Deal made to continue 3D technology development behind PDF

Published 26 May 2010

Posted by Martyn Day

Article tagged with: adobe, ttf, hoops, techsoft3d, anark, ron fritz, acrobat pro extended, components, prc, pdf

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 (http://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.

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?

Comments:

Martyn as far as I am concerned this is a disaster for 3D PDF. Adobe, with Acrobat 8 and 9 Extended had a fantastic translation tool that opened up practically every 2D and 3D format around - and did so very well I might add - including all the heavy hitters like CATIA v5 and NX. Now end users are faced with buying translators for each system. Techsoft makes its money by selling interoperability tools. Do you really see them offering a translation package that opens all the same formats and saves to 3D PDF for a few hundred quid? Oink Oink! There goes the flying pigs now! Adobe dominate the graphics market with the Creative Suite. Adobe had all the tools in place to revolutionise the creation of technical documentation. All they had to do was allow Indesign and Illustrator to import - and manipulate - 3D data directly. Imagine creating a fitting instruction sheet and importing the native CATIA v5 data into Indesign, changing the views, hiding parts, cutaways, exploding assemblies etc, then changing the vector rendering style. You could do all that in Acrobat 9 Extended -apart from the import to Indesign bit. All the more relevant given Indesign CS5's additional interactivity tools! The technical illustration market is poorly supplied with value tools. Apps like Arbortext (IsoDraw) and 3D VIA Composer are excellent but hellishly expensive. Apps like Quadrispace are too Microsoft Office like for the professional graphic designer. Apps like Deep Exploration, whilst offering excellent .ai export and illustration tools are not focussed enough and too expensive for most. What Adobe could have done is created a new version of the Creative Suite for the Manufacturing/AEC market that had all the tools we need to create technical documentation using native data sets - both for print and for interactive use - with pdf being the delivery platform. A lost opportunity. If Google/@Last software could create a great little app like Layout - which does page layout and imports and directly manipulates SketchUp files on the 2D page - why couldn't Adobe? Once again the accountants seem to dominate the strategic (lack of) thinking at major software vendors.

Posted by Kevin Quigley on 26 May 2010 at 12:52 PM

Kevin, I don’t think Adobe failed at 3D because they didn’t include the 3D import capability in their other products. They failed at 3D because they never understood how the manufacturing community really works. You may see the ‘low cost translation’ capabilities of Acrobat 3D Pro as a huge plus, but that’s not the reason Adobe got into this market in the first place. If that was the reason that compelled them to get into this business, I pity the company for having poor strategic thinkers. What a deep-pocketed company has learnt from this disaster (as you call it) are many things, which at first blush, seem quite obvious to anyone with any kind of knowledge of the manufacturing, and specifically CAx, industry: (i) CAD data is a different beast from anything Adobe has worked with before and does not offer up easy solutions; ii) Adobe is fighting entrenched, and equally deep-pocketed, competitors who will fight Adobe’s attempt to dominate the technical publishing business; iii) Adobe grabbed the wrong end of the stick by focusing on pushing applications instead of focusing on “3D tech pub platform” evangelism. Defining the place holders for 3D data - U3D or some variant of it – in the PDF file, working (provide funding to?) with the CAD vendors to support U3D in their products, remaining agnostic about the source of such data, creating an ecosystem around the 3D data in PDF by providing purpose-specific tools are some of the many ways they should promote this vision. I believe even the current agreement with TechSoft3D is a blind and unwarranted continuation of Adobe\'s flawed strategy to begin with and their desperate attempt at salvaging a sinking ship. Adobe should have the gumption to ditch all its application products in this space, define its role clearly as a platform provider and leave others with the knowledge and motivation to fill in the gaps. The ‘others’ here is not TechSoft3D and the Acrobat 3D Pro is not the product. In all honesty it is the Cax vendors themselves and their products that have to embrace 3D PDF. Otherwise its doomed and Adobe might as well send in the obituary now. But who will bell the cat?

Posted by Guts N\'Glory on 28 May 2010 at 04:33 PM

Guts N\'Glory - I fully agree that it'll be the CAx vendors who can either make 3D PDF (either U3D or PRC) a success or not. Those CAx vendors will need two things to do that a)demand from end users for the format (TBD) and b) access to the necessary technology to read/write 3D PDF. It's that second part where Tech Soft 3D comes in. We're an agnostic toolkit provider. This is why Adobe chose to work with us, because we would get the necessary technology into the hands of developers who wish to support it. Whether developers will do that or not of course remains to seen, but I think Adobe would agree with you as well, that their best strategy is to focus on being a platform provider and leave others with the knowledge and motivation to fill in the gaps. Again, you are right that Tech Soft 3D will not be the ones filling those gaps. What we will be doing, though is providing enabling technology to any CAx vendors with the knowledge and motivation to fill those gaps. I hope that helps.

Posted by Ron Fritz on 28 May 2010 at 05:33 PM

Guts N Glory, I agree with some of your points but the core issue here is I think that Adobe had the unique opportunity of controlling the full workflow for CAD re-use. If they had introduced Acrobat 9 with Creative Suite 4 and had Indesign/Illustrator and Photoshop the ability to import a 3D PDF, and provided the tools to manipulate it/change rendering styles etc, they would have wiped the floor with the techniocal documentation market. Instead they focused on trying to offer Acrobat as a standalone solution. Adobe's core market is graphics not 3D, but graphic designers need to access 3D data all the time, and Acrobat Extended was the medium to do this, giving access to every major format around at a price point that graphic design professionals are used to. I'm not knocking Techsoft - they make great products - but I do not see any ad agency on the planet buying, say, a $2000 CATIA v5 importer to create 3D PDFs. The point is what are you going to DO with the 3D PDF? If the major graphic apps cannot import and manipulate them there is no point in the format. Graphic designers will continue to ask the client companies or other in house departments to send them static drawings as 2D PDF or .AI formats straight from the CAD system. 3D PDF direct import would have enabled live editing in the context of the page design. I use SolidWorks. I can export drawings as 2D PDF and .ai perfectly. But for 2D and 3D data and engineering communications I use E drawings (another Techsoft product). What is the point in 3D PDF in that scenario?

Posted by Kevin Quigley on 28 May 2010 at 07:15 PM

Ron, "platform providers" do not need, and might I say cannot use, intermediaries to evangelize their platforms. There many obvious reasons why an intermediary wont work. If Adobe has any hope of getting CAx vendors to support 3D PDF, they have to make the case directly to the vendors for it to be credible. Microsoft does not use proxies to 'push' its platform on vendors. Techsoft3D is nothing more than a proxy and does not have the deep pockets For Adobe to make a serious run at establishing 3D PDF as a defacto standard in manufacturing, it also has to fight the vendor's suspicion that it will encroach on an area (technical publishing) that the CAx vendors believe is their domain. PTC's Arbortext purchase & Dassault's acquisition in this area are evidence of this. Kevin is partly right that Adobe should focus on extending its tools to work with 3D data in either U3D or PRC formats. Unfortunately for Adobe, the CAx vendors are'nt going to sit back and let Adobe have a free run at the technical publishing market. So Adobe has their work cut out for them in making the CAx vendors output 3D PDF data for its own applications to use downstream. Whether the vendors will do so after Adobe's aborted & clumsy attempt at trying to encroach on the 3D data manipulation market remains to be seen. Given today's market conditions, I am willing to bet that Adobe will not succeed, with or without Techsoft3D. Nevertheless, I dont think this 3D PDF evangelizing work with the CAx vendors can be outsourced. If Adobe doesnt do it, 3D PDF is DOA. And it is not dependent on the tools Techsoft3D got from Adobe, as much as Techsoft3D would like to think so.

Posted by David Frost on 30 May 2010 at 02:14 AM

David, Thanks for the comment. I hope my earlier post didn't suggest that Tech Soft feels our role is to do the evangelical work for 3D PDF. We think 3D PDF certainly has plenty of merits but you are correct that we don't have the resources for a global push to get an entire global industry to adopt a particular format. We're not in that business. We're an independent toolkit provider who helps developers create the applications they envision by giving them the necessary development tools. We also supply tools for many other formats, so we're here to help developers do what they want to do, not to convert the world to one format or another. I will say, though, that demand for PRC (3D PDF) publishing is quite high based on the inquiries we have gotten from many CAx vendors since our announcement. Are there some CAx vendors with their own formats who aren't so inclined? I'm sure there are. As I mentioned above, the success of 3D PDF won't depend solely on Tech Soft 3D by a long stretch - our making tools available is only one facet of what would be required. I mentioned it will require end users to ask for it and software developers to be willing support it. Whether that will happen or not, as you say, remains to be seen. We've been encouraged by what we are hearing from major manufacturers who want to use a public standard, but only time will tell.

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