Cadalyst Labs Review: 3D Without Boundaries-New Tools to Publish and Share Designs1 Dec, 2005 By: Ron LaFon Cadalyst
3D publishing tools from Actify, Informative
Creating 3D models is labor and resource intensive, so it's little wonder that using these investments for other purposes has sparked a popular and rapidly growing segment of the software industry. 3D designs can be reused for a range of purposes, from sharing data with a customer for approval and checking the basic design concept to publishing a model on the Internet. Repurposed design data can also be used for training, 3D parts catalogs and progress reports. The potential is great and the payoff large in terms of what can be accomplished.
Security becomes a concern when communicating design data outside the confines of a design firm, and most applications here offer some way to preserve the integrity of data.
Cadalyst invited a number of vendors and received products from seven. One vendor that appeared in last year's roundup, OKYZ, was purchased by Adobe Systems. Its technology is likely to appear in upcoming products from Adobe. New in this roundup is Okino, whose NuGraf product converts files from and to a broad range of file formats, not just output that is intended for publishing 3D data.
The sheer volume of information and number of products makes this one of our more complex roundups. If any repurposing of 3D design data can be described as simple, the products evaluated here range from the simple to the remarkably capable and sophisticated. If you need to put your design data to work in ways other than the original intent, there is a variety of flexible applications to choose from.
How We Tested
After some difficulties with the files we used in last year's roundup (December 2004), we tried to select files that represented production work done in popular versions of originating applications—that is, not the latest and greatest versions. The test files are all moderately complex, though not so much so as to tax the limits of the most powerful workstations available.
All tests were completed on a workstation based on an AMD Opteron 246 processor with 2GB of RAM, dual 120GB hard drives in a RAID configuration and an NVIDIA Quadro FX 4000 graphics card with 256MB of onboard RAM. We used the latest graphics card drivers available, which were WHQL-certified v188.8.131.52 at the time of testing. The test system had Microsoft Windows Professional installed with Service Pack 2, including the most recent patches available.
3D Publishing Summary
Two programs and part of another one were tested off-premises on similar workstations. Lattice3D converted the files from its products because the tested components submitted for evaluation did not include the necessary converters—not surprising when you consider the scope and multiplicity of components for its products.
Okino also did a variety of testing. Okino's PolyTrans and NuGraf differ from other applications tested here. They convert files to a number of 3D output formats, rather than to its own native file format as is typical of the other applications evaluated here. PolyTrans and NuGraf also offer a range of conversion options, many of which affect the output quality, compression and amount of time required for conversion. From the variety of conversions Okino supports, we elected to use the U3D and ViewPoint VET formats, with maximum compression, in the online feature table (www.cadalyst.com/1205-3dpub-table.htm).
For the test files, we used two DWG files from previous releases of AutoCAD because we experienced some conversion problems with certain entities found in the AutoCAD 2005 drawings last time. We elected to use ENGINE.DWG, a 1.02MB vector model with no 3D polygons, and STATION2.DWG, a 712KB drawing that does include 3D polygons, both created in AutoCAD R13 c1/c2.
We also selected two moderately complex SolidWorks 2005 assemblies to use for testing, the same two as last year. We have SolidWorks 2006, but it's so new that not many of the applications reviewed here support it. Of our test files, 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, Sea Scooter, amounts to about 64.9MB and includes a large subassembly. A SolidWorks 2005 assembly, it was provided to us by SolidWorks for testing purposes.
Our intent was to use test drawings that represent typical design work that users would want to publish. We converted files to whatever the base format of the individual applications happened to be, and then compared both speed of conversion and level of compression with the original files. Though some of the applications we evaluated were still in prerelease beta versions, the conversions largely progressed without any significant problems. Two vendors had trouble converting the older vector-based ENGINE.DWG, but no problems with the other test files. This came as something of a surprise, but indicates that no matter which test files we (or you) use, some conversion problems are likely to factor into the equation.
This is a survey article, rather than a head-to-head comparison of one application to another. As such, we don't include a report card comparing features and performance.
As was true last year, there are some innovative and interesting applications here. Many of these vendors offer demo versions to help determine which product is most suitable for your needs and to assess compatibility with your required applications. With the range of applications here, there's enough variety in cost and flexibility to bring 3D publishing to any CAD or engineering firm. Other interesting 3D publishing applications are on the horizon, so this category of software will continue to evolve. For the end user, this means more choices and more flexibility in leveraging valuable design work.
Actify Publisher 2005
Actify offers a suite of products designed to enable easy and secure distribution of multiple 2D and 3D CAD file formats and related design documents without requiring access to the originating CAD system. Last year we looked at Actify s SpinFire Professional product, which provides visualization capabilities and lets recipients view, measure and mark up 2D/3D designs. For this roundup, Actify submitted Actify Publisher 2005, which automates batch processing of native 2D and 3D CAD files to its compact 3D file format.
Actify Publisher centralizes and automates batch publishing of native 2D and 3D CAD files to Actify s compact 3D file format.
Actify Publisher lets users define and manage virtually every aspect of file publishing, including what files or types of files are to be published, the destination for the published files and when they are to be published. Actify Publisher can be thought of as a super batch converter with extensive options for controlling the conversion of CAD files to Actify s 3D file format. All user interaction with the product comes in defining sets of rules for batch conversion. All markup and dimensioning operations are in the domain of its SpinFire Professional product.
Other Actify products include SpinFire for Microsoft Office, which integrates with Office applications so users can embed interactive 2D and 3D CAD data directly into Office documents. Actify Server acts as a secure repository for sharing, tracking and storing designs and documentation either inside or outside a firewall. SpinFire Reader gives occasional users the ability to view 3D files. Finally, the Actify SDK (Software Development Kit) provides tools for integrating Actiy's CAD viewing technology into PDM, ERP, supply chain management and Web applications.
We found Actify Publisher 2005 to be both easy to use and fast in operation. The 3D files generated from our test files were compact. For example, the 65MB SolidWorks 2005 SeaScooter assembly was converted to a 2.87MB 3D file in 6 seconds. We were then able to quickly open the converted file in SpinFire Reader to view and rotate the model. As can be seen from the online feature table, Actify Publisher supports a broad range of CAD file formats, and converters are updated periodically to extend this support to newer file formats.
Once it publishes the 3D file, Actify Publisher e-mails notifications to anyone specified, and its scripting capabilities can be used to communicate directly with other applications such as document management programs and workflow engines.
Price: Contact company, starts at ~$3,000
Lattice3D offers a high-end, enterprise-level set of products for publishing 3D data for use in 3D documents, parts lists and Web pages. Lattice3D products are modular, providing a range of flexible configurations. Users can purchase only the components needed, with the option of adding other modules in the future. The products are built on open standards to integrate with PLM, ERP or other applications.
One of our test models opened in Lattice3D Publisher where exploded views and parts lists can be easily generated.
Lattice3D products include Player Pro, which builds on the capabilities of the free viewer by adding measurement and sectioning capabilities—changes are saved in the XVL file without adding significantly to file size or creation time.
Composer is used to create 3D notebook documents for collaboration, including models, snapshots, part lists and markups. Finally, the free viewer functions as a plug-in for Internet Explorer so users can freely distribute XVL files.
Lattice3D's native file format is compact XVL. File sizes remain small because the model is resurfaced with the minimum number of NURBS surfaces. This resurfacing approach produces files that are much more compact while retaining the form of the original drawing with great accuracy (e.g. 0.001mm).
One example of real-world use of Lattice3D's products is the automobile manufacturer Toyota, which uses three different CAD systems (CATIA for bodywork and Pro/ENGINEER for drive train, for example) and converts all the different format CAD models to ultra-compressed XVL for downstream use of the data.
Due to the scope and scale of a typical Lattice3D installation, we looked at only one component, the Lattice3D Publisher. To convert our test drawings to XVL files, we first needed converters for those formats. Converters come in two types—ones that add a Save as XVL icon to a CAD program, and server converters that run remotely as batch servers. With the addition of XVL Scheduler and Manager, the server option becomes an enterprise 3D publishing system. Lattice3D converted our test models and provided us with the completed conversions and the relevant logs for timing information—these figures are provided in the online feature table.
The two SolidWorks 2005 models converted readily, as did the STATION2.DWG, but the ENGINE.DWG—which also proved problematical for other vendors—did not directly convert. Lattice3D exported the model from Mechanical Desktop in IGES format, and then imported the IGES data with its XVL Studio application. Once an IGES file, the final translation to a 24KB XVL file took 9 seconds.
Document3D—3D Publishing Suite
QuadriSpace Corp. submitted its Document3D—3D Publishing Suite, which includes Notes3D, Pages3D and Publisher3D. Together, these provide a complete solution focused on simplifying 3D documentation. Notes3D lets users quickly view, share and document 3D models. Pages3D is a page layout program that imports 3D CAD files directly and publishes complete documents. Publisher3D lets users choose the publishing option that works best. Both Pages3D and Notes3D are also available as stand-alone products.
QuadriSpace Notes3D lets users share and document 3D models, create step-by-step instructions and exploded views and publish Web pages.
Add-on products for the Document3D system include:
- 1. 3D PDF Module is designed to publish Adobe PDF documents with embedded interactive 3D content (U3D) that can be read with the free Adobe Reader 7.0.
- 2. Publisher 3D is a wizard-based product that works as an add-on to Notes3D and lets users publish high-resolution images, Flash files, static Web pages and AVI files along with more interactive publishing options.
- 3. GRANITE Import Module adds support for additional 3D file formats to Pages3D and Notes3D, including Pro/ENGINEER parts and assemblies, IGES, STEP, ACIS, Parasolids and VDA.
- 4. Reader3D is a free product for viewing and printing interactive 3D documents.
The Pages3D component is a desktop publishing product with interactive 3D capabilities. It's easy to create custom interactive Web pages, EXE files and CDs from imported 3D models. With Notes3D, quickly share and document 3D models, create step-by-step instructions and exploded views, modify part materials, memorize snapshots with illustrations, share EXE files with a built-in reader and publish Web pages. If users have both products installed on a system, the two work together, with documents easily moved directly from Notes3D into Pages3D. With Document3D users can create printed and interactive 3D documents from the same information, and features make it easy to keep documentation updated.
QuadriSpace uses its QSM file format for converted files (QuadriSpace document files have the QSD file extension). Three of the four models we used for testing converted without problems and created relatively compact QSM files in short order. The 65MB SolidWorks 2005 SeaScooter model converted to a 2.35MB QSM file in only 3.5 seconds. The only conversion problem occurred with the older AutoCAD ENGINE.DWG vector-based drawing, which contained entities that QuadriSpace does not support at this time. QuadriSpace notes that its emphasis is on 3D solid model formats.
Overall, we found the QuadriSpace Document3D 3D Publishing Suite powerful and easy to use.
Deep Exploration v3.5
Right Hemisphere s Deep Exploration is a stand-alone application used to transform, author and manage 2D, 3D, animation, video and audio files that offers excellent support for a broad variety of CAD file formats. Add-in modules are available to extend the functionality of the product, especially in terms of CAD file format support. See the online feature table for details.
Right Hemisphere's Deep Exploration is a stand-alone application used to transform, author and manage 2D, 3D, animation, video and audio assets.
With Deep Exploration users can search, load and view more than 120 different 2D and 3D file formats, including 3ds max, Maya, Softimage, Lightwave and Photoshop. Users can translate graphical file formats, for example from 2D to 3D and 3D to 2D. They can render solids, points, wire frames, transparencies and such. Deep Exploration allows users to translate and author one model at a time. Right Hemisphere's Deep Server automates these capabilities for batch processing. The Deep View product is a free viewer that supports the RH file format and functions as an ActiveX viewer inside Internet Explorer.
Right Hemisphere's Deep Publish application lets users share and use complex engineering and animation data in sales presentations, training material and technical documentation, as well as for online and printed catalogs, among other purposes. Deep Publish lets users insert 3D models 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. Right Hemisphere has other applications available that are beyond the scope of this particular article.
Deep Exploration can publish 3D content for Web-based presentations and create key-frame animations of 3D models. Grouping and hierarchy tools are provided for easily managing complex models. The program supports clipping planes for creating cross sections to better understand or illustrate the 3D models.
At this writing, Deep Exploration's converters don't yet support the SolidWorks 2006 file format. Support is expected in v4, which will be available soon after this article appears in print.
Deep Exploration has an easy-to-use interface that emulates Windows Explorer. Users can launch applications from within Deep Explorer, as well as view files in ZIP and RAR archives without unpacking them. Multiple 3D files can be merged for viewing. The feature set of Deep Exploration is deep, making it a useful application for tasks other than publishing 3D data.
Right Hemisphere's Deep Exploration converted our test suite of files in good time, producing moderately compact files in a fairly short period of time. The 65MB SolidWorks 2005 SeaScooter assembly converted to a 2.58MB RH file in about 16 seconds, while the 11MB Explode assembly produced a 631KB RH file in about 5 seconds. Both AutoCAD drawings converted correctly, with the troublesome 1.02MB ENGINE.DWG file generating a 126KB RH file in about 1.5 seconds, and the 713KB STATION2.DWG drawing converted to a 210KB RH file in about 2 seconds.
eDrawings 2006 Professional
Price: $495; standard
SolidWorks comes with tools to produce files in its compact eDrawings format that can then be readily shared. The standard edition of SolidWorks includes the basic free eDrawings 2006 viewer. More advanced editions of SolidWorks, such as SolidWorks Office Professional, include the more capable eDrawings 2006 Professional, which we're evaluating here.
eDrawings Professional allows an unlimited number of recipients to mark up and provide feedback on product designs.
If users have a version of AutoCAD installed on the same system as the SolidWorks 2006 application, a top-level pop-up menu shows up on the AutoCAD toolbar so eDrawings can be published from within AutoCAD.
The standard version of eDrawings is a free viewer that lets users view, print and review all types of eDrawings files. It provides the ability to view AutoCAD DWG and DXF files, as well as SolidWorks parts, assemblies and drawings. eDrawings Professional is a fee-based version that allows users to create review-enabled files with an unlimited number of recipients who can mark up product designs. Both versions of eDrawings offer capabilities such as point-and-click animations that make it easy for anyone with a PC to interpret and understand 2D and 3D design data.
Users of eDrawings Professional can redline 2D or 3D data to add written comments, protect drawings with passwords and move a dynamic cross-sectioning plane through parts and assemblies to see design details typically hidden from view.
With eDrawings Professional, users drag and drop components with the cursor to view an exploded assembly—just double-click on the component to return it to its normal position. Properties such as dimensions, mass, volume, density and surface area can be viewed. Files can include animations created with SolidWorks Animator to show in real time how moving parts interact as solids. Finally, SolidWorks configurations—multiple design variations of a part or assembly model displayed within a single document—are also viewable.
The eDrawings file format extension varies with the type of file it was converted from (EASM from assemblies and EDRW from drawings). It's a compact and feature-rich format for publishing 3D data. The 65MB SolidWorks 2005 SeaScooter assembly converted to a compact 625KB EASM file in about 2.5 seconds. The 1.02MB AutoCAD ENGINE.DWG that at times proved problematical for other vendors produced a 105KB EDRW file in about a second.
Two other free downloads are available from SolidWorks—the eDrawings Publisher, used to publish eDrawing files directly from SolidWorks and other programs and a software development kit for customizing eDrawings software to meet the specific needs of an organization.
PolyTrans and NuGraf
Okino Computer Graphics
Price: $495 NuGraf base, $395 PolyTrans base
Okino Computer Graphics' NuGraf differs from the other applications in this roundup in several significant ways. First of all, NuGraf is a complete design solution. It's a speedy and capable renderer that handles all forms of geometry, including NURBS and meshes. NuGraf does not include any modeling features—other applications do the modeling and NuGraf focuses on rendering and visualization. NuGraf's 3D data translation capabilities are among the best in the industry—many people are familiar with Okino just because of the quality of its conversions. Though NuGraf is not specifically dedicated to publishing 3D data, it outputs a wide range of file formats that can be used for such applications.
NuGraf offers import and export to the U3D file format used by Adobe Acrobat 7 for display of 3D information.
Okino also markets PolyTrans, a simpler version of NuGraf that does not include ray-tracing functionality, advanced rendering, interactive texture projects, polygon-level picking and material assignments. PolyTrans plug-ins are available for Maya, 3ds max, XSI and Macromedia Director as well as third-party integrations such as for Cinema-4D, NGRAIN and Quest 3D.
PolyTrans and NuGraf use the BDF format that is specific to Okino's applications. NuGraf produces many output formats, including those suitable for 3D publishing. With NuGraf and PolyTrans, users have a range of options available as to exactly how a conversion is made and what quality level is needed. When a file is opened for conversion, a dialog box listing the options appears.
Converter add-on packs are available and extend the capabilities of the base application to include other file formats—see the online feature table for details. Okino takes its time and does it right with the converters—it often takes 12–18 months to produce new ones. Little wonder that Okino is known for the quality of its conversion capabilities.
For this roundup, Okino's CEO produced a variety of conversions of the models we provided, at varying quality settings, both as an exercise for Okino and for the online feature table. We elected to choose two lossy file formats here—the U3D and ViewPoint VET fortmats, both of which are popular choices for distribution and 3D publishing. The 65MB SolidWorks SeaScooter drawing took 43 seconds to become a 322.1KB U3D file and 37 seconds for a 299.6KB VET file.
Okino's NuGraf 3D not only offers outstanding file conversions, but also a capable application for rendering and visualization—all for the reasonable base price of $495.
ModelPress Desktop, ModelPress System
Informative Graphics Corp. sent a prerelease version of the latest release of ModelPress Desktop for evaluation. The shipping version should be available by the time this article appears in print. ModelPress Desktop is at the low end of the price range in this review, while the ModelPress System (ModelPress Publisher and Reader) is free.
From Informative Graphics ModelPress Publisher interface, choose singe files or groups of files for conversion to the compact 3DF file format.
The ModelPress System provides controlled, packaged content viewing for client machines. ModelPress Desktop is self-contained and doesn't control the viewing content. It displays native files on the client computer and requires all the components of the viewed model to be available.
The published 3DF file does not have any xreferenced files or other dependencies—it's a stand-alone file format that incorporates all parts of the original model.
ModelPress 3DF files offer significant compression. ModelPress can create lists, models with thumbnails and links, and Web sub-sites from batch files. In addition to the compact 3DF file format, ModelPress Publisher can also generate STL, 3DS and JPEG files.
The program's Visual Rights features enable the file's originator to keep complete control of how recipients can interact with the design data. Password protection is incorporated, as are watermarks via an on-screen banner.
The free ModelPress Reader 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 VRML, OpenHSF, STL and IronCAD formats.
ModelPress converted all of our test files easily and quickly. The 65MB SeaScooter, a SolidWorks 2005 model with an array of parts, assemblies and subassemblies, converted to a 1.09MB 3DF file in only 6 seconds. The 1.02MB AutoCAD ENGINE.DWG, which caused trouble for some other products, converted without any apparent problems, producing a 309KB 3DF file in about 2 seconds.
Informative Graphics' ModelPress disproves the old adage that you get what you pay for. In this case, free equates to a capable and substantial software application.
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.
CAD Export Options
By Sara Ferris
IF YOUR PRIMARY goal is to share designs with others, you may need to look no further than your CAD program's export options. Just about every developer of 3D modeling software has its own preferred "open" format for compressing and exchanging models. Here's a quick rundown of the main options.
JT was developed by UGS and can be exported by many CAD applications. Support also appears in many viewers and file translation applications. The amount of information stored in a JT file can range from simple facet data to more detailed geometry, attributes, assembly structure and more. JT files can end up 75% to 90% smaller than the source file. A free viewer is available at www.jt2go.com. Though developers and end users can enroll in the JT Open program and gain a say in how the format evolves, UGS retains ownership of the format and licenses it to other users.
U3D is backed by a consortium headed up by Intel and HP. It's the sole 3D format supported in Adobe PDF documents, but to date Bentley's MicroStation is the only CAD application to provide built-in export to U3D.
Users of other CAD applications will have to detour through an intermediary application (see the main review for options). A recent agreement between Adobe and UGS to support each other's formats should pave the way for more widespread accessibility as future versions of Acrobat should be able to convert JT files to U3D for use in PDF documents.
3DXML, put forth by Dassault, was released in June. Support appears in all Dassault products, including SolidWorks, as well as products from CAA partners. The free player is available at www.3ds.com/3dxml.
X3D is the successor to VRML as a standard for delivering real-time 3D content. The Web 3D Consortium (www.web3d.org) is developing a CAD-specific version of X3D, called CDF (CAD Distillation Format), for translation of CAD data to an open format for publishing and interactive media such as training and sales materials. Few CAD applications offer direct X3D support at this time.
Sara Ferris is Cadalyst's editor-in-chief.
Autodesk Expands DWF Accessibility
By Mike Bordenaro
AUTODESK'S RECENTLY RELEASED DWF Writer allows 3D DWF files to be output from SolidWorks and Pro/ENGINEER. DWF (design web format) is Autodesk's open and secure format for electronically transferring 2D and 3D drawings. You can download source code and specs at www.autodesk.com/dwftoolkit. Previous versions accommodated 3D models created in Autodesk applications such as Inventor, Revit and Architectural Desktop.
Autodesk has positioned the release as another step to aid 3D file sharing by the increasing number of project teams that include nontechnical members who may not have engineering software programs. Engineers who output 3D DWF files can share them with team members who download a compatible DWF reader.
Autodesk claims that the multilayered compression of the DWF files results in smaller files that are easier to share, yet retain high levels of design data.
The increasing popularity of using Adobe's PDF format for sharing data files may have influenced Autodesk's release of a writer that works with competitors' software.
PDF files support 3D in the U3D format, which at this writing is directly supported only by Bentley's MicroStation CAD application. Users of other applications must use an external translator such as those discussed in the body of this review.
Autodesk used SolidWorks' and Pro/ENGINEER's APIs to develop the add-on without interacting with developers at either company.
Aaron Kelly, product manager at SolidWorks, views the new writer capability as an attempt to compete with SolidWork's eDrawings.
The DWF Writer currently writes from SolidWorks 2005 and is not compatible with the current 2006 version. Autodesk plans to support SolidWorks 2006 and other products in the near future. Autodesk has offered DWF publishing since 1998. It was first built into Autodesk applications and then incorporated into the DWF Writer, which supported only 2D files until the latest release.
Mike Bordenaro is a Chicago-based writer who focuses on architectural technology.