What are your first thoughts when you hear the words “pdf” and “product development?”

When I first heard them together, I have to admit that I wasn’t buzzing with excitement. Sure, there are lots of documents involved in product development, but I there’s nothing specific about that for engineering. My general expectation is that pdf is all about text. Many software providers can drop 3D models into those pdfs nowadays. But that’s a pretty generic capability, right?

Well, it turns out, I couldn’t be more wrong.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked with the folks at Tetra4D to understand exactly what their products can do. This post provides a little background on the company and the products, gives some detail on the capabilities of the product and my commentary on what it means for engineering organizations.


Back in April 2006, Adobe acquired a company called Trade and Technologies France (TTF), developers of CAD translation software (press release). Adobe took the technologies gained through that acquisition to add 3D geometry representation and CAD import and export capabilities to their Acrobat and Reader products.

In 2010, Adobe passed responsibilities for the capabilities related to 3D in Acrobat and Reader to Tetra4D, a company founded by former Adobe employee Greg Baker and Craig Trudgeon, formerly of Right Hemisphere. In January 2011, Tetra4D announced the release of their 3D PDF Converter product for Adobe Acrobat X Pro (press release).

Capabilities Provided

Next, we’ll get into some of the capabilities that Tetra4D’s 3D PDF Converter offers. But first, we need to get some basics out the way like how and when this software works.

What Does What

To properly understand what’s going on here, realize that there are three pieces of software at work.

  • Acrobat: This is the application from Adobe that lets you compose documents and then publish them into a PDF format. Lots of other applications can publish to PDF formats. But this one is Adobe’s offering for that purpose.
  • 3D PDF Converter: This is the application from Tetra4D that runs inside Acrobat. It lets you import CAD models into the PDF. You can intermix the 3D model with other types of content that Adobe supports like text, tables and the like.
  • Reader: This is the free application from Adobe that lets you open PDF files. Those files might have been published from any number of different applications, including Adobe’s Acrobat.

OK. That’s the context. Now lets look at what 3D PDF Converter does.

Unlocking More Functionality in Adobe’s Reader

Now, is 3D PDF Converter the only application that lets you publish 3D models in a PDF format? No. In fact, there are a good number of other applications let you publish a 3D model into that format. So what exactly does Tetra’s product do differently? Actually, quite a bit. But interestingly enough, it’s not what 3D PDF Converter does in Acrobat, Adobe’s publishing application, but what it does in Adobe’s Reader.

After Adobe spun the responsibilities for 3D PDF Converter out to Tetra4D, they still kept a lot of 3D functionality in Reader. But here’s the catch: you need to enable that functionality within the PDF when you publish it. Specifically, here is a list of some key capabilities that need to be turned on in such a manner.

  • Measurement: This includes measuring distances, lengths and all sorts of other activities where you interrogate 3D geometry to get a value.
  • Markup: This includes commenting on the 3D model and its various specific geometry. To be unambiguous with feedback, you often want to point to attach annotations to specific pieces of geometry.
  • Cross-Sectioning: This includes using cutting planes to clip away different aspects of the model to see ‘inside.’

How do you get this capability in Adobe’s Reader? You have to publish the PDF from Adobe with 3D PDF Converter. No other application can ‘flip the switch’ to enable this functionality within Reader, even though it is there.

Integration with Enterprise Systems

Now of course, accessing the sort of functionality in Reader is interesting. We’ll get into some commentary and analysis on that in the next section. However, there’s another set of functionality that’s very intriguing.

  • You can embed javascript in PDF files. Here’s an Adobe javascript in PDF reference that shares a little more detail on how it works. But the important thing is that in the context of product development, that javascript can be used to interact with enterprise systems like PLM and ERP. Specifically, you can pull information out of it and you can put information into it.
  • You can add fillable forms to PDF files. Here’s another Adobe forms in PDF reference that talks a little bit about how it works. But basically you can create a PDF document that can be filled out and that information can be put into an enterprise system like PLM or ERP.
  • This interaction can be overlaid on 3D geometry. Overall, this isn’t just about text in a PDF. The 3D PDF Converter functionality actually lets you overlay the information from enterprise systems like PLM and ERP on top of the CAD model to give it context.

So what does this all mean? It means you could do something like this.

Build an ECO document that pulls all of the necessary process information out of the PLM system for approvals. It could also pull inventory levels out of ERP. And it would bring in the appropriate 3D model, highlighting the part that is affected by the change. All of that comes together in a single PDF file. Individuals could fill out more information in PDF fields. They could rotate the model, take measurements and cross sections in the PDF. They could annotate it with concerns about the change. Approvals could be made within the PDF. This could then move the workflow in the PLM system to the next step. And all a user has to do is interact with a PDF file through Adobe’s Reader.

Services from Tetra4D

So how would you set up Tetra4D’s 3D PDF Converter to do these types of things? Interestingly, Tetra4D has been working hard at developing their own service offerings in these areas. These services fall into two main categories: Systems Integrations and User Alignment. Per Craig Trudgeon, here’s the quick rundown of what they entail.

Systems integration services are focused on the interoperability of the current systems in place and 3D PDF, and thereby creating a more complete data structure or replication. To do this we leverage PLM connectors and custom importers to move and associated key data elements to 3D PDF, which is ultimately deployed visually. We spoke about some of those last week, for example, extracting parts cost or inventory from an erp system and delivering that I a 3D PDF to a specific user. Most systems integrations are targeted in adding data to the 3D PDF and hence enriching it.

User Alignment is somewhat different. This is really tailoring the deliverable, a 3D PDF, to a specific users needs as part of the process. User Alignment services are focused on configuring a rich 3D PDF to be efficiently consumable by the end user. Most User Alignment services are targeted at delivering a complex 3D PDF template or templates that are tuned to meet the viewer’s needs. These templates can range from a universal document with a custom UI for something like Visual BOM navigation all the way through to an author 3D PDF, that includes 3D representation, instruction’s, videos and narrative, and then deliver this to a company for an existing product.

Commentary and Analysis

OK. So far, we’ve talked a lot about what Tetra4D’s 3D PDF Converter does. But what does it mean? Let’s take a look.

Easier Participation in Design Reviews

The reality of product design today is that it extends far further than engineering. You have to take into account serviceability, manufacturability and other considerations. You have to look at inventory levels, supply chain capability and supplier characteristics. You need people from many different departments to weigh in on decisions in the design process. And if you are using Adobe’s Acrobat and Tetra4D’s 3D PDF Converter, do you know what they need to participate?

Adobe Reader

That’s it. No special software installation. No special plugins. No learning new tools. No painful adoption. Just Adobe Reader. Which in all likelihood, they already have installed. Adobe Reader is widely proliferated. In effect, that minimizes the barrier to getting them involved in the design process. And in today’s environment of running lean organizations, which is code for understaffed, that is often the difference between doing it and not doing it.

Design Review and DFX types of initiatives are longstanding. They have proven to contribute value in the product development process. This can be a major enabler of that type of initiative.

The only thing to consider is how much time and effort it will take to prepare such PDF files with Adobe Acrobat and 3D PDF Converter. At some level, that file must be composed. Compare that to the effort that it takes you to get these stakeholders involved today, if you can get them involved.

Easing PLM Deployment

I don’t think its any secret that some PLM deployments have been painful. Part of the pain from those deployments come from pushback in user adoption. Many employees are used to doing something the same way. And change unsettles them. With the combination of Acrobat, 3D PDF Converter, javascript in PDF and PDF forms, there is a serious alternative to consider. Not in actually deploying PLM. But in how it is presented to end users. PDF files can actually become the interface in executing such processes for some users. It can be made to look exactly like the process forms they have been using for users, only interactive. And in fact, using PDF files as such an interface might be more advantageous than using the PLM system directly anyway. It can actually aggregate information from many other systems like ERP to present relevant information.

Before you rush off to make PDF the front end to your PLM system, however, consider two things. First, how much effort will it take to build out such PDFs. There will be some services work required to script them out correctly. Second, think about how such PDF files will be circulated. If they are simply emailed around, you will likely run into the same issues with circulating any document. They can become lost in someone’s email inbox or accidentally deleted.

In complicated decision-making processes that depend on information from many enterprise systems, however, it may well be worth far more than the effort required to get it set up.

Conclusions and Questions

Lots of information, I know. Let’s recap and get into some questions.

  • Tetra4D’s 3D PDF Converter product runs inside of Adobe Acrobat. It allows users to import CAD models and combine them with other types of content supported by Acrobat. PDF files published in such a manner can be opened by Adobe’s Reader.
  • Using Tetra4D’s 3D PDF Converter inside Adobe Acrobat to publish PDFs turns on several functionalities within Adobe’s Reader. Namely, it allows users to measure, markup and cross-section the geometry. Using Tetra4D’s product is the only way to access this functionality.
  • Using Adobe functionality to embed javascript and forms in PDFs can provide a new interface to PLM and other enterprise systems. The further combined use of Tetra4D’s 3D PDF Converter allows information from such enterprise systems to be overlaid on the CAD model.

Now, let’s recap what it means.

  • Getting stakeholders to participate in design reviews and DFX initiatives only requires Adobe Reader, which is likely already installed, if Adobe’s Acrobat and Tetra4D’s 3D PDF Converter is used to publish the PDF. This makes it very easy for them to participate in these processes and initiatives.
  • Using PDFs with javascript, forms and 3D models as a front end to PLM and other enterprise systems makes for easier deployment of new processes and procedures as it can still trigger processes within PLM yet look and feel like longstanding document forms.

Ready for questions? I’d like to hear opinions on the biggest barriers to getting non-engineering stakeholders involved in design reviews and DFX activities. Do you think these capabilities help address them? What about using PDFs as an aggregation point for enterprise information and interactive forms? Sound off and let us know your thoughts.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.