Do's and Don'ts of Publishing Online Parts Catalogs

31 Oct, 2006 By: Sara Ferris

Offering downloadable 3D CAD files for product designers is a smart business move, but it's not necessarily easy.

3D publishing is the term Cadalyst uses broadly to cover methods of repurposing a 3D model for downstream uses. Basically, once you've created a model, what can you do with it? Daratech coined the acronym MVP to refer to digital mock-up, visualization and 3D publishing, but that makes me think baseball, not modeling -- and besides, the CAD world has TMA (too many acronyms) already.


Online Parts Catalog
Technology Developers
Catalog Data Solutions
SolidWorks (3D PartStream)
Thomas Publishing

One fast-growing but fairly low-profile aspect of 3D publishing is online parts catalogs that include 3D CAD model downloads for manufactured goods. A number of developers offer technology for parts makers to use in creating and maintaining such catalogs. These digital catalogs save design engineers time: Rather than redrawing individual components, you can just download them right into your CAD model. The manufacturers' products are thus locked and loaded into the design, and buyers can order them later.

Off-the-shelf engineering components such as springs, fasteners and bearings are estimated to make up half (around $2 trillion) the U.S. manufactured products market. Combine that with surveys showing that more than 90% of engineers and buyers search for and compare products online, and you see the appeal of online catalogs.

The manufactured parts catalog has evolved in recent years from the traditional printed catalog to a PDF version of the print catalog, to online catalogs that take advantage of digital capabilities such as search-by-attribute and product configurators. When a manufacturer provides downloadable 3D models of parts, it gains the advantage of having those parts designed into a product. John Major, CEO of Catalog Data Solutions, says manufacturers should give away their CAD models rather than hide them away in order to build this symbiotic relationship with customers. When an engineer specifies a part in a design, it remains in the final design more than 80% of the time because buyers rarely change what the engineer spec'd.

Catalog Data Solutions has produced a white paper that outlines many of the considerations that should go into selecting a supplier of online parts catalog technology (along with good reasons for not wanting to try to develop it yourself).


A Catalog Data Solutions survey shows that a manufacturer's customers value downloadable CAD files.

Here's a quick summary of key points about 3D CAD models to keep in mind when building an online parts catalog (or even when using existing ones).

If you're designing with 3D CAD, you likely have models of those parts available to use in an online catalog. But do you want to make those files available freely over the Internet? The fact is, those models are likely much more detailed than your catalog customers need, and may contain information that you want to keep proprietary. Catalog Data Solutions recommends using what it calls a model "factory" -- ideally provided by your catalog supplier, though a third-party "factory" may also work. Using a factory ensures that your part files are built consistently and compactly, and that they contain only the data that customers require.

Build your downloads in a commercially available 3D application. You can make them available in that format or, even better, a neutral format such as IGES, STEP or DXF. Catalog Data Solutions cautions against using a proprietary scripting language because files built that way may contain extra, unnecessary features. You may also get locked into that particular vendor.


J.W. Winco manufactures machine components. Its site incorporates online catalog technology from Catalog Data Solutions.

The smaller the model, the quicker the download. Remember, too, that your part is destined to become part of a much larger assembly. This is definitely something to benchmark test when evaluating online catalog technology suppliers.

By the time you develop, test and publish your online catalog, something will probably already be obsolete. Be sure to consider the process for making changes to models or other data. Catalog Data Solutions recommends your supplier have its own CAD factory to maintain your models, with Web-based project management tools you can use to request new models and changes to existing ones. Another approach is for you to maintain your own models, so be sure to budget staff or money for this, if required. Also think about how to alert your customers that models have changed. The Catalog Data Solutions tool allows catalog users to request product change notifications -- they can receive an e-mail alert when a part they have downloaded is changed.

Consider ways to trim the cost of creating models. If you have families of similar products, it might make more sense to build master models from which to generate all the variations, using a spreadsheet or table to control the dimensions. If you want to provide 2D drawings in addition to 3D models, ask whether your provider can automatically generate those from the 3D model. If your products are engineered to order, look into a product configurator that will allow customers to input desired parameters and features.


The Ohio Nut & Bolt Company's catalog illustrates the number of different models that may be needed to populate an online catalog.

Beyond offering the models themselves, an online catalog also needs to help site visitors find the parts they need, as well as business tools to help you turn downloads into product sales. Those capabilities are discussed at length in the Catalog Data Solutions white paper, Convergence of Market Trends Creates New Online Opportunity for Manufacturers and Distributors. (Registration is required to download the paper.)

About the Author: Sara Ferris

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