3D PDFs: a revolution

CAD information is being democratised fast. Adobe’s business development manager Stephen Partridge talks about the new world

CAD information is being democratised fast. Adobe’s business development manager Stephen Partridge talks about the new world

Adobe Acrobat 3D v8 looks set to revolutionise collaborative engineering design and development even more than its predecessor v7, and that’s saying something. We’re looking at the spread of PDF power into extended CAD teams, then supply chains and production itself, as well as technical publications and marketing – with all the standard controls and universal look and feel that have long since been Acrobat’s hallmarks.
The company says it’s listened to its customers’ requirements, and hence this result, which represents significant improvements in three key areas. First is design information sharing: the system now enables individual contributors at their workstations to share CAD data with the rest of the project engineering team – including subcontractors working on their own parts and assemblies, or whatever – wherever they are and irrespective of their native CAD system.
Second is about easing global access to, and distribution of, 3D CAD models, even with detailed product manufacturing information (PMI) type data, typically stored in design shop repositories like PLM (product lifecycle management) systems. And third is the overall point of helping designers and management to reduce the cost of their developments, while simultaneously increasing pace and, significantly, also protecting their IP (intellectual property) – hugely important in a relatively open, collaborative environment.
Stephen Partridge, business development manager for Acrobat, believes this is a huge story for manufacturing industry. “Think about it: this system saves time and enables design collaboration in so many ways,” he enthuses. “You can now take a CAD file, with all the geometry data for CAD/CAM/CAE, right into a PDF. Then the rest of your community can use our free reader to do mark ups, take measurements etc – and get properly involved. And yet, the person distributing the CAD file always controls security, using all the usual Adobe features throughout, to whatever is the most appropriate level.”
Taking it from the top, the big deal for information sharing is that everything a design community needs for collaboration can now be contained in PDFs. Users can convert virtually any CAD file into a compressed, optimised PDF with all the PMI data. There’s support for Catia V5 R17, UGS NX4, Pro/E Wildfire 3, Ideas 12 and SolidWorks 2007, with the promise of regular updates. And note, compression is up to 150 times reduction on the native file (three times smaller than v7), while maintaining a high degree of accuracy – and that’s for assemblies up to 1Gb.
Designers can capture live CAD sessions to 3D PDF – and then share those securely with anyone using the free Adobe Reader. They can view, mark up, cross-section and measure 3D designs. They can also improve CAD data interoperability while cutting costs by converting CAD files to PDF with precise geometry and the assembly tree, and export to neutral file formats – STEP, IGES and Parasolid – for downstream use in CAD, CAM or CAE applications.
“So users can now interact with the model in many meaningful ways,” says Partridge. “It’s also a lot easier: for example, when cross sectioning they can isolate individual sections of an assembly while showing the rest of model as transparent for easier analysis, just as they’d expect in a professional viewer. And the measuring tool has been enhanced – it’s more intuitive and you can choose the measurement types and the kinds of objects you want to snap to, such as silhouettes.”
In a sense, much of that isn’t a whole lot different to using existing viewers. “Except that no-one else can let you take high density, complicated CAD assemblies and share them with 90% of the world’s desktops using a free Adobe Reader – whether they’re from Catia, SolidWorks, or whatever,” he says. “Also, when you receive a PDF model with a CAD model inside it, you don’t have to learn a new application interface. It’s just another PDF.”
Fair point. And he gives an example involving commenting and shared reviews: “In the past when reviewing a drawing, I would have to send a file and wait for them to send responses before bringing those together. Now, with the shared review I send a pointer to the file I want comments on and that stays on the shared space – rather like Microsoft SharePoint. Everyone can comment on the model at the same time, publishing their comments onto the central version. Everyone else can check for new comments and we can all see what’s being commented on immediately.
“That speeds up collaboration – and it also enables people in the virtual team to spring off each other. So the quality of the collaboration gets better. No-one has to work in isolation any more: effectively they’re working with colleagues and it becomes more like a living, breathing debate,” says Partridge.
The same technology also underpins Acrobat v8’s wider, cross-functional, cross-supply chain CAD data access and distribution facilities. OEMs can now, for example, send CAD data with the PMI to suppliers in PDF format to whatever level of compression and detail is required. The process is highly secure and they can create PDF packages that include data from multiple source files, including Microsoft Office documents, and again, also use the software for CAD file conversion. Suppliers can benefit similarly – for example, previewing and analysing designs from virtually any CAD format, bringing in STEP and IGES data for validation and harnessing PDFs for their own downstream work.
What’s the secret of Adobe’s interoperability and CAD data compression? Well file conversion is in Adobe’s blood, but Partridge explains that the CAD compression aspects of Acrobat v8’s new power come partly as a result of Adobe’s acquisition of Trade Technologies France. “When we bought them, we acquired a file format called PRC, which compacts geometry information and exports it in a neutral file format for use downstream for CAD, CAM or CAE,” he says. “For example, we turned a 60Mb SolidWorks assembly into a 329kb PDF model that included all the geometry.”
A couple of additional points worth noting: first, he explains that there are options here for tolerance and compression, enabling the user to set the level of detail from 0.001 micron to 0.1mm; and second, the PMI is optional. “You don’t have to include all the PMI; you can just go for a tessselation. You choose what you want to suit the purpose.”
Finally, what do the new 3D PDFs bring in terms of re-purposing CAD data? Well, there’s a lot more to this than using 3D models in PDFs to drive technical and marketing publications – although you can create exploded views, animations, lighting, texture, colours and so on, while also embedding 3D designs into Office documents. Beyond all that, fitters, engineers and technicians on the production floor, for example, can all gain from the shared information approach – again speeding development and improving production, while simultaneously cutting costs.
“In the past, engineers would have had to use jpg digital picture views, but now they can see real 3D models of what’s being designed, and interact with them,” says Partridge. “You still need the CAD application to create the content, but people wanting to look at the model downstream can now re-use the full geometry for production engineering, etc.”
So what’s the bottom line? You’re looking at a system that handles data conversion and viewing, effectively usurping the roles of some of the high-end CAD tools. “Adobe products can now be used wall-to-wall for collaboration in engineering design right through to production – and for marketing and providing the man machine interface on the production floor,” concludes Partridge.


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