Rescue by Acrobat

Adobe’s Acrobat solves many problems with format compatibility in the 2D world. What many don’t know is how well it can do the same for you in 3D. It’s spawning a growing number of solutions for fabricators.


A straightforward use of Tetra4D is making service and support documents, such as this parts listing – with panning and rotating 3D images for additional clarity.

Fabricating is such a mixed bag of manual and CNC operations that it can be challenging to tailor a computer-related article that will interest most of our readers. This one should be an exception. It’s about a technology that can bridge many gaps between advanced users of CNC, CAD and CAM, and those who have little of it in their own shops, but who receive requests for quotes and parts data in the form of CAD files. And you may already have it – or a big piece of it – on your PCs. It’s the 3D function in Adobe Acrobat. It reads 3D PDF files. If you don’t have the Acrobat reader (where have you been?), it’s a free download from Adobe.

Without it, reading 3D CAD files just so you can look at them can be a problem – there are many formats, and they aren’t compatible. Making notes (“annotating”) and turning them into instructions for cutting, bending, and so on is another challenge. Acrobat’s 3D function, like its better-known 2D screen representations, provide a universal format that everyone can read, and even the free reader allows you to rotate the images in 3D, to see many views, to make notes and comments, and so on. 

Unless your customers have sent you 3D Acrobat files, you may not even know that you have the 3D capability. If you do receive one, and open it in the Acrobat reader, a new set of tools will pop up. If this is news to you, stop right here, go to Adobe’s site, and search on “3D.” It may open up a huge opportunity for you. 

If you know all about it and it’s old hat to you, the rest of this story is where it gets interesting. Programs that interact with Acrobat give you vastly greater capabilities. You can create and modify the files, and you can extract data for other uses. And you don’t need 3D Acrobat files from your customer. One particular program, called Tetra4D Enrich, allows you to work within the Acrobat environment; using an associated program, you can start with any of over 20 different native CAD formats, and output 10 others. If your customer sends you Pro/Engineer files and you work with SolidWorks, this may solve your problems – especially so if you have three other departments who have neither program, but who need to view, archive, price or analyze the work being done on the shop floor, and you don’t want to buy more seats of your expensive CAD program just so some non-manufacturing department can keep track of what’s going on.

Fab Shop is not a CAD/CAM magazine, but if we were, we would now lay out 5,000 words describing program details, functions, upstream and downstream compatibility, and so on. But we’re not, so, instead, we’ll present the short version describing one new program of this type, which has an enormous number of features and capabilities, some of which could save you a lot of time and improve your productivity. It works in the Acrobat Pro environment, and, unlike Adobe’s free reader, Pro is not free. Think of the following as a window into the ways you can use Adobe’s universal program to improve your operations. It’s a big jump into advanced CAD/CAM and data-handling capabilities. If it sounds like something for you, you can follow up with the experts at TechSoft 3D, who produce Tetra4D Enrich, as well as other programs that work with Acrobat 3D. This window, also, is not free. But it may replace a lot of other software that is, collectively, a lot less free.

Tetra 4D Enrich serves what is called the “Model Based Enterprise” (MBE).The concept is that your 3D models, or the ones you get from customers, are a cornucopia of data that you can use in many ways to streamline, automate, and optimize your production and other company operations. It’s a very big idea, and we can only suggest what the scope of it is. But this is how the company describes it:

(As you probably have experienced, it seems to be hard for IT people these days to give explanations without using abstract terms, because the interactivity of today’s manufacturing software creates a network that looks like a roadmap of downtown Manhattan. So we’ll just let them run with it and let it soak in by osmosis. Get their engineers down on the ground, one-on-one, if you need clarifications.)

“People often use more than one CAD system and manufacturers need the ability to easily and quickly combine the CAD data with critical metadata and business intelligence, add interactivity between the 3D and 2D data, and share that in a lightweight format with anyone, even non-CAD users,” said Dave Opsahl, VP Corporate Development of Tech Soft 3D and former Executive Director of the 3D PDF Consortium.

3D PDF is Essential for a Model Based Enterprise

“Model based enterprise is a business strategy, a set of practices and technology with the goal to leverage the outcome of a model based design (MBD) activity by delivering all of the information relevant to a workflow or set of workflows in the most efficient way possible. That kind of information can and does exist in multiple forms, including non-graphic or metadata, 3D models, 2D data from CAD as well as other critical business systems like project lifecycle management (PLM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP). As important to what information is provided, is how it is delivered.

“3D PDF plays a crucial role in a company’s ability to execute an effective MBE strategy, and this approach is already saving manufacturers significant time and money. Using 3D PDF to get these fully annotated, properly constrained models downstream in an efficient manner is ideal because companies already have strategies for utilizing 2D PDF in their existing processes for managing engineering change and release-to-manufacturing (mark-up, comment, review) and can serve to reduce or even replace 2D drawings.In addition, a 3D PDF can be archived long-term as a technical data package (TDP). 

[Editor’s note: take a deep breath, and continue…]


Combining 3D CAD images and tabular data, such as this materials specification listing, ties into the manufacturing database with visualization and specification data in one interactive document.

If 3D PDF is So Great, Why isn’t Everyone Using It?

“As research has shown, using 3D annotated models is highly beneficial, so why haven’t more companies adopted this process? 

“The truth is that it’s quite difficult to create compelling 3D PDFs without a costly, customized solution or having programing expertise. The average manufacturer typically can’t afford to do a custom, complex solution.And to build a 3D PDF on the desktop requires someone that has extensive programming expertise – again, something that the average manufacturer typically doesn’t have. 

“And while there are more solutions coming to market that can generate 3D PDF’s, not all 3D PDF’s are created equal.The functionality of most 3D PDF solutions stops at providing little more than 3D data on a page. There is value there for communication and for workflows such as design review. However, there isn’t the ability to support additional workflows such as maintenance and repair, inspection, work instructions, release to manufacturing or any other workflow. 

“Tetra 4D Enrich is a solution that allows anyone to create data-rich, interactive 3D PDFs inside of Adobe Acrobat and without the need for development skills.It consolidates all required product information in one document (CAD, metadata, external data like ERP or PLM attributes) to make it interactive.Users are able to create their own template, as well as utilize existing templates that are highly customizable. Once one of these templates are created they can be reused to create compelling documents such as work instructions, part catalogs, maintenance or repair documents and technical data packages. 

“The interactive 3D PDF created with Tetra4D Enrich functions more like an “app” that has all the data needed to support a workflow and allows the user to consume the data using the ubiquitous Acrobat reader.The Tetra4D Enrich interactive 3D PDF “app” also enables the user and other stakeholders to review multiple steps in a process in one document, as opposed to reviewing dozens or hundreds of static individual pages of each item or step in a process. Data can also be captured in any business process, and forwarded for further processing by other applications.

“Today’s engineering documentation requires specialized interpretation, leading to errors that cost real money,” said Chad Jackson, analyst at Lifecycle Insights.“Confusion over CAD applications and formats and ensuring project stakeholders even have the right version of the engineering deliverable is an issue that persists. Being able to quickly and easily create 3D documentation that contain all the data necessary for anyone, even non-CAD users, to provide feedback and make informed decisions will provide a tremendous savings in time and money, and enable stakeholders to focus on the most important aspects of a task.”


Wondering where that screw goes? You can ‘disassemble’ the 3D image on your screen to look for it – or just click a link to it — instead of guessing.

If you followed all of that, you’re ahead of the game and you’re in a sweet spot for taking advantage of Acrobat’s ability to bring disparate sources of data together, and in TechSoft 3D’s happy zone for helping you to make all of it work for you.

If it seems a little abstract and beyond what you’re doing, be aware that it is there when you need it. And go back to the beginning of this article and look into using Acrobat’s 3D function. It could be a game-changer that makes the rest of this data-handling story relevant to your future needs and opportunities.

We’ll do our best to keep up.

Adobe Acrobat Reader


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