Exploring new dimensions: Manufacturers finding many practical uses for 3D CAD models

Interactive product manuals developed by Logicom might bring out the handyman in you. In the repair manual for a boiler, the program guides you through the intricate wirework and mechanical layouts of the device in animated steps, visually directing you to the critical springs and control panels. This is just one example of the practical uses some forward-thinking manufacturers are finding for 3D CAD data. 
By Kenneth Wong, contributing editor February 22, 2008

Whether you actually are buying a lamp or not, the online product configurator at lighting-solution provider Holophane ’s Web site could turn you into a fan of light fixtures. From a series of dropdown menus, you pick the desired design, post height, and finish type. Based on those choices, the site generates a 3D view of the assembly on the fly. If you don’t like the result, you can go back and try another setup. The possible combinations are limitless.

Similarly, interactive product manuals developed by Logicom might bring out the handyman in you. In the repair manual for a boiler, the program guides you through the intricate wirework and mechanical layouts of the device in animated steps, visually directing you to the critical springs and control panels.

These are but two examples of how some forward-thinking manufacturers are using 3D data derived from original CAD models in nonengineering settings. In this article, we explore some of the trends and facilitating technologies involved.

Cutting-Edge catalogs and manuals
Holophane’s product configurator, named Envision, was developed by TechniCon , a firm that specializes in e-commerce solutions. Reflecting on Holophane’s project, Mark Keenan, CEO of TechniCon, remarks, “Using Autodesk Inventor and the Autodesk DWF viewer, we were able to incorporate some very innovative 3D modeling technology on this project.”

Howard Fields, TechniCon’s marketing manager, clarifies, “At that time of the project, Holophane was using [ PTC ’s] Pro/ENGINEER for indoor products and AutoCAD Mechanical Desktop for their outdoor products. We used a CAD service to convert the 2D AutoCAD files to Inventor models.”

For another client, SMC Corp ., TechniCon developed a digital pneumatic product builder. Now linked to SMC’s home page, the application lets customers specify products, validate part numbers, calculate dimensions, and select a suitable item.

Behind the scenes, 3D PartStream.NET, a technology from SolidWorks , functions as the backend CAD engine to TechniCon’s CustomCommerce platform. All the consumer needs to view their selection is a standard Web browser.

According to Fields, “More than two million dynamically-generated CAD files have been downloaded from the SMC’s site since it went live in 2001. More than

To render the product models, TechniCon relies on visualization technology from various vendors, including:
Lattice Technology , credited with facilitating 3D publishing via XVL;
Mental Images , known for the RealityServer platform; and
TechSoft 3D , makers of the 2D/3D development platform HOOPS.
E-training provider Logicom created the interactive boiler maintenance manual for British Gas —one of its biggest clients—using ParallelGraphics ’ Cortona3D Visual Know-How software, part of the Cortona3D Rapid Products family. The suite comprises modules for combining CAD data with procedural information from the client’s ERP and PLM systems. Airbus , Oracle , BMW , Ford , Boeing , and NASA are among other companies that have benefited from interactive animated 3D support materials created with Cortona3D software.

According to Majid Al-Kader, Logicom’s new media director, “When Logicom began assisting British Gas, most training was in the classroom, paper-based, with little simulation. Today nearly all is computer-based training.”

Dave Kiely, technical training engineer for British Gas praised Logicom’s work. The content of this course is excellent,” he said.

Content creators wanted
Dassault Systemes , creators of the high-end CAD package CATIA, recently jumped into the 3D content creation field with the beta launch of 3DVIA, a brand powered by a lightweight XML format. The new initiative is aimed at “democratizing the use of 3D so that everybody can use it in its everyday life, either at work or at home, through the Web,” the company declares.

A good view: Right Hemisphere allows CAD users CAD

Populated with downloadable 3D models, blog posts, and profiles of frequent contributors, the 3DIVA site resembles an online community. Though primarily targeted at non-technical users, 3DVIA also offers professional–level applications, such as 3DVIA Live, for browsing the content of PLM repositories; 3DVIA Printscreen, for creating and saving 3D scenes; Suppliersource, for identifying, rating, and selecting part suppliers; 3D Content Central, for locating free CAD models of supplier-certified parts; and 3DVIA Composer, for generating interactive 2D/3D technical illustrations from CAD files. 
Dassault anticipates customers will use 3DVIA to develop online games, virtual showrooms, and content for virtual worlds like Second Life. Some of the most ambitious examples found at the 3DIVA
Adobe Systems has joined the 3D publishing crowd with release of Acrobat 3D Version 8. Almost all leading CAD packages provide a way to export models as PDF documents so CAD users can share their designs with colleagues and partners who do not own the CAD software. But in these exchanges, the document used was usually a static PDF file that could not be marked up or annotated by those using only the free Adobe Reader. Acrobat 3D changes this by enabling 3D viewing and markup in the ubiquitous PDF format, even by those using Adobe Reader.
With transparency control, animation features, STEP/IGES export, and exploded views, 3D PDF is quickly becoming the preferred collaboration medium among many manufacturers and suppliers. Those who are worried about safeguarding their intellectual property (IP) can deploy Adobe’s digital rights management tools to restrict the degree and length of exposure and the type of editing allowed to each recipient. PTC is among the first CAD vendors to integrate this feature into its own product Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire.
Eaton Corporation , a power-management systems provider, is putting Acrobat 3D to use by integrating 3D models into its maintenance manuals. “No matter how much detail we provide on printed pages, we cannot come close to the immediacy of designs in 3D,” explains Sherman Ferguson, Eaton’s technical writer. “With Acrobat 3D Version 8, we can easily convert Pro/ENGINEER 3D designs to Adobe PDF files that customer service engineers can view reliably with free Adobe Reader software . . . The 3D models in Adobe PDF are excellent for training, offering customer service engineers a firsthand look at components that they might not have seen in the field.”
Before Adobe entered the CAD-publishing business, companies such as Right Hemisphere filled this gap. Deep Exploration CAD Edition, a product from Right Hemisphere, publishes 3D PDF files generated from CAD models, along with part IDs, predefined viewpoints, and animation.
The Digital commune
According to the analyst firm Aberdeen Group , “best-in-class companies are 40 percent more likely than industry average companies to validate the desired product with customers using 3D design data, and 33 percent more likely than industry average companies to incorporate 3D data into their documentation deliverables.”
Finally, manufacturers should note that, with seemingly unlimited capacity, Google’s 3D Warehouse ingests and spits out user-created content ranging from amateurish crankshafts and engines with flawed geometry to dimensionally accurate models of entire cities. Recognizing the commercial potential, some companies like Whirlpool have uploaded 3D models of its Energy Star appliances to the Google 3D warehouse, hoping architects and designers might incorporate them into their plans.
In virtual worlds like Linden Lab’s Second Life , digital counterparts of real-world products, including vehicles from GM’s Pontiac division and Toyota’s Scion , are available for purchase for those with disposal income (both in Linden dollars and in real-world currency). The next generation of consumers will probably have no qualms about making buying decisions based on virtual prototypes. In the near future, e-commerce may very well become 3D commerce.

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