General Software

3D Format Frenzy

15 Dec, 2004 By: Ron LaFon

Options for publishing 3D models


Although the basic premise behind all of the applications included in this article is essentially the same—providing a way to publish 3D data—the approaches vary tremendously, showing the diversity and vigor in this particular segment of the software market. This is a survey article, not a nuts-and-bolts comparison of one application to another. The primary intent is to provide an overview of applications on the market, along with a table (online at www.cadalyst.com) that shows basic features without going into profound depth on individual feature sets.

Uses for these products range from sending a client a 3D model of an in-progress product design for markup and feedback to training to creating online catalogs of parts. These seven applications include both free applications, such as ModelPress from Informative Graphics, and multifaceted enterprise-level applications such as the family of products from Lattice3D. Typically, each application has at least two software parts, one for generating the 3D content and another for viewing it. Products such as Lattice3D are more modular, with components available for adding animation to a model and applying the 3D data to a template for Web site production, complete with a parts list. Some vendors also offer server-based components for handling models and offer features beyond the basics.

HOW WE TESTED

To test the applications, we selected model files that represent production work that Cadalyst readers might deal with on a daily basis. The selected files were all moderately complex, although not so much so that they would bring the most powerful workstation to its knees. Tests were carried out on a system based on an AMD Opteron 246 microprocessor with 2GB of RAM and dual 120GB hard drives in a RAID configuration. The workstation included an NVIDIA Quadro FX 4000 graphics card with 256MB of onboard RAM. The driver used for the FX 4000 was v6.14.10.6590, the latest available from NVIDIA at the time testing began. The test system ran Microsoft Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2.
 Overview
Overview

As for the test files themselves, we used two DWG files from Autodesk for this project. An architectural model, Hotel Model, includes a 3D model and a presentation view. Representing mechanical design is Welding Fixture Model. Each drawing is just over 2MB in size, and both ship with AutoCAD 2005.

We also used two moderately complex SolidWorks 2005 assemblies. One assembly, from NOAO in Tucson, Arizona, has about 75 parts and two configurations—an exploded view and a built-in animation. The assorted files for this assembly total 11MB in size. The second SolidWorks assembly, a Sea Scooter, measures about 64.9MB and includes a large subassembly. SolidWorks provided us with this assembly for testing purposes.

Our original plan was to test one AutoCAD drawing and one SolidWorks assembly and convert them to whatever the base format of the individual applications happened to be, recording the speed of conversion and the size of the resulting file. It quickly became apparent that many applications had problems opening one or more of the test files, much less converting them, so we elected to test the two AutoCAD drawings and two SolidWorks assemblies with each application to increase our chances of some success. Some of the compatibility issues arose because support for SolidWorks 2005 is not yet incorporated into applications that otherwise might reasonably be expected to open such files. As work on this review progressed, more vendors were able to provide beta versions that supported SolidWorks 2005.

Because this is not a head-to-head comparison of one application with another, we don't include a report card comparing features and performance. With such a wide range of applications, to do so would certainly be comparing apples to oranges. As noted earlier, our intent is to survey the range of applications available for publishing 3D content, rather than compare the features available in each application. It was not our intention to run applications through the gantlet, though it seems to have turned out that way. Testing was also complicated to a degree by prerelease beta versions of some applications that, in at least one instance, failed to convert some of our test files. This was resolved by a later build of the software.

Because Autodesk doesn't make its drawing file format specifications available to third-party vendors, problems with entities in newer versions of AutoCAD are likely to become more prevalent, though this is the first time we've ever encountered anything this problematic.

We decided not to include Autodesk DWF Composer in this review. Though the latest version of that format does support 3D content, that support is provided only for Autodesk Inventor. Instead, we selected applications that work with a broader range of CAD products. We also highlight new technologies from Hewlett-Packard and Adobe, both of which are close to release as we go to press.

There are some innovative and interesting applications here. Most have demo versions available to help you establish suitability for your particular needs and determine compatibility with the CAD applications used in your organization. Our testing woes underline the importance of compatibility testing prior to purchase.

With the range of applications covered, there's enough variety in cost and flexibility to bring the benefits of 3D publishing to almost any CAD or engineering firm.

Spinfire Pro 2004 v2

Actify

Price: $499, specific CAD importers $99-$599

415.227.3800

www.actify.com

Actify's SpinFire Professional 2004 v2 is designed to make CAD data more easily accessible to both technical and nontechnical users, providing visualization capabilities without requiring an expensive CAD system. New features in SpinFire Professional 2004 enable access, communication, and distribution of multiple CAD formats throughout the enterprise.

Actify SpinFire 2004 Professional displays a 3D model for viewing and redlining operations.
Actify SpinFire 2004 Professional displays a 3D model for viewing and redlining operations.

SpinFire Professional 2004 v2 accepts files created in major CAD file formats and converts them into its 3D format, a compressed and secure CAD visualization file format. By doing so, users in the manufacturing industries and their supply chains can view, measure, mark up, and share all major 2D and 3D data formats without purchasing and maintaining seats of a native CAD system.

Security is accommodated via Actify's Server product, with password protection and sharing across firewalls. .3D WorkSpace lets users compile multiple 2D, 3D, Microsoft Office, and PDF documents into a single .3D compacted file. CAD data is protected in 3D format and can't be reloaded into a CAD system or reverse-engineered.

Though SpinFire Professional 2004 v2 supports AutoCAD 2005, SolidWorks 2005 support was not yet incorporated in the prerelease version of the software we received. It should be supported by the time this article is published. Because we could not do the full testing with the software we had, we asked Actify to test with a later, in-house version of SpinFire Professional.

Spinfire converted the 11MB Explode Assembly to a 296KB 3D file in 8 seconds, and the 65MB SeaScooter to 2.7MB in 42 seconds. Both SolidWorks 2005 assemblies were converted to the SolidWorks 2004 format first for testing purposes.

Actify notes that the AutoCAD test drawings are atypical of its primary target, mechanical design. SpinFire doesn't currently support nonrectangular viewports in AutoCAD layouts—the Hotel Model drawing has a circular viewport. SpinFire imported the model successfully, but the layout was not usable and the file was very large, slowing system performance substantially. To run our test, we removed the layouts (in AutoCAD), so the sizes and timings of the AutoCAD conversions are for files with the layouts removed. Actify's AutoCAD importer is optimized for 2D AutoCAD; its AutoCAD 3D import is reliable but slow, and there are limitations when such files contain layouts of the shaded 3D data.

That said, the 2.1MB Hotel Model DWG with no layout converted to a 1.5MB 3D file in 5 minutes, 10 seconds, and the 2.3MB Welding Fixture Model with no layout converted to a 1.5MB 3D file in 55 seconds. SpinFire handles Mechanical Desktop 3D data using a specialized library and so such models shouldn't experience the limitations that the architectural model did.

Testing was conducted on two systems, a 1GHz Pentium III with 256MB of RAM and, for the Hotel Model drawing without the layout, a 1.5GHz Pentium 4 system with 786MB of RAM.

ModelPress

Informative Graphics Corp.

Price: Free

800.398.7005 / 602.971.6061

www.infograph.com

During the course of producing this article, Informative Graphics Corp. released v4.3 of its ModelPress software. ModelPress and its associated viewer are both free of charge. Free should not, in this instance, be equated with a hobbled or limited application. ModelPress Publisher processes a variety of popular 3D CAD file formats, from which it creates a system-neutral, content-sealed 3DF encrypted file. 3DF files are quite small and represent highly accurate representations of the original model design. This release of ModelPress Publisher adds support for SolidWorks 2005 and Autodesk Inventor 9 file formats. The maximum document size is limited only by system memory.

The Informative Graphics ModelPress Viewer v4.3 demonstrates its measurement feature on one of our AutoCAD test drawings, which was published as a 3DF file using ModelPublisher.
The Informative Graphics ModelPress Viewer v4.3 demonstrates its measurement feature on one of our AutoCAD test drawings, which was published as a 3DF file using ModelPublisher.

Informative Graphics' Visual Rights feature allows recipients to view and interact with the file, while the originator keeps complete control of what can actually be done with the design data. Visual Rights incorporates password protection and watermarks via an on-screen banner. Digital signature support is not provided.

ModelPress 3DF files offer significant compression and can be created in batches. ModelPress generates lists and models with thumbnails and links. In addition to the compact 3DF file format, ModelPress Publisher can also produce STL, 3DS, and JPG files, depending on your needs.

The ModelPress Reader, also free, opens 3DF files with persistent Visual Rights settings for 3D visualization and analysis. Full assemblies can be viewed, cross-sectioned, measured, and exploded interactively. Users can identify or search for specific parts. The ModelPress Reader opens 3DF files, as well as native VRML, OpenHSF, STL, and IronCAD formats.

ModelPress Publisher and ModelPress Reader are continuously developed and improved by Informative Graphics with new features and support for additional file formats. This, combined with the compact and secure 3DF file format, provides all the visual collaborative technology that many need—at what is obviously an outstanding price.

Informative Graphics engineers note that the AutoCAD 2005 Welding Fixture Model contains Autodesk-specific ACIS data that the Spatial library (and all other applications that load ACIS, such as SolidWorks) fails to load. Autodesk apparently has encoded zero-length knot definitions and such to mean something special to its ShapeManager kernel, which is based on v7 of the ACIS geometry engine. The result is missing geometry in that model.

Informative Graphics' ModelPress converted the SolidWorks 2005 Explode Assembly (11MB) into a 207KB 3DF file in 3.5 seconds, and the SeaScooter Assembly (65MB) shrank to a 981KB 3DF file in 7.5 seconds. The AutoCAD 2005 Hotel Model drawing (2.1MB) became a 3.08MB 3DF file in 34 seconds, and the Welding Fixture Model (2.3MB) converted to a 216KB 3DF file in only 9 seconds. Of all the applications here, ModelPress seems to have done one of the best jobs of converting the Welding Fixture Model, though bits of geometry are still missing.

Studio, PlayerPro, WebMaster, NoteBook

Lattice3D

Price: Contact company

650.623.0891

www.lattice3d.com

Lattice3D is an enterprise-level solution for sharing 3D design data. It encompasses a variety of applications that provide different services so that users can license the components they need, in the quantities needed. The licensing arrangement is much like the one used by Adobe for its Acrobat application—the viewer is free and customers can opt for the publishing functionality they need. The native file format is compact XVL, which keeps file sizes small by resurfacing the model with the minimum number of NURBS surfaces.

Microsoft Internet Explorer opens a Lattice3D XVL 3D Model with a selected part group highlighted.
Microsoft Internet Explorer opens a Lattice3D XVL 3D Model with a selected part group highlighted.

Beyond the free viewer, a converter plug-in resides in the originating CAD system. This component produces the base XVL file, which often ends up 98% smaller than the original file. For batch or high volume processing, server converters are also available.

Once the base XVL file is created, users can add animation with Lattice3D Studio and highlight changes. Exploded part 3D animations and 2D views are easily created with automatic cross-referencing to the original 3D model, parts list, and parts hierarchy. Such capabilities facilitate the creation of training materials.

Lattice3D's Player Pro builds on the free viewer by adding measurement and sectioning capabilities. Such changes are saved in the XVL file without significantly adding to the file size or creation time.

The WebMaster component from Lattice3D is a template-based application that provides layout capabilities. A user can import an XVL file into a customizable template. Using JavaScript or HTML, the template places such things as the parts list on a Web page, handy for managing online manuals and parts catalogs.

NoteBook is a Lattice3D application used to create a 3D notebook document for 3D communication and collaborative purposes, adding models, snapshots, part lists, and markups, for example.

PDFs go 3d with Adobe Acrobat 7 professional
PDFs go 3d with Adobe Acrobat 7 professional

The free viewer operates as a plug-in for Internet Explorer so that the generated XVL file can be distributed and viewed. An organization might typically license several versions of Studio or Player Pro and a single copy of WebMaster for the enterprise or for a division. As an example, Toyota is using Lattice3D technology to put its automobile 3D parts lists online in 3D.

By the time this article reaches print, Lattice3D expects to release converters that support Autodesk Inventor 9, Mechanical Desktop 2005, and Architectural Desktop 2004/2005. SolidWorks 2005 support is expected in April 2005.

Lattice3D products converted the SolidWorks 2005 Explode Assembly (11MB) into a 65KB X3V file in 5 seconds; the SeaScooter Assembly (65MB), also in SolidWorks 2005 format, turned into a 640KB X3V file in 37 seconds. The AutoCAD 2005 Hotel Model (2.1MB) drawing did not fully convert. Lattice3D engineers are determining the problem and waiting for a new AutoCAD converter version. The AutoCAD 2005 Welding Fixture Model drawing (2.3MB) converted to a 121KB X3V file in 55 seconds. From all appearances, this is one of the most accurate conversion of the Welding Fixture drawing produced in this roundup.

Raider3D Collaboration & Publication Suite

OKYZ

Price: $1600 Raider3D Capture, $700 Live, $400 Publish, Free Viewer

240.674.5547

www.okyz.com

Among the diverse 3D publishing applications included in this article, OKYZ is unique in how it creates files. Instead of reading and translating the geometry within a specific model, such as an AutoCAD drawing or SolidWorks assembly, OKYZ's Raider3D Capture interprets the OpenGL dataflow between an application and the operating system, making captures almost instantaneous. Such captures preserve characteristics such as geometry, colors, textures, normals, and lights. Objects captured with Raider3D are visually identical to the original, including the object's dimension and position within the coordinate system.

OKYZ Raider 3D Capture at work capturing one of our SolidWorks test models.
OKYZ Raider 3D Capture at work capturing one of our SolidWorks test models.

Once captured with Raider3D, the 3D model is saved as a R3D file, a highly compressed and secure format that can easily be edited, shared online, e-mailed as an attachment, and published to Microsoft Office documents and Web pages. In addition to the Windows platform, Raider3D Capture also supports UNIX and Macintosh OS X. The Raider3D Viewer (free) is all that's required to display the 3D model with the same visual characteristics of the original model.

The Raider3D Capture application supplies tools for annotations, measurements, cross sections, and animations, as well as the base capture function.

Raider3D Capture depends on a graphics card with OpenGL capabilities. The company Web site has an extensive list of what cards and models it supports, as well as tips for capturing from specific applications.

To capture a file, users must start Raider3D Capture and select the Butterfly Net tool on the application toolbar. Users then adjust the model view in the desired 3D application and, when satisfied, press PrintScreen to transfer the graphics buffer to Raider3D Capture, where it can then be manipulated and saved in the R3D file format.

Capturing with Raider3D Capture is virtually instantaneous as it grabs the 3D information from the frame buffer of the graphics card. This was true with all four models. The 11MB SolidWorks Explode Assembly ended up as a 213KB R3D file. The 64.9MB SeaScooter Assembly became a 2.24MB R3D file. The AutoCAD 2005 2.1MB Hotel Model converted to an 850KB R3D file, and the 2.3MB Welding Fixture Model became a 356KB R3D file. Saving the R3D files took only a couple of seconds for each file.

Notes3D

QuadriSpace Corp.

Price: $495

972.359.6700

www.quadrispace.com

QuadriSpace Corp. offers a range of applications geared toward publishing, distributing, and sharing 3D data. The Document3D Suite includes Notes3D, Publisher3D, and Pages3D. First up is Notes3D, which lets you view, share, and document 3D models from a wide range of applications. Publisher3D is an add-on to Notes3D that provides many real-world publishing options. Pages3D, which replaces the older Presenter Pro, is a full authoring environment for creating multiple-page interactive 3D documents.

QuadriSpace provides an exporter to accommodate file formats that it doesn't directly read. Once it's activated, users can export the desired file as a QSM (QuadriSpace model) file.

QuadriSpace Notes3D displays a model about to be saved as a bit-mapped graphic.
QuadriSpace Notes3D displays a model about to be saved as a bit-mapped graphic.

Aside from conversions to the compact QSM file format, QuadriSpace applications can capture CAD metadata (depending on the CAD format). The programs offer explode tools and can be used to assemble and create training sequences and publish interactive documents from custom templates. Part material editing is available, along with texturing, sectioning, and the ability to mark up snapshots. Users can add notes to parts, steps, and snapshots.

Advanced update features and advanced render styles are also included. Files are compatible with QuadriSpace's Publisher3D for document generation and also work with its Pages3D product for complete document authoring capabilities. Notes3D provides tools for creating markups, but the free viewer doesn't have markup capabilities. At deadline, we learned that Service Pack 1 for Document3D is in beta release. This new version provides a number of significant user interface changes and stability improvements, and should be available by the time you read this.

QuadriSpace converted the SolidWorks Explode Assembly (11MB) into a 432KB QSM file in 2 seconds. The SolidWorks SeaScooter Assembly (65MB) shrank to a 1.9MB QSM file in 7 seconds. The AutoCAD 2005 Hotel Model (2.1MB) turned into a 2.9MB QSM file in 15 seconds, and the Welding Fixture Model (2.3MB) became a 3.2MB QSM file in 20 seconds. The test system for this particular application was based on a 3GHz Pentium 4 with 512MB of RAM, running Windows XP. We were unable to complete the conversions using the prerelease version of the software that we had on hand, so QuadriSpace processed them in-house with a later version.

QuadriSpace engineers note that users must first save DWG files in model space so that QuadriSpace can read the 3D model. There are also some issues with the normals on facets imported from our test DWG files, which became evident in the skybox of the AutoCAD 2005 drawing of the Hotel Model.

Demo versions of QuadriSpace products and the free viewer are available from the QuadriSpace Web site. Our primary focus here was on QuadriSpace's Notes3D product and the free viewer for remotely accessing the created QSM files.

Deep Exploration

Right Hemisphere

Price: $149 Deep Exploration, $495 CADtools, $595 CoreCAD, $595 Illustration, $149 Deep Publish

510.818.2880

www.righthemisphere.com

Deep Exploration is a stand-alone application used to manage 2D, 3D, animation, video, and audio assets that reside on a computer or network. Deep Exploration offers very good depth of features, only a few of which we can touch on here. Tools allow users to search, view, translate, optimize, animate, and publish in a range of formats. Deep Exploration modules are available for industry-specific translation, authoring, and publishing. We looked at Right Hemisphere's Deep Exploration with the CADtools module, the CoreCAD module, and the Illustration module, along with the separate Deep Publish application. Right Hemisphere also offers other applications that will interest many organizations, though they're beyond the scope of this particular article.

Right Hemispheres Deep Exploration displays a model with the folder and scene tree, ready to run the Publish Wizard.
Right Hemispheres Deep Exploration displays a model with the folder and scene tree, ready to run the Publish Wizard.

Deep Exploration loads and displays, including thumbnails, almost any 2D or 3D file format, including 3ds max, Maya, LightWave, SOFTIMAGE 3D, SOFTIMAGE|XSI, and Adobe Photoshop. You can translate between 2D and 3D file formats and scenes with animation, and modify and save 3D file attributes such as UV maps, textures, and geometry transformations. In addition, you can publish 3D content for Web-based presentations and create and edit keyframe animation of 3D models for compelling presentations. Grouping and hierarchy tools are provided to easily manage complex models, and clipping planes are supported for creating cross sections to better illustrate 3D models.

This is all accomplished in an easy-to-use interface that emulates Windows Explorer. A free viewer, Deep View, is available for viewing files that originated in Deep Exploration.

The Deep Publish application lets users share and use complex engineering and animation data in sales presentations, training material, and technical documentation, as well as in online and printed catalogs. Deep Publish provides a way to insert 3D into PowerPoint, Word, and Excel from within the Office application, and supports 3D animation with playback options. Inserted 3D content is compressed without loss of visual quality.

HP Remote Graphics compresses 3D data for network transmission
HP Remote Graphics compresses 3D data for network transmission

During the course of evaluating Right Hemisphere Deep Exploration 3.5, we received a prerelease version of the CoreCAD module that supports files from SolidWorks 2005—this release should be available by the time this article is published. Using the updated converters, the SolidWorks 2005 Explode Assembly became a 633KB RH file in 1.5 seconds. The SeaScooter assembly—a larger and more complex model—was converted to a 2.58MB RH file in 2 seconds. The Hotel Model drawing from AutoCAD 2005 opened and converted in a quick 6 seconds into a 700KB RH file. Deep Exploration couldn't open the AutoCAD 2005 Welding Fixture Model correctly, as was true of many applications in this article. The opened file showed only the dimensioning, without any of the real geometry visible. Apart from this model, conversions were fast, and the resulting files were relatively compact.

Right Hemisphere has licensed its Deep Exploration technology to EON Reality, which has incorporated it into the EON CAD product.

SolidWorks Office Professional

SolidWorks Corp.

Price: $5,495 (includes modeling program)

800.693.9000

www.solidworks.com

We typically think of SolidWorks as a capable and sophisticated solid modeling application, but it's also easy to produce electronic eDrawings (EASM) files from within SolidWorks 2005, from the full eDrawings application, or from the eDrawings Publisher when using other CAD applications (and SolidWorks versions) that support this add-on. EASM files are compact and aren't limited in size or resolution. The eDrawing file format lets users send 3D data without including confidential design information. Such files can be watermarked, with support for digital signatures available from SolidWorks partners.

The SolidWorks eDrawings viewer shows a file created from one of our test drawings.
The SolidWorks eDrawings viewer shows a file created from one of our test drawings.

Several variants of SolidWorks are available—for this roundup we looked at SolidWorks Office Professional, which includes SolidWorks 3D mechanical design software, a full range of design communication and CAD productivity tools, and PDMWorks—a PDM (product data management) solution that is easy to set up and use and is uniquely adapted to the requirements of SolidWorks workgroups.

Users can download three free viewers. The SolidWorks Viewer is used to send designs for client review by e-mail or place designs on the Web for clients to open and review. SolidWorks Explorer manages relationships when copying or renaming SolidWorks files, performs a where-used search, and searches for SolidWorks files on criteria such as configurations and properties. eDrawings is used to view, print, and review all types of eDrawings files. For our discussion, the eDrawings viewer is most relevant.

Table 1. 3D Publishing Formats
Table 1. 3D Publishing Formats

The eDrawings Publisher is a free download for publishing eDrawings directly from SolidWorks, AutoCAD, Inventor, Pro/ENGINEER, CATIA V5, and Unigraphics/NX software. eDrawings Professional (a time-limited trial version is available) creates review-enabled eDrawing files that an unlimited number of recipients can mark up to provide feedback on product designs. A software development kit is available for customizing eDrawings software to meet the specific needs of your organization.

With our test suite, SolidWorks handled the SolidWorks assemblies without difficulties, as we'd expect. Opening both AutoCAD drawings proved to be problematic. They opened only partially, with a number of components missing. We attempted to use the eDrawings Publisher for AutoCAD 2005, but discovered that at present the eDrawings Publisher for AutoCAD is compatible only with AutoCAD 2004 and earlier versions.

Table 1. 3D Publishing Formats (continued)
Table 1. 3D Publishing Formats (continued)

The Explode Assembly drawing (11MB) converted to a 266KB EASM file in about 4 seconds, and the SeaScooter Assembly (65MB) produced a 1.41MB EASM file in 22 seconds. As noted, conversions of the AutoCAD drawings were incomplete.

Ron LaFon, a contributing editor for Cadalyst, is a writer, editor, and computer graphics and electronic publishing specialist from Atlanta, Georgia. He is a principal at 3Bear Productions in Atlanta.


About the Author: Ron LaFon


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