5/1/2006 | 7 MINUTE READ

PDF Goes 3D

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Forget mailing paper documents. Forget emailing two-dimensional GIF, JPEG, and TIFF graphic images with explanatory notes in some word processed file. Now you can navigate through and manipulate 3D models in PDF documents.


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Acrobat 3D from Adobe Systems Inc. (San Jose, CA; www.adobe.com/acrobat3d) is the latest in that com-pany’s line of products for creating—and sharing—portable document format (PDF) documents from any application that prints. Acrobat 3D lets users create PDF documents directly from a variety of 3D CAD files. Then, from within those PDF documents, users can do things with that 3D image: rotate, pan, zoom; take cross sections; look inside; hide or isolate parts; make parts transparent; create animations and exploded views; edit the colors and lighting on the 3D model; and change or modify the texture and material properties of the parts that make up the model. Plus, when enabled by Acrobat 3D, reviewers can attach comments to specific objects in specific views of that solid model in the PDF. To view and manipulate these 3D images in a PDF document, reviewers need only upgrade to the latest version of the free Acrobat Reader (currently version 7.0.7).

These two products are the thrust of Adobe’s PDF strategy in manufacturing: “Help design professionals communicate design intent,” says Rak Bhalla, the Adobe senior marketing manager for Acrobat, “and enable other people within the product development process to consume that data.”

Acrobat 3D is aimed at two types of users. First, design engineers—people who often work in 3D, but send out 2D printouts and bitmaps of their work because those 2D forms are the lowest common denominator of communication. They could, of course, send the native CAD files. However, native CAD files are “heavyweight”—mega megabytes. Also, says Bhalla, the native CAD files “can be duplicated and copied. I lose control of my crown jewels if I send out the native files.” The other target: the people in technical publications, producers of service and maintenance manuals, marketing materials, and even web pages.


Basic features

The ability to produce 3D-oriented PDFs is in addition to what one already gets with Acrobat 7.0 Professional: create PDF documents from any application that prints, build intelligent forms, apply password security on PDF documents, digitally sign and certify those documents, package different application outputs into a single Adobe PDF document, organize comments from multiple reviewers, and create searchable PDF documents. “With Adobe Acrobat 3D, I get all of that stuff plus the neatness of doing all the 3D stuff,” says John MacKrell, senior consultant at CIM Data, Inc. (Ann Arbor, MI). Note that Acrobat 3D is a publishing tool more than anything else.

There are three ways to import 3D CAD files into Acrobat 3D: drag-and-drop the CAD file into the Acrobat 3D window; right-click the file and use context menu commands; or use the Print Screen button within the CAD program to activate the 3D Capture utility. (The latter method does not capture the parent/child hierarchy of parts; i.e., the model tree is flat.) Users can use the defaults to convert a 3D model image to PDF, customize that conversion, as well as create conversion rules/defaults (e.g., changing background colors, lighting, and rendering style, such as solid and wireframe).

In operation, the solids models are translated into U3D format, the U3D file is then embedded into the PDF document. U3D is merely a tessellated model of the data—“just a bag of triangles,” comments Chris Kelley, vice president of partner and platform marketing for UGS Corporation (www.ugs.com; Plano, TX). (Lots of U3D translators exist, so almost every CAD application can create a U3D file.) Tessellated views are great for displaying solids, but they’re not precise enough to directly measure from.


More features

Acrobat 3D also has specific CAD/engineering/collaboration features. For instance, there are built-in CAD filters for a variety of CAD file formats, including Autodesk AutoCAD and Inventor, Cadkey, Catia V4 and V5, IGES, Parasolid, PTC Pro/Engineer, Solid Edge, SolidWorks, Unigraphics I-DEAS and NX, and even Lattice XVL. Hence Bhalla’s comment: “Look at Daimler-Chrysler, Ford, General Motors; we basically support them right now with one technology, Acrobat 3D, and for viewing, the Adobe Reader. They don’t have to learn [a new application].” (Adobe Acrobat also supports digital content creation, audio file formats, and video formats. Points out Bhalla, “All the different file formats that Acrobat Professional supports automatically default to Acrobat 3D as well.”)

Acrobat 3D can automatically aggregate reviewers’ comments on multiple PDF files into one document. These comments are kept in context; they are attached and saved to a particular “view state,” or 3D display orientation. All the comments and associated views can be seen through the Managed Views window in Acrobat 3D. Each comment is named (the name of the “owner” of the comment) and time stamped.

Using the Distance tool, users can measure radius, angle, distance, and more by clicking at a starting point and again at an end point (or vertices to measure angles). Through a dialog box, users can change measuring units as well as track the cursor location. It should be noted that working in units of dots-per-inch off a computer display versus engineering units in a CAD system limits the accuracy of measurements to about 0.01 in.

The Adobe 3D Toolkit lets design engineers control the size of the documents by reducing the number of polygons in the tessellated (U3D) file. The toolkit also lets users invert surfaces and normals (helps when the model looks “inside-out” when imported), unify normals, remove small or internal parts, separate meshes, join equal points, and apply different colors to adjacent objects for easy identification. For tech pubs and the like, the toolkit lets users create high-quality vector illustrations and bitmaps, change and even create materials for individual objects in the 3D design, add or change lighting, create animations and exploded views.

Acrobat 3D offers two ways to create animations of exploded views. There’s the one-button, quick-and-dirty way. This lets Acrobat 3D make a guess at an exploded view. The suitability of the result is a judgment call. The other way, using a key-frame tool, is more detailed and manual. The user defines the time steps for the explosion as well as the location and orientation of individual parts at a specific time (a specific key frame). Acrobat 3D then fills in the motion of parts between key frames. (Users can use the key-frame tool for editing the results from the one-button approach.) The resulting animation can be included in the 3D PDF or saved as a video.

Acrobat 3D is available for Microsoft Windows 2000 SP2, Windows XP, and various flavors of Unix. Alas, not for Mac OS. Bhalla admits that there are no plans to make it available on the Mac—“at this time.” Acrobat 3D costs $995 a seat. Pricey, but not nearly as much as a CAD seat.

Fact is, not everybody needs the authoring tool—Acrobat 3D. Most people only need a viewer to see and manipulate 3D images. Thus, the free Adobe Reader is the key to Adobe’s product line. Everybody has it on their computer. There are now about 20 million licensed units of Acrobat running worldwide, and over 500 million copies of Adobe Reader have been distributed. These are conservative numbers.


The competition in viewers

Several CAD vendors have free, downloadable viewers for those people who don’t have the authoring CAD systems. For instance, Autodesk, Inc. (www.autodesk.com; San Francisco, CA) has DWF Viewer; SolidWorks Corporation (www.solidworks.com; Concord, MA) has eDrawings (www.edrawingsviewer.com), which displays more than just SolidWorks CAD files; and UGS has JT2Go (www.jt2go.com), which at last count will be used by about 30 vendors. These CAD vendors also have tools embedded in their CAD systems to “publish” their native CAD files into a lightweight format. Additional products, such as Autodesk’s DWF Composer ($199) and eDrawings Professional (generally between $1,000 and $1,300, plus about $300 or $500 annual license fee, all depending on native CAD support) add features such as redline/markup, the ability to create dynamic cross-sections, and so on. (Don’t forget, there are also file-viewing tools from Actify, Cimmetry Systems, Lattice3D, and Spicer Corporation, to name a few vendors.) These CAD tools have other features not found in Acrobat 3D-enabled PDFs, particularly the ability to view non-geometric data (such as author information, and mass and manufacturing properties) and to measure parts with manufacturing-required accuracy.

The overlap between Adobe Acrobat 3D and what the CAD vendors are offering has nuances. Says Jonathan Knowles, director of worldwide market development for Autodesk, “Both are built around self-contained files that support multiple pages, printing, and password protection. Both offer a free product for viewing and printing files, and a for-pay version for reviewing and markup. But [Autodesk is] focused on CAD workflow, offering a lingua franca to the CAD ecosystem, unlike Adobe, which comes right out of the publishing world. So they have issues around geometry recognition [and merging geometric data in a final output].”

Kelley agrees by pointing out that in choosing between PDF and, say, his company’s JT tools, customers should think about the workflow for the task at hand. “If you’re doing high-end visualization, virtual reality with the goggles and the gloves and everything else, that’s a JT thing. If you want to design in context, that is, actually use the geometry as reference to build new parts or to analyze, whether something as simple as tolerancing or measurement, all the way up to CAE, that’s another thing you’d want JT for. If however you want to create some technical documentation or a marketing piece, or to collaborate with a particular supplier you don’t know that well and who doesn’t have a lot of infrastructure, then PDF has value.”

In the world of design collaboration, concludes MacKrell, Acrobat 3D “is yet another way to expand the usage of 3D data through the whole population of people that are computer literate.” 


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