened to click through the KeyShotVR wizard, and was delightfully surprised when I came back from getting a coffee to see an interactive eight-frame turntable display embedded into a Web page. Even without any materials applied, the KeyShotVR was a good way to see how lighting and shading enhanced the model that looks boxy and industrial in the CAD.

Rendering and Outputting

The Render window is intuitive for someone who understands the basics of digital images. Print Size is an available setting to ensure the final product will match the creative material specs, while DPI ensures the resolution of the rendering.

Figure 10: Specifying output parameters in the KeyShot render options

Quality gives me quick options to run a rendering based on the time I have to render, the sample I want to run, or complete custom settings. Queue is an important option that allows me to dump rendering jobs in a queue for processing at a later time. Region rendering allows me to select a small portion of the screen to test how a portion of the image will look without running the entire rendering. And Network Rendering is an additional features that allows anywhere from 32 to 256 cores to speed up the rendering process.

Pricing and Hardware

At $995 for a standard license ($1,995 for Pro, $95 for education), KeyShot is priced to be software for professionals, but can be easily justified by any department that already has a budget for physical models, photographs or needs imagery to support design work.

As with any high end software, the initial software purchase doesn’t preclude additional hardware cost. Hardware upgrades and training costs can be a factor of ROI (return on investment). Thankfully, KeyShot reduces that concern allowing me to use the same computer I use for other 3D software - with no requirement for any special graphics card or tweaks.

Luxion has made sure to address the changing OS landscape, providing both native PC and MAC versions - a strategy other design software companies would be wise to follow.


KeyShot’s uncomplicated interface and pre-defined settings deliver a powerful rendering package with a short learning curve. Considering the cost required to photograph physical models and to set up photo shoots, the investment in this software can be justified easily, especially as the end result can be superior to, and changed quicker than, other methods.

What’s I find great about KeyShot is that it’s software that can be used by engineers, with no training in digital art required. Knowing a few things about photography and composition helps, but with all the Material and Environment presets, the clear menus and workflow, making a stunning image is easy.

Overall, KeyShot is an easy-to-use rendering package capable of turning engineers into digital artists, and giving digital artists an easy way to create images of 3D data.

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About the Author

  Christopher McAndrew develops toys and children's' products. He holds a patent on technology from initial concept to production to market release. He has a mechanical engineering degree from Tulane University. Chris writes the 3D Engr blog. More...

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