File Sharing/Publishing

Designs Spring to Life (Cadalyst Labs Review)

30 Sep, 2008 By: Ron LaFon

3D publishing tools make file sharing as easy as opening a book.

For many, making 3D drawings in popular CAD and engineering applications is only the beginning of a process that involves using those drawings for other downstream purposes. Publishing 3D information — for in-house use, for customers, or for the Internet — is a requirement in today's manufacturing and AEC work flows. A broad range of applications target just such repurposing of design data. This Cadalyst Labs 3D publishing roundup looks at several currently available products designed for publishing and repurposing 3D designs.

Three-dimensional CAD data can be repurposed in numerous ways. Your company might want to use its designs for training needs, for 3D parts catalogs you publish on the Internet, or for 3D progress reports to widely scattered members of your design team. Whatever your particular needs, a broad and ever-growing array of software is available to make 3D publishing not only possible, but relatively easy.

Because you've spent a lot of time, energy, and money on your designs, you'll want to protect your intellectual property when those designs leave your firm, so most of the applications I examine in this roundup offer some means of preserving data integrity. The approach might be as simple as selecting which components of a design are included in the output, or it could include other mechanisms such as password protection.

Cadalyst invited a variety of vendors to participate in this roundup, asking them to submit software options for publishing 3D CAD models. Several provided products to review, ranging from the relatively simple to the remarkably sophisticated. Users today have more choices than ever to make their design data work for them in ways that go well beyond the original intent.


My first task in preparing for this review was to select design files from major 3D CAD applications to use in evaluating the conversion capabilities of the 3D publishing products in this review. This is never as simple as it might seem.

To avoid file-conversion problems during testing, I would need to use file versions that were not so new and not so old that they wouldn't be supported by every product in the review. The chosen files would need to be relatively complex but not so much so that they would tax the capabilities of even the most powerful workstations. Adding to the file-selection challenge was the fact that some of the 3D publishing applications rely on libraries from the originating 3D CAD application, thus requiring that the CAD application be installed on the test workstation.

In the end, I made what I thought would be safe choices, electing to use a suite of drawings that included the SeaScooter assembly created in SolidWorks 2005 and two older AutoCAD drawings, ENGINE.DWG and WILHOME.DWG, which I've used previously in testing 3D publishing applications.

Alas, I ran into some problems. 3DVIA, for example, requires SolidWorks to be installed on the test system and doesn't support the AutoCAD DWG file format, so I wasn't able to run any tests on that product. Other applications had problems converting the files or simply didn't support the particular file versions I used for testing. In a couple of instances, noted in the online feature table, I substituted a drawing that I hadn't originally planned to use.

As noted in the past, Autodesk no longer makes the specifications for its DWG drawing file format available to third-party vendors, so conversion problems with entities found in newer versions of AutoCAD are becoming more prevalent. This incompatibility ultimately makes the repurposing of AutoCAD design data more difficult unless, of course, all your software is from Autodesk.

This survey article presents an overview of the capabilities, benefits, and drawbacks of the featured products. Because these products cover a broad range of applications, approaches, and intents, it is not practical to compare them head-to-head or present our standard report card–style evaluations. The best way to determine the most suitable solution for your needs is to narrow the list based on the information presented here and in the accompanying online feature table (, then download the available trial versions to evaluate each solution using the types of 3D design files you expect to publish. Keep in mind that the figures I present in the online feature table should be considered broad indicators of a each product's capabilities. As they say, your mileage may — and probably will — vary.

The applications in this roundup cover a wide range of costs, features, and flexibility, which means that there's a worthwhile solution for nearly every user or organization.

Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro Extended

Adobe Systems
Price: $699

Adobe earlier this year introduced the Acrobat family of electronic publishing applications, including Adobe Acrobat Pro Extended, formerly called Acrobat 3D. With Acrobat Pro Extended, Adobe has moved further into 3D publishing and has added a wealth of features that go well beyond what we can cover in this roundup.

Acrobat Pro Extended has actually become a small family of products that includes the central Acrobat Pro Extended, Adobe Presenter, Adobe LiveCycle Designer ES, and Adobe 3D Reviewer software.

 Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro Extended lets you output drawings that comply with the recently ratified PDF/E standard (ISO 24517-1:2008). This image is a conversion from a SolidWorks model.
Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro Extended lets you output drawings that comply with the recently ratified PDF/E standard (ISO 24517-1:2008). This image is a conversion from a SolidWorks model.

The PDF-format documents you create using Acrobat can include audio, video, images, 3D visualizations, and geospatially aware maps that can be accessed from virtually any computer platform today. Using Adobe Presenter, you can create digital slide presentations from Microsoft PowerPoint files that include video, voice-overs, demonstrations, and other interactive elements.

Adobe delves deeper into 3D with this release, and Acrobat 9 Pro Extended supports major CAD applications and formats, including SolidWorks, CATIA V4 and V5, Siemens NX, Siemens I-deas, Pro/ENGINEER, AutoCAD, and Autodesk Inventor. Use the link in the Cadalyst online table that accompanies this feature to view a complete list of supported formats.

Using Acrobat 9 Pro Extended to prepare PDF files of 3D designs — which you can mark up, add comments, and save 3D views — you can interact with the designs in 3D by rotating, zooming, measuring, and creating cross-sections. File initiators and recipients can even mark up video files that are part of PDF files. Import virtually any CAD file and export it to neutral formats such as STEP, IGES, or STL for use in downstream manufacturing processes such as tool and mold design or computer numerical control (CNC) machining.

In Cadalyst's simple tests, Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro Extended converted the 70.3-MB SolidWorks SeaScooter assembly into a 957-KB PDF file in 1 inute, 15 econds. The 601-KB 2D AutoCAD WILHOME.DWG drawing produced a 462-KB PDF file in 1 minute, 35 seconds, and the 1.02-MB AutoCAD 3D ENGINE.DWG generated a 488-KB PDF file in 1 inute, 30 econds.

The system requirements for the Windows version of Adobe Acrobat Pro Extended are a 1.3-GHz or faster processor and 512 B of RAM, running under Microsoft Windows XP Home, Professional, or Tablet PC Edition with Service Pack or 3 installed (both 32-bit and 64-bit); Windows Server 2003 with Service Pack for 64-bit; or Windows Vista Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, Ultimate, or Enterprise with or without Service Pack (32-bit and 64-bit). You'll also need 2.35 B of hard disk space, Internet Explorer .0, a DVD-ROM drive (for installation), and a display capable of at least 1,024 768 esolution. Video hardware acceleration hardware is optional.

Pricing for Adobe Acrobat Pro Extended is $699, with upgrades available from $229. The free and freely distributed Adobe Reader is available at

NuGraf 4.20

Okino Computer Graphics
Price: $495

Okino Computer Graphics describes NuGraf 4.20 as "advanced 3D data translation, rendering, and scene-composition software," and readers might recall this product being featured in Cadalyst's August 2008 roundup of visualization solutions. The company aims to create a translator that can convert entire files from one format to another so the exported file can be loaded and rendered in a target animation system with little or no changes.

Okino's NuGraf converts all major CAD file formats to all key non-CAD and animation software file formats.
Okino's NuGraf converts all major CAD file formats to all key non-CAD and animation software file formats.

Okino has worked for years to create file-conversion software that offers incredible breadth of supported file formats and versions and depth in the flexibility of how you can convert files. The Okino 3D file-translation capabilities are remarkably good; in fact, many people learn of Okino products in their quest for substantial, high-quality file-conversion software. Okino explains that every main CAD software developer wants to create and control its own format, with many based on technology that is 10–20 years old. Of course, this situation greatly complicates life for those who have a design in one format that they need to convert to an entirely different format. It is here that Okino products excel. Not content with simple automatic conversions, although Okino products are capable of doing those too, the company enables control of the conversion process so the final result suits the user's specific needs.

Okino products stream CAD files to multiple 3D publishing formats and don't produce a single file format. Therefore, I didn't do conversion tests with our benchmark files — although all were easily opened in NuGraf. NuGraf and other Okino products create files as fast as their exporters accept and process them, and file sizes can vary widely depending on which compression options users select when setting up a conversion.

NuGraf runs under Windows XP and Vista, in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions, as well as Windows 2000 and 2003. Okino provides native 64-bit versions of its applications and plug-ins.

PolyTrans is Okino's scaled-down version of NuGraf, without the full ray-tracing functionality and sophisticated rendering features. Pricing for NuGraf is $495, PolyTrans is $395, and free demo versions of both are available on the company's Web site. Several add-on conversion option packs are available at extra cost, as are plug-ins for applications such as Autodesk 3ds Max and Maya.

Document 3D Suite 2008

Price: Free–$2,995

QuadriSpace's Document 3D Suite 2008 is a family of products for 3D document authoring that can also produce illustrations and animations. The basic Document 3D Suite comprises Pages 3D for document authoring, Publisher 3D for creating illustrations and animations, and Reader 3D for browsing created documents. Quadri-Space offers four editions of the Document 3D Suite, ranging from a free Personal Edition to the comprehensive Professional Edition.

For this article, my primary focus is QuadriSpace Publisher 3D, which lets you publish 3D data to a broad range of standard graphic, animation, or document formats. Publisher 3D is document oriented and includes tools for directly associating parts lists with illustration call numbers. You can quickly and easily create 3D documentation that includes vector art, high-resolution raster graphics, XML DITA topics, entire documents, and animations.

QuadriSpace Publisher3D Professional is an easy-to-use illustration program that publishes existing 3D data to a wide range of graphics, animation, and document formats.
QuadriSpace Publisher3D Professional is an easy-to-use illustration program that publishes existing 3D data to a wide range of graphics, animation, and document formats.

CAD formats supported include SolidWorks, Inventor, Pro/ENGINEER, SketchUp, DWF, STEP, IGES, Parasolid, ACIS, DWG, DXF, STL, 3ds Max, OBJ, and 3DS VDA. Publishing output formats include PDF, 3D PDF, high-quality printed documents, Word, Excel, RTF, HTML, TIFF, BMP, PNG, JPEG, GIF, SVG, EPS, PS, AVI, Flash, XML DITA, DWF, U3D, QuadriSpace Model (QSM), and QuadriSpace Document (QSD) files.

When I began my graphic conversions, I was able to convert and publish the SolidWorks SeaScooter assembly without difficulty, but both AutoCAD drawings presented challenges. QuadriSpace notes that Publisher 3D supports AutoCAD drawings, but it doesn't support 2D drawings or 3D line art. Publisher 3D imports DWG files with faces and real 3D elements but not lines. According to the company, people using derivatives of AutoCAD, such as Architectural Desktop, typically have polygonal models that are supported either directly or through the DWF file format.

QuadriSpace focuses on solids-based 3D models such as SolidWorks, Inventor, and Pro/ENGINEER files, as well as a number of solids-modeling standards such as IGES and STEP. The company also supports the general user base through useful 3D formats such as DWF and Google SketchUp.

That left me with only the SolidWorks SeaScooter for testing, so I substituted the basic AutoCAD 3D HOUSE.DWG drawing for comparison purposes. The 70.3-MB SolidWorks SeaScooter Assembly converted into a 2.97-MB QSM file in less than 30 seconds. The 1.91-MB AutoCAD 3D HOUSE.DWG file produced a 2.03-MB QSM file in less than 30 seconds. These conversion times can vary, depending on the speed of the system used.

The Document 3D Suite runs under Windows Vista, Windows XP, or Windows 2000. Pricing for the QuadriSpace Document 3D Suite is as follows: free for the Personal Edition, $495 for the Basic Edition, $1,495 for the Standard Edition, and $2,995 for the Professional Edition. Time-limited trial versions are available at the company's Web site.

Deep Exploration 5.5 CAD Edition

Right Hemisphere
Starting price range:

Right Hemisphere produces a variety of products targeting enterprise-wide communication and collaboration in the product-development process. Among its offerings are two versions of Deep Exploration: a Standard Edition and a CAD Edition. With Deep Exploration you can transform, author, and manage 2D, 3D, animation, video, and audio files. The CAD Edition that I evaluated for this roundup includes support for numerous industry-standard CAD file formats.

Right Hemisphere's Deep Exploration CAD Edition lets you rapidly and easily transform, author, and publish 2D and 3D product graphics and documents.
Right Hemisphere's Deep Exploration CAD Edition lets you rapidly and easily transform, author, and publish 2D and 3D product graphics and documents.

Deep Exploration 5.5 supports all major CAD formats, including CATIA V4 and V5, Unigraphics, Pro/ENGINEER, SolidWorks, JT, I-deas, IGES, MicroStation, CADKEY, AutoCAD, Solid Edge, STEP, and VDA. You can download a full list of the supported file formats from the company's Web site. Also supported are files from 3ds Max, Maya, LightWave 3D, SOFTIMAGE|XSI, Acrobat, and Photoshop. Other file formats are supported via Right Hemisphere's Software Development Kit. All told, Right Hemisphere can import from more than 110 formats and export to nearly 50.

Deep Exploration is extensible via a plug-in architecture. The interface mimics Windows Explorer, so the product is easy to understand and use.

New in the version 5.5 release of Deep Exploration are enhanced CAD loaders to enable dynamic thick- and thin-line display and output, 2D drag-and-drop, user-interface enhancements of docking panels for custom layouts, detail views for detail and locator view graphics, and the creation of multiple procedures using steps. The types of procedures are assembly, disassembly, service, and maintenance. Defining a procedure as a step-by-step process, Right Hemisphere has enabled the creation of these multistep procedures.

Deep Exploration lets you publish and view both 2D and animated 3D graphic content in Microsoft Office and Adobe FrameMaker documents and view those files within HTML pages. Using the included PDF publishing module, Deep Exploration can publish interactive 3D PDF documents that can be used for training or demonstrations, and it can import and export JT/PMI data, great for manufacturing uses, via the included JT/PMI module.

The authoring features of Deep Exploration include the ability to generate photorealistic 3D images with materials and Realight tools that simulate global illumination. You can author 3D animations with advanced keyframing, position, rotation, material, texture UV and camera animations of 3D objects, and you can output high-quality line art illustrations in industry-standard file formats to control edge threshold, line weight, color, and shading parameters. Among its other numerous features are the ability to view and mark up graphics with interactive object manipulation, cross-sectioning, and annotations.

Deep Exploration 5.5 converted the Cadalyst test files without difficulty. The 70.3-MB SolidWorks SeaScooter Assembly produced a 1.34-MB RH file in about 25 seconds. Next, I opened and converted two AutoCAD drawings — the 601-KB 2D WILHOME.DWG, which produced an 886-KB RH file in 80 seconds, and the 1.02-MB 3D ENGINE.DWG, which produced a 134-KB RH file in just less than 30 seconds.

The starting price range for Deep Exploration 5.5 CAD Edition is $1,995–$6,739. You can find a list of supported file formats and versions at the company's Web site, as well as trial versions of Deep Exploration and other products.

3DVIA Composer V6R2009

Dassault Systemes
Price: Contact company

3DVIA from SolidWorks is a small family of products based on open XML architecture that allows non-CAD users to create associative 2D and 3D product information for use in documentation, marketing, training, support, and manufacturing applications. When you modify a product design, 3DVIA automatically regenerates documentation contents.

3DVIA Composer allows non-CAD users to create associative 2D and 3D product documentation directly from SolidWorks and other 3D CAD data.
3DVIA Composer allows non-CAD users to create associative 2D and 3D product documentation directly from SolidWorks and other 3D CAD data.

The central product in the 3DVIA family is 3DVIA Composer, a desktop application that lets non-CAD users create product documentation directly from 3D design data. The interface is clean and straightforward, similar to the new ribbon in Microsoft Office 2007 applications. If you feel at home in any of the new Office applications, you'll find 3DVIA Composer very easy to use.

With 3DVIA Composer, you can create exploded views easily and annotate them according to your company's standards. You can create and apply styles to your content to ensure consistency. 3DVIA's technical illustration capabilities simplify 2D line drawings, which can be output in a number of popular file formats such as JPEG, SVG, and CGM in high resolution. A 3DVIA Sync tool lets you automatically update your documentation when changes are made to metadata, geometry, or basic product structure.

An add-on utility called 3DVIA Safe lets users control and manage access to their company's intellectual property in content that's produced with 3DVIA Composer. A patented technology called Secure 3D Brush prevents copying or theft. 3DVIA Safe also lets you manage access control when playing content with the 3DVIA Player, a free add-on that lets others view and interact with the documents created by 3DVIA Composer. 3DVIA Player can be embedded in Microsoft Office applications, HTML, and PDF files.

Another add-on, 3DVIA Check, lets users validate that the procedures documentation can actually be performed by checking dynamic and static clash detection. This lets users quickly qualify service and assembly procedures by providing access to components within an assembly.

3DVIA can work with SolidWorks files two ways: The 3DVIA SolidWorks add-on can be installed in SolidWorks and export SLDASM and SLDPRT files into the SMG file format that can be opened directly in 3DVIA Composer. Or you can install SolidWorks on the same system as 3DVIA Composer and open both SLDASM and SLDPRT files directly inside 3DVIA Composer.

I typically test 3D publishing software on a system without major design applications installed on it, so I was unable to test 3DVIA Composer directly with our SolidWorks test files. 3DVIA Composer does not support AutoCAD files directly.

Installation was speedy and straightforward, although 3DVIA Composer uses FlexLM licensing, which is unusual for this type of application. This licensing scheme is complex and can be difficult to troubleshoot, thus it is used only for extremely high-end software. Regarding pricing, SolidWorks does not disclose this information except to prospective customers who contact the company directly.

SolidWorks eDrawings Professional 2008

Price: Free

SolidWorks' eDrawings, the second SolidWorks product in this roundup, is a viewing and publishing application for sharing and archiving 2D and 3D product design data. The free eDrawings Viewer, which is included with the standard edition of SolidWorks or can be downloaded from the company's Web site, lets users view, print, and review all types of eDrawings files. SolidWorks eDrawings Publisher, also free, lets users publish eDrawings files directly from SolidWorks, AutoCAD, Autodesk Inventor, Pro/ENGINEER, CATIA V5, Unigraphics, Solid Edge v17, and CoCreate's OneSpace Designer. eDrawings Professional, included with the advanced editions of SolidWorks, such as SolidWorks Office Professional, lets you create review-enabled eDrawings files that allow an unlimited number of recipients to mark up and provide feedback on product designs. For this roundup, I checked out eDrawings Professional.

SolidWorks eDrawings Professional offers the unique ability to publish eDrawings files as review-enabled.
SolidWorks eDrawings Professional offers the unique ability to publish eDrawings files as review-enabled.

eDrawings files are highly compressed for fast and easy transmission of design data. In addition to file compression, eDrawings Professional also offers tools such as 3D Pointer, Virtual Folding, and Animated Drawings Views. You can view and share the design analyses done using SolidWorks Simulation software and password protect shared files. eDrawings Professional files also enable measurement (which you can disable to protect design data), dynamic cross-sections, exploded views, and component movement.

You can publish eDrawings files directly from SolidWorks 2005 or later. Assembly files become EASM files and drawings produce EDRW files from other programs as well as SolidWorks. You can view SolidWorks configurations and multiple design variations of a port or assembly within a single document. eDrawings also publishes files as executable EXE files, as well as in EPRT, ZIP, HTML, STL, VMP, TIFF, JPEG, PNG, and GIF formats.

SolidWorks eDrawings runs under Microsoft Windows XP Professional, Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, and Vista.

As one might expect, eDrawings excelled in its conversions of the 70.3-MB SolidWorks SeaScooter Assembly, producing a 1.80-MB EASM file in only 5 seconds. eDrawings also converted the 601-KB AutoCAD 2D WILHOME.DWG into a 3.09-MB EDRW file in 10 seconds and converted the 1.02-MB AutoCAD 3D ENGINE.DWG into a 164-KB EDRW file in 8 seconds.

You can download a trial version of SolidWorks eDrawings Professional or full versions of the free eDrawings tools at the company's Web site. Note that the free SolidWorks eDrawings Viewer also serves as a viewer for AutoCAD DWG and DXF files.

About the Author: Ron LaFon

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