I have spent many years of my life in studios where characters are modeled in a package other than Maya (often Max) and imported into Maya via FBX. Having worked along side great character artists like Hanno Hagedorn, Abdenour Bachir, and most recently Kevin Lanning and his team here at Epic, I cannot tell you how many hours of our lives were devoted to trying to get mesh tangents into the final product that resembled what they were in the original sculpt/bake. Not to mention brilliant pipeline programmers like Bogdan Coroi, or James Goulding‘s team here at Epic, many hours have been spent trying to solve this issue.
Sometimes it seemed some mystical channeling whereby some constellation of export or import checkboxes along with maybe layering an edit mesh modifier on top of your character before export to Maya worked. Sometimes the solution seemed to have been exporting only triangulated meshes to Maya, whereby you needed a (fragile) pipeline to allow you to have quaded for skinning and triangulated from Max for export.
Well, as it turns out, Maya has always ignored all mesh tangent data on FBX import.
I hope this post saves you some headache. At Crytek we looked to change the pipeline to store all normal maps in world space, another, more pragmatic solution, proposed by Jeremy Ernst here at Epic is to give the engine the static mesh from Max and the skinned mesh from Maya and just transfer the original data. Scott Parrish told me that his team bakes against the skinned FBX as it comes out of UE4, this is another way of solving the issue.
I also understand this is not a simple issue, all DCC packages work differently. Max allows users to turn edges, etc.. But it’s good to know that we’re also not crazy.