Deal made to continue 3D technology development behind PDF

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Back in November 2009 we reported that Adobe had allegedly laid off most of the employees in its Manufacturing Solutions Group . Since then, there has been no word on what Adobe was planning on doing with regard to the development of 3D in PDF or its focus on the engineering sector. This month, it emerged that a deal has been done between Adobe and CAD / graphics component supplier TechSoft 3D that will offer some clarity on what will happen with 3D in PDF.

Before we look at what this new deal might mean for the future of 3D PDF, it’s worth going over a little bit of history. In 2006 Adobe introduced Acrobat 3D, a new version heralding the inclusion of lightweight 3D, in the form of the U3D format. Adobe had realised that PDF was big in AEC (Architecture, Engineering, Construction) and took the plunge to incorporate the ability to capture 3D geometry in an open format. Up until that point the various CAD firms had all been trying very hard to give away their ‘open’ 3D formats to try and dominate the collaboration slice of the 3D market but nobody had reached critical mass. It was hoped that Adobe could be the big gorilla to drive through a standard. Unfortunately U3D was not a brilliant format, could get quite large in terms of file size, and there were not many ways to create U3D. In addition, as most CAD vendors had their own formats they were already promoting, not many wanted to include U3D capabilities.

Adobe then made a significant acquisition, buying Trade and Technologies France (TTF), a developer of data translation and viewing tools. TTF was a respected provider of CAD file conversion tools, which now gave Adobe the ability to create 3D PDF from the majority of key CAD applications, as well as a new highly compressed b-rep file format called PRC (Product Representation Compact). PRC has the ability to save geometry in low-level tessellated or high-level b-rep formats, the latter of which is so accurate it has been said you could machine off it. With this technology included in PDF, Adobe produced Acrobat Pro Extended in 2008. This version of Acrobat could be used to import many native CAD formats and included assembly information, object hierarchies and PMI for embedding in PDF documents. Adobe also worked with TechSoft 3D (www.hoops3d.com) to sell development kits (SDKs) to CAD developers, providing all the translation tools plus native PDF creation for a pretty aggressive price. A year and a half later the majority of the team behind that product at Adobe was let go.
It seems that the 3D element in Acrobat failed to get a lot of traction and combined with a bank-induced global downturn, Adobe decided that the manufacturing market was not core to its business so closed down the division. This left some big questions. What happens to 3D in PDF? What happens to the TTF translators? What now for getting 3D data into PDF? In recent weeks I’ve had two conversations: one with Ron Fritz, CEO of TechSoft 3D and the other with Kumar Vora, VP enterprise product strategy and marketing at Adobe to get some answers.TechSoft 3D probably isn’t that well known to engineers or product designers and that’s because it sells tools and capabilities to 3D developers. In the last few years, the company has collected a host of important layers which are found in many of the world’s design tools: the HOOPS 3D graphics engine, RealDWG (Autodesk’s DWG/DXF engine), Parasolid (Siemens PLM Solutions’ solid modelling kernel), AutoCAD OEM (complete AutoCAD to create custom applications) and Adobe’s PDF SDK.

In the new deal between TechSoft 3D and Adobe, the TTF team transfers to TechSoft where it will continue to develop the CAD translation tools and the PRC format. TechSoft 3D keeps the Acrobat SDK kit and is free to licence that to whoever it wants. As the PRC format has been submitted as an ISO open format, although owned by Adobe, Techsoft will continue to work and enhance the format for inclusion within future versions of PDF. Techsoft 3D can also now sell the import / export translation tools separately, opening up the possibility of a new component business for the company.

To give an indication of how big a deal this will be for Techsoft 3D, the addition of the TTF employees will almost double the size of the company. No financial numbers have been mentioned with regards to how this deal is structured. For now, it’s just the people and technology swaps. From the Adobe perspective, by dealing with Techsoft 3D, it has ensured further development of the PRC format and has also off-loaded the team and cost of developing CAD translation tools that it felt it no longer wanted to do. However the two key changes moving forward will be that Acrobat will no longer offer native CAD import tools or the PDF authoring application (for creating animation assemblies and such like). Those wishing to get 3D CAD into PDF, or animate the geometry, will have to purchase an additional authoring tool such as Anark or Lattice Technology

Adobe considers 2D CAD formats such as AutoCAD DWG to be core and will keep developing support for that in-house. Acrobat Pro Extended will continue, as it had ‘many other functions which power-customers use’. Vora was resolute that the engineering industry is still very important to the company. The difference from before will be that the technology behind its solutions will not be its own core development. I was told that Adobe is hopefully weeks away from announcing another deal with an unnamed company to assist in pushing Adobe’s excellent Livecycle enterprise systems into manufacturing. Using Livecycle, companies like PTC offer the ability to control access to 3D models over the web. For instance access can be limited to selected geometry, time limited, password protected and even remotely locked or deleted – without any document management system being present. Obviously CAD integration knowledge is required and Adobe will be announcing a new partner soon.

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What looked like Adobe’s ‘car-crash’ exit from the manufacturing market appears to have finally had a relatively decent resolution. Adobe gets continuity by outsourcing, while Techsoft 3D gets a new line of business. All those CAD developers that were worried that Adobe was going to ‘own’ the engineering publishing market can breathe slightly easier.

The question now will be: how can this arrangement help the engineering market regain confidence in the PDF format? If confidence is not restored PDF will be replaced with one of the many other ‘open’ publishing formats out there, such as Siemen’s PLM Solutions JT format. It may very well be replaced by PRC! With the translation tools no longer inside Acrobat Pro Extended, and no focussed marketing team, I wonder if Adobe will ever again truly promote PDF in engineering?


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