Igniting the 3D documentation revolution – 3D PDF for the model based enterprise

Revolution? What revolution?

In 2005, Adobe® made a bold move by adding support for interactive 3D graphics within PDF files, including Acrobat® Reader®, which continues to this day. More importantly, Adobe acquired a file format that enabled 3D PDF to be adopted throughout the manufacturing industry. How that format has ignited a revolution in 3D documentation is the topic of this post.

Note: This blog post is taken from a presentation given by the author at the Tech Soft 3D HOOPS Summit Europe and HOOPS Summit North America.

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Model Based Definition (MBD) is happening, whether we like it or not.

There is an initiative taking hold within manufacturing called Model Based Definition, or MBD for short. The simplest definition of MBD is that the 3D model of a component or assembly is fully annotated, with properly defined and constrained product manufacturing information, including geometric dimensioning and tolerancing (GD&T). Often the stated goals of MBD is to eliminate drawings, enable direct-to-machine manufacturing, or both. But more than half of several hundred companies, sampled across size, industry and geography, polled confirmed that they are implementing MBD to solve a more immediate and real problem, and are already seeing results.

Engineering documentation in manufacturing notoriously introduces a substantial amount of non-value added cost to product development because of errors, ambiguity, or incompleteness. According to the same study, over 15% of engineering time is spent answering questions as a result – time that is stealing the capacity for innovation from the bottom line.

Solid modeling took a long time to reach the point where it is today – no one would think of starting a design project without it. In the early years, it was a competitive advantage; today NOT using it is a competitive disadvantage. Expect the same for MBD.

Leverage MBD through the Model Based Enterprise (MBE)

Several years ago, the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) teamed with the U.S. Department of Defense to establish a website for the Model Based Enterprise, or MBE, which is defined most simply as leveraging the MBD of a component or assembly downstream of engineering. Typical workflows for MBE involve quote or proposal requests, first article inspections, maintenance/repair/operations, manufacturing engineering, and more. Much like PLM, MBE is a continuum or evolution of activity where one is constantly improving how things get done.

The people most affected by the documentation problems mentioned in the workflows above are the recipients. Just as the engineer wastes time answering clarification questions, the recipients are wasting resources as well, and often of considerably more value. The study I referenced has close to 60% of recipients requesting clarification. But beyond that, downstream workflows can require re-modeling parts or assemblies to clarify design intent – or worse yet, scrapping expensive materials when it’s misinterpreted.

Clearly something needs to change.

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Engineering data and 3D PDF

While 3D PDF has other purposes beyond your MBE strategy, you simply cannot accomplish MBE without it. Although it is possible to clearly communicate design intent through an MBD dataset using web technologies, it’s usually insufficient or impractical as a sole technology platform. No manufacturing company is that vertically integrated anymore. Portals that can serve internal audiences are relatively straightforward, but websites that can authenticate external users are difficult to set up and administer over time. Furthermore, you cannot archive a website, use it for regulatory or compliance satisfaction, or provide information to external suppliers or customers where bandwidth availability and security are an issue. Put another way – documents will be with us for a very long time.

So what makes 3D PDF such a good fit for communicating design intent? Primarily four things:

  • 3D PDFs are still PDFs – they simply contain 3D data much the same way a 2D PDF can contain images, videos, or audio.
  • The Product Representation Compact (PRC) format that is part of the PDF ISO standard can completely represent 100% of MBD data, including PMI and GD&T.
  • Every company knows how to manage PDF files, whether on a network drive, or through a full content management or PLM system. Since 3D PDFs are just normal PDFs, there is no infrastructure concerns on implementation.
  • Adobe Acrobat Reader is ubiquitous so there are no barriers to the recipient consuming the data.

But there are two additional elements that make 3D PDFs so much more valuable than 2D drawings. PDF files support interactivity between the 3D data, and non-3D data contained within the PDF file. For instance, a set of instructions for disassembly, service, and reassembly in text or audio form can interactively connect to specific views or data. A table of data from an ERP or MES system can similarly reference and cross highlight to the product structure and the 3D objects in the scene. The ways to create a rich user experience are virtually unlimited. Some have even described this as an “app-like” experience since PDF can collect data from the recipient(s) and then return the information for workflows such as order processing. This is all standard stuff for a PDF-based solution.

So why aren’t there more “rich” 3D PDFs?

Here at Tech Soft 3D we have unique visibility into the market. The team responsible for developing the PRC format is part of our organization, thanks to our relationship with Adobe. Dozens of companies license toolkits produced by that team to create 3D PDFs. We have sold over 10,000 licenses of an Acrobat Pro plugin that converts 22 forms of CAD data into a 3D PDF. We have visibility into tens of thousands of authoring seats and tens of millions of 3D PDFs in circulation (one company has a repository of over five million). Yet in that growing market, we see 3D PDFs that are more than “3D on a page,” and present the consumer with a rich, interactive, experience.

The reason we don’t see more ‘rich’ PDFs turns out to be straightforward. To develop that kind of interactivity with 3D data inside of a PDF file used to require JavaScript programming skills. This is not a skill set normally found within engineering or other organizations that create the documentation of design intent.

That makes it hard. Or it did, until now.

Introducing Tetra4D Enrich

On December 2, 2015 we announced a new Acrobat Pro plugin called Tetra4D® Enrich, which joins Tetra4D Converter as the second tool in the Tetra4D product line. Tetra4D Enrich allows the user to create interactive 3D PDF documents with nothing more than mouse clicks, menu picks, and drag and drop actions. No programming required. Buttons, custom actions, and reading in XML data files are all part of the capabilities of Tetra4D Enrich to, well, enrich your PDF experience. Learn more about Tetra4D Enrich and its role in the 3D documentation revolution.

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