In history, it is common to see old ideas that never quite took off go through a resurgence later, often becoming more popular on the scale of magnitudes. Just as Da Vinci’s helicopter took centuries to see the light of day, product configurators have been around for decades, but are now seeing a surge in popularity. As product configurator development shifts to custom software and enterprise-wide platforms, many new companies want to get in on the trend.
If you’ve heard of configurators and see them as a potential boost to your business, you’ll probably want to know more about their development costs, resources required, what makes them tick, etc. Luckily for you, we are diving deep into the topic and setting the record straight about the 3D product configurator.
What Exactly Does a 3D Product Configurator Do?
A 3D product configurator is a software solution that allows users to visualize a single product in many variations through the selection of interactive options. As you might expect, it features a 3D model of the product that changes with every customization made by the user. For example, a customizer for a couch can let the user pick the couch color, material, length, and additional features before they place an order for it or use the new design for another purpose.
What is Product Configuration Software Used for?
First and foremost, 3D configurator and product visualization software is associated with the sales process. This makes sense, as it is the most visible example that we encounter and the one companies choose most for their business (one study put the ratio at 60%). Adding to this, the benefits of product configurators are not trivial. However, there are a few other uses that can help your company both with external and internal processes:
eCommerce product configuration
Product configuration for prototyping & development
Product configurator for support
B2B sales product configurator
Product configuration for presentations and ads
Enterprise training configurator
3D product configurators in eCommerce become part of the sales process and personalize the shopping experience for customers. It is usually integrated into the product page or a product category page, depending on whether it features one product or a whole catalog of items. After selecting their customization, users are normally afforded the option to place an order.
One of the ways that companies engage customizers for internal purposes is as a development and prototyping tool. It can help them settle on a final design for a product and work out how it can function before building a full physical model. It may even be used as a digital twin to visualize performance indicators and test changes.
We focus a lot on the visual side of configurators, but shouldn’t forget that they are also a valuable source of information. Many are designed with helpful text descriptions for all customizations, and the overall information about this version of the product. Thus, many potential questions that come up during the shopping/order process can be addressed in the online 3D product configurator before they even come up.
As you probably know, many goods are impossible to produce without certain parts or components built by the partner of a company. There is rarely a consumer market for these specialty parts and machinery, so suppliers can easily use configurators to market their goods to other companies. For example, producers of tractor engines might use a web 3D product configurator to let customers measure how much space it will take up under the hood of their tractor, how much fuel it will consume, etc.
Customizers provide a smooth and totally unique way to showcase your product. Unlike traditional promotional videos, stills, or renders, this application will let you examine the item at your own pace, zoom and focus on the things that interest you, and pick unique combinations to match your personal style. In addition to this, footage of the configurator can easily be turned into animations and ads.
Sometimes, customizers are wrapped into a larger enterprise program – such as a training manual or simulation. When using the software, company employees can get better acquainted with how the item looks and works, as well as which variations the company sells. Furthermore, it can be used by technicians to practice repair and maintenance operations in different circumstances.
Let's talk development: Why we recommend using Unity
The modern developer has dozens of amazing tools to choose for building software, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. However, when it comes to configurators, many favor Unity over alternatives like Xamarin and Cordova. Why is that?
We can outline 4 reasons why Unity is one of the best choices for 3D configurator development:
Accessible cross-platform development
Unity supports development for up to 17 different platforms, making it easy to reuse code and launch your app simultaneously on mobile, web, and desktop if you prefer. While porting with this platform is relatively easy, it will require some changes from one platform to the next, especially for AR product configurators.
Full immersive support
Many companies prefer to add an immersive aspect to their customization solution, either targeting mobile devices, WebAR, or even headsets with MR/VR experiences. Unity (like Unreal) has versatile built-in support for AR, VR, and MR development. Thus, you can easily use Unity or Unreal for VR configurators.
Plenty of helpful tools
In addition to immersive tools and SDK support, Unity makes it really easy for developers to get started, with a broad variety of guides, integrations & plugins, and even a proprietary Forma tool for configurators.
Unity has convenient and flat rates for using its services. Pricing plans start at Free for a version with limited features and go up to paid plans ($399/year - $2000/month). The paid plans might be hefty to some, but are much thriftier for large projects than some alternatives (such as Unreal Engine).
Case Study – Unity Car Configurator
The Real-Time 3D Car Configurator built by Program-Ace is a wonderful example of a mid-scope solution suitable for business. We originally built this solution with PlayCanvas software, but eventually released a build with Unity and WebGL that we are quite happy with.
This application features a detail-rich 3D model of an SUV-type car, with plenty of menus on the top and left sides of the screen. The bottom of the app features information about the current configuration with the option to proceed with a purchase.
The project took several months to build, but ultimately provided users with dozens of great customization features and interactive options (like zoom, rotate, look inside). Though the configurator features a generic car model and is not yet integrated into any store, we consider it a successful prototype that we can draw experience from as we build custom solutions tailored to automobile brands and models.
How to Build a 3D Product Configurator – What It Takes
Now that we’ve covered the main tool you will be using during development (Unity, unless you choose another engine for development), it’s time to examine all the other things you will need for your project to kick off.
1. Top-notch modeling software
As the most impactful visual element, a lot of effort will go into the creation of a 3D model for your product. We suggest checking out tools like Maya, 3DS Max, Blender, and AutoCAD, and finding which of them suits your product category best.
2. Software development kits
SDKs will play an important role in delivering specific features to your application. For example, if you are developing a VR experience for Oculus, you should download the relevant plugin for Unity. For MR development, the MRTK SDK is recommended, and many other players in the VR industry provide their own tools.
It is true that you can build a project with just one developer, but you will have much better and faster results with a whole team. For example, our previously-mentioned Car Configurator involved 4 specialists – one project manager, one developer, and 2 designers. It is also recommended to add a QA engineer for quality review. You will also need to equip your team with relevant hardware and software.
OR, you could just hire a partner!
With a capable partner like Program-Ace, you won’t need to hire IT specialists to work at your company full-time or spend months learning the peculiarities of development. Our company can quickly provide the specialists you need and get to work on building your custom configurator.
With over 27 years of experience, Program-Ace has built hundreds of software solutions, and configurators are certainly one of our strengths. You choose the platform, features, etc. and we will make sure that it happens. We will even be glad to add immersion/immersive elements to your application if you choose it.
To get started and discuss cooperation on your project, just send us a message.