Lightweight formats unlock 3D design intent

Making design data count where it really matters—during downstream, customer-facing processes—is easier these days at Indak Manufacturing Corp., says John Clauson, CAD/drafting manager. That's because Indak uses 3D collaboration tools that allow sales staff and customers to view and manipulate rich design data.
By Roberto Michel, senior contributing editor June 1, 2008

Making design data count where it really matters—during downstream, customer-facing processes—is easier these days at Indak Manufacturing Corp. , says John Clauson, CAD/drafting manager. That’s because Indak uses 3D collaboration tools that allow sales staff and customers to view and manipulate rich design data.

Northbrook, Ill.-based Indak makes electronic components such as switches and resistors used by automotive and outdoor equipment manufacturers. Many of these components are customized to meet a particular need, which involves close communication between Indak’s salespeople and customers. Before adopting the Acrobat 3D solution from Adobe Systems , this procedure was cumbersome, says Clauson.

Indak uses the NX 3D mechanical CAD package from Siemens PLM Software . Prior to using Acrobat 3D, if a design started with a customer’s CAD file created in some other program, Clauson would first have to translate the file into NX.

To simplify communication for the sales team, Clauson would generate screen captures or JPEG images, and embed those in a Microsoft Word or Publisher document, and include select information such as measurements.

“This was a time-consuming and tedious process, and of course, limited, because I selected which views to show,” says Clauson.

Acrobat 3D, he adds, offers an authoring environment and some underlying data formats to embed a lightweight 3D view of a design along with corresponding data into a PDF document that can be opened and manipulated by nonengineers using Adobe Reader.

“I just make a PDF, send it to whoever is interested, and they can measure it and do cross sections—all within the free Adobe Reader,” he says. “There is no intimidation whatsoever. They just see this as another facet of what Reader can do.”

Adobe is just one of several vendors working hard to improve technologies for collaboration around 3D CAD data. These formats—combined with viewer and authoring software—are making it easier for manufacturers to collaborate.

“The ability to publish data out to people is highly simplified through these viewing formats,” says John MacKrell, an analyst with Ann Arbor, Mich.-based CIMdata , which tracks CAD and product life-cycle management (PLM) trends.

There are two key reasons why these technologies help, says MacKrell. First, they allow non-CAD users to access design data without having to license the powerful CAD packages on the market. Second, the formats typically can compress native CAD files by one-tenth to up to one-one hundredth in size. “You reduce the file size to move around rather dramatically without an adverse visual impact on the data,” he says.

But the lightweight format trend carries some complexities. For one thing, there are many formats from different vendors and groups, and not all have the same features, so there can be confusion in picking the right set of technologies.

“There are multiple factors to consider, such as whom you are going to be sharing data with, and how you want to allow people outside or within your organization to use the data,” says MacKrell. “The answers to these types of questions drive you to a format/tool combination.”

The value proposition

Indak uses Acrobat 3D in a couple of key ways, says Clauson. On the front end of the process, CAD translators in Acrobat 3D allow Clauson to open up files from multiple CAD packages used by partners. Before using the Adobe solution, simply getting design data into NX took extra time, says Clauson, even if a partner could supply data using the Standard for the Exchange of Product Model Data (STEP).

But the real benefit of using Acrobat 3D, says Clauson, is having the 3D visualization inside of a PDF document so it can be worked with easily by nonengineers. Clauson considered other format and viewer technologies before going with Acrobat 3D, but says the fact that Adobe Reader is not considered specialized software played in its favor.

Use of Acrobat 3D helped Indak shave 15 percent from its design review cycle times by speeding up communication with customers versus previous processes relying on static documents.

“There is a lot less questioning and follow-up on our side,” says Clauson. “It’s just an incredible communications tool.”

Manufacturers gain value from lightweight CAD data visualization in myriad ways, says Bill Barnes, general manager with Lattice Technology , which offers 3D collaboration solutions based on its XVL format. Barnes says high-value areas include collaboration with component suppliers, and internally, electronic training manuals, as well as 3D assembly instructions.

For engineering-intensive collaboration such as working with suppliers, a format should be capable of high fidelity. Barnes says XVL supports this fidelity, ensuring accuracy down to .001 of a millimeter, and with compression rates of up to 1/250. This level of accuracy is said to be useful when engineers need to collaborate on gap or clash detection between components.

Barnes concedes, however, that some companies will use more than one format, perhaps using XVL for some purposes, but PDF for others. In fact, he says, Lattice is collaborating with Adobe so end users can pair XVL with PDF and Adobe’s digital rights management solution.

“Two or three years ago, all the vendors were saying their technology should be used exclusively,” says Barnes. “Today there is realization that some formats and technologies may be more suitable to one application over another.”

Many choices

MacKrell agrees that heavier-duty engineering collaborations add more requirements. The format may need a certain level of accuracy, but certain features as well—such as the ability to pull assemblies apart, and pull them back together.

“You need to consider the viewer, and whether it supports what you need to be able do,” says MacKrell. “For instance, you may need to explode the assembly view, animate the data in some way, or link it to text in a certain way.”

The most widely used formats, says MacKrell, include JT, originated by Siemens PLM Software as guided by the JT Open organization. Autodesk ‘s formats for visualization and data exchange can boast extremely wide use, notes MacKrell, while Adobe’s technology is picking up steam thanks to the ubiquity of PDF and Reader.

The appeal of 3D PDF goes beyond ease of access, says Rak Bhalla, senior marketing manager for manufacturing in Adobe’s Business Productivity Unit. Improvements in Acrobat 3D Version 8 boost its data compression and translation capabilities, thanks to technology Adobe acquired in April 2006 when it bought Trade & Technology France (TTF).

The acquisition brought Adobe control over PRC, a high-fidelity, high-compression format leveraged by Acrobat 3D. PRC can compress a 150-megabyte file down to one megabyte, and it has translation capabilities for many 3D CAD packages.

With both PRC and the Universal 3D (U3D) formats now used within Acrobat 3D, the solution is adept at both collaborations that don’t require high fidelity—e.g., creating marketing literature—as well as tasks that call for more detail, such as translating data for design tooling.

“There are different scenarios that need to be supported,” says Bhalla. “Within some scenarios, the need for very exact data is less important. The overwhelming interest that we see is in the need to protect a company’s intellectual property.”

Besides Adobe, other design collaboration vendors also leverage PDF. For example, Right Hemisphere’s product collaboration solutions publish 3DPDF files.

Varying compartments

The JT format also is adept at multiple types of collaboration, says Chris Kelley, a VP with Siemens PLM Software. “There are different containers with the specification for various purposes,” Kelley says. “You can have a container for lightweight collaboration, such as marketing purposes, and we have another compartment with very precise information that can be used for CAD data interchange or downstream processes like computer-aided manufacturing.”

Kelley agrees it’s important to examine collaboration scenarios and requirements before deciding on the most suitable format, and says another factor to consider is industry uptake.

According to Siemens, JT has this widespread acceptance. Membership in the JT Open program is about 100 companies and universities, including some other major CAD vendors. Siemens believes there are about five million licensed seats of JT-enabled applications installed worldwide.

In addition to collaborating with customers, lightweight, ultra-compressed data formats hold numerous uses as part of manufacturability concerns.

But specialized capabilities remain drivers. For example, says MacKrell, the Autovue CAD viewer developed by Cimmetry—now part of Oracle Corp. ‘s PLM products via its Agile acquisition—is adept at viewing electronic CAD (eCAD) data, not just mCAD. And Lattice’s Barnes says XVL excels at compressing and viewing extremely large assemblies.

Formats abound from diverse vendor types. For example, JustSystems ‘ “xfy” is an XML-based format that renders XML as scalable vector graphic (SVG) images, but its larger focus is using XML to maintain persistent links to data in back-end systems.

Jake Sorofman, a senior VP with JustSystems, says xfy can be used to create live documents that combine data from different sources for purposes such as maintenance, repair, and overhaul.

Microsoft Corp. also is a player with its eXtensible Application Markup Language (XAML), which can be leveraged to generate 3D objects that can be rotated and manipulated within Windows Presentation Foundation. CAD vendor Dassault Systemes is working with Microsoft to align Dassault’s 3D XML format with XAML.

While this diversity can be intimidating, it’s less so if potential users circle back to the reasons why they want to collaborate, and map any requirements to appropriate formats and supporting tools. The good news is these technologies are more advanced than ever.

“We haven’t even really scratched the surface on the value yet,” MacKrell says. “People are still discovering how to use these technologies.”

At a glance: Formats for downstream design data sharing

.3D : A format from Actify used in its 3D/2D design data collaboration solutions.

3D XML : Backed by CAD vendor Dassault Systemes , 3D XML is a lightweight XML-based format. It allows any software program to read, write, and enrich 3D XML content using standard tools. 3D XML leverages and extends Lattice Technology ‘s XVL format, though the formats have evolved since the initial extension.

Design Web Format (DWF) : Developed by CAD vendor Autodesk , DWF enables efficient downstream collaboration around design data. DWF files are highly compressed and can be viewed with Autodesk’s Design Review software. Autodesk also has other formats, such as DWG (“drawing”), the core file format for AutoCAD and AutoCAD-based products.

JT : This format enjoys widespread use in the automobile and aerospace industries. It can be very lightweight, holding little more than facet data; or it can be richer and hold associations to the original CAD information, assemblies, product structure, geometry, attributes, metadata, and product manufacturing information. Originally developed by UGS (now Siemens PLM Software ), JT is guided by members of the JT Open program.

U3D : Universal 3D (U3D) is an open and extensible format for sharing and visualization of 3D data in nonengineering applications. Developed with support from Intel and collaboration with Ecma International, an industry standards group, as well as the 3D Industry Forum (3DIF), U3D is supported by vendors including Adobe Systems .

XAML : Thought not strictly a 3D viewing format, Extensible Application Markup Language (XAML) can be tapped to render rich 3D graphics that can manipulated within a user interface—especially within newer Windows platforms.