Getting Started with 3D PDFs

3D PDF has become an important piece in model-based definition (MBD) implementations. While some people may know this tool well, many still don’t. For example, once in an implementation meeting, an MBD leader planned to obtain the buy-in from key stakeholders, discuss the deployment process and establish new communication protocols, but ended up spending most of the time explaining 3D PDF. So I thought it would help to dive a bit deeper into 3D PDF to save you time in MBD rollouts.

Traditionally, 3D CAD data has been treated in a way similar to a black box. The reason is the data is often constructed in proprietary CAD formats or neutral formats that need special CAD licenses or viewers to read. This black box of data obviously imposes a communication barrier.

A machine shop shared with me its typical way of handling 3D CAD data. A salesperson interfaces with clients and gets 3D data in order to build quoting packages. However, he or she may not be able to read the data. Either the person doesn’t have the CAD licenses, which could be expensive, or a CAD viewer cannot be installed due to IT administration restrictions. Or the viewer may simply be out of date. As Casey Gorman with Sparton put it in a presentation that shared MBD implementation experiences, a CAD viewer may be free, but its ongoing IT maintenance is certainly not. Therefore, oftentimes, a salesperson has to pass along the 3D CAD data to an internal engineer and wait for the engineer to crack this black box with the right CAD tools and extract the requirements. Finally, the salesperson can put together quotes and reply to the clients. If this kind of back and forth communication seems slow, the delay can only get compounded when a salesperson travels all the time and can’t work side by side with an engineer in the office. In short, this 3D communication barrier increases the cost of doing business and prolongs cycle times.

Wouldn’t it be nice if this barrier could be lowered so that more job functions outside of engineers could consume 3D data? This is exactly the benefit of 3D PDF, or a PDF file embedded with 3D content. All we need to read a 3D PDF is a free Adobe Reader, which has been installed on 93 percent of Internet-connected computers globally. So when you send out a 3D PDF file to a sourcing manager, a salesperson or a supplier, most likely they have Adobe Reader installed on their computers already and can therefore open it right away to read the 3D data as shown in Figure 1 with no special viewers required. As explained in a previous article, “3D PDF Enhancements in SOLIDWORKS MBD 2016,” each of the viewports below supports pan, zoom and rotate of the model. It also includes a series of predefined views, 3D dimensions and tolerances, custom properties, bill of materials (BOM) tables, images and attachments. The 3D PDF communication saves not only the software costs, but also the deployment and IT administrative overhead.

Figure 1. A 3D PDF example.

Even better, there are free 3D PDF reader apps for Apple and Android mobile and tablet devices as shown in Figure 2. Now the salesperson on the road whom I mentioned earlier or other job functions who are not often at their computers can consume 3D data and extract key requirements conveniently.

Figure 2. 3D PDF readers on an iPhone and an iPad.

However, before you start jumping into 3D PDF, I’d like to share several reminders.

  1. The 3D PDF by SOLIDWORKS MBD works best in Adobe Reader on a desktop computer. There are many PDF readers that support 2D content well such as texts and images, but not necessarily 3D CAD data. Even the Chrome Internet browser can read PDF files today, but it disables the 3D content in a 3D PDF. This becomes especially frustrating when you click on a 3D PDF link inside Chrome. The browser will take precedence over Adobe Reader to open the file, but does not support 3D content at all as shown in Figure 3 where the 3D viewports are all blank. Many engineers have complained and doubted 3D PDF due to this misunderstanding.

Figure 3. Disabled 3D content in a 3D PDF in Chrome.

2. The first time you open a 3D PDF, Adobe Reader holds off the 3D content with a security control as shown in Figure 4. You can choose to trust this document one time only or always by clicking on the Options button on the right side of the yellow warning bar.

Figure 4. An Adobe Reader security control disabled the 3D content in a 3D PDF.

Or you may set the application preference as always Enable playing of 3D content as shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5. Enable playing of 3D content in Adobe Reader.

3. After Reader XI, Adobe released a new version, Reader DC, in April 2015. Both versions work well with 3D PDF. I just find the 3D product manufacturing information (PMI) selection became easier in Reader DC. For example, in Figure 6, the mouse cursor is clicking in the empty space inside the box of a basic dimension 20 mm in Reader XI, but it isn’t able to select this dimension. You have to click exactly on the numbers, letters, lines or curves to select them. In Figure 7, the same click at the same spot in the same 3D PDF using Reader DC has successfully selected the dimension and highlighted the corresponding hole features.

Figure 6. The PMI was not selected in Adobe Reader XI.

Figure 7. The PMI was selected successfully in Adobe Reader DC.

4. There used to be a 3D PDF technology based on the universal 3D (U3D) format, which has not been updated for almost 10 years. So please be careful with this dated format. The 3D PDF by SOLIDWORKS MBD is based on the latest ISO 14739-1: 2014 standard. It also complies with Long Term Archiving and Retrieval (LOTAR) requirements.

With these reminders, please feel free to download several 3D PDF samples published by SOLIDWORKS MBD at a forum post. To find out more details on the publishing steps, please follow this blog post, “How to Publish a 3D PDF with SOLIDWORKS MBD.” I hope this article can help you get started with 3D PDF. We will look into other key aspects such as views and PMI at a later time. To learn more about how the software can help you with your MBD implementations, please visit its product page.

About the Author

Oboe Wu is a SOLIDWORKS MBD product manager with 20 years of experience in engineering and software. He is an advocate of model-based enterprise (MBE) and smart manufacturing.  

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