Exploring new frontiers for 3D models

The online product configurator found on Newark, Ohio-based Holophane's Web site—www.holophane.com—could turn you into a lighting-fixtures junkie. From a series of drop-down menus, you pick the desired design, post height, and finish type. Based on those choices, the site generates a 3D view of the assembly.
By Kenneth Wong, contributing editor April 1, 2008

The online product configurator found on Newark, Ohio-based Holophane ‘s Web site— www.holophane.com —could turn you into a lighting-fixtures junkie. From a series of drop-down menus, you pick the desired design, post height, and finish type. Based on those choices, the site generates a 3D view of the assembly. If you don’t like the result, you can go back and try another setup.

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 forward-thinking companies have been exploring downstream application of 3D data derived from original CAD models.

Cutting-edge catalogs

Holophane’s product configurator, named Envision, was developed by e-commerce specialist TechniCon . Reflecting on Holophane’s project, TechniCon CEO Mark Keenan remarks, “Using Autodesk Inventor and the Autodesk DWF viewer, we were able to incorporate some innovative 3D modeling technology.”

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

For another client—Indianapolis-based pneumatic automation supplier SMC Corp. —TechniCon developed a digital products 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, SolidWorks 3D PartStream.NET functions as the back-end CAD engine to TechniCon’s CustomCommerce platform. All the consumer needs to view a selection is a standard Web browser.

“We pass the configurator selections to 3D PartStream.NET to generate the 2D drawings and 3D models,” Fields explains. To drive its European and Japanese customers’ sites, TechniCon uses PartSolutions from CADENAS GmbH .

Says Fields, “More than two million dynamically generated CAD files have been downloaded from SMC’s site since it went live in 2001. More than 60,000 CAD models are downloaded each month, and more than 90 percent of the downloads result in a sale for SMC.”

To render the product models, TechniCon relies on visualization technologies from Lattice Technology ; the RealityServer platform from Mental Images ; and TechSoft 3D , provider of the 2D/3D development platform called HOOPS.

Lighting supplier Holophane’s product configurator, called Envision, lets buyers select the parts they want based on input parameters. Behind the scene, TechniCon’s
CustomCommerce platform generates lightweight models and downloadable specifications on the fly.

Logicom created the interactive boiler maintenance manual for British Gas 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 product life-cycle management (PLM) systems.

“The content found in the Logicom [training course] is excellent,” says Dave Kiely, technical training engineer for British Gas. “Not only is it technically accurate, but the live scenarios—involving testing components and analyzing the results—are exactly as they would be for a real boiler.”

Content creators wanted

Dassault Systemes , creator of the high-end CAD package CATIA, recently jumped on the 3D content creation bandwagon with the beta launch of 3DVIA, a brand powered by a lightweight XML format. The initiative is aimed at “democratizing the usage of 3D so that everyone can use it in everyday life through the Web,” the company declares.

Populated with downloadable 3D models, blog posts, and profiles of frequent contributors, the site resembles an online community. Though primarily targeted at nontechnical 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.

With release of Acrobat 3D Version 8, Adobe joined the 3D publishing crowd. 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 changed 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 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 with its own product Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire.

Using ParallelGraphics’ Cortona3D Know-How software, e-training provider Logicom created this interactive boiler maintenance manual for British Gas.

Eaton Corp., a Cleveland-based industrial manufacturer, is putting Acrobat 3D to good use by using 3D models in 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, an Eaton 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.”

Companies such as Right Hemisphere provide even richer functionality needed by manufacturers in this area. Its Deep Exploration CAD Edition publishes 3D PDF files generated from CAD models, along with part IDs, predefined viewpoints, and animation.

The digital commune

Boston-based Aberdeen Group says 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 are 33 percent more likely to incorporate 3D data in documentation deliverables. In fact, Holophane provides customers with DWG drawings and PDF spec sheets of its light fixtures, while SMC lets customers download CAD models in industry-standard 2D/3D formats.

Finally, note that Google ‘s 3D Warehouse ingests and spits out user-created content ranging from engines with flawed geometry to dimensionally accurate models of entire cities. Recognizing the commercial potential, Benton Harbor, Mich.-based Whirlpool uploads 3D models of its Energy Star appliances, hoping architects and designers might incorporate them in their plans.

In virtual worlds like Linden Lab ‘s Second Life, one can see digital counterparts from GM’s Pontiac division and for the Toyota Scion. The next generation of consumers likely will make buying decisions based on virtual prototypes, and e-commerce may well become 3D commerce.