The future of 3D PDF

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PDF is used widely in the design community as a common way to share 2D drawings and documents. While support for 3D was added in 2005, last year, Adobe appeared to withdraw its commitment to the design industry. Martyn Day reports

Adobe PDF is a wonderful thing. Originally from the development of PostScript, a standard for graphics and text sent to printers, Adobe soon realised that it was a digital way to present information with a fixed, consistent layout similar to a paper publication across various competing computer platforms. PDF is truly a Portable Document Format that has become the standard across many industries, with Adobe charging for tools to create PDFs but making it free to view them.

PDF has the ability to hold 3D models. Adobe has passed on development to Tech Soft 3D and tools providers like Tetra 4D. The new 3D PDF consortium invites interested companies to join the organisation and guide future development.

Openness is an important element to Adobe’s strategy. While the company remains in charge of the PDF definition, it also publishes the format for others to use and engage with aiming to get PDF as accepted standards with bodies such as ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation). This has helped guarantee that PDF is the de facto standard for digital documentation.

In the CAD world, the omnipresence of PDF is similar but this came more by accident than design. While it was possible to convert DWG files to PDF, Adobe had not really concentrated its efforts on the design market, so when the company turned to address the architecture and engineering segment it found that it had surreptitiously become a de facto standard without really knowing it. Around 2005, with the release of Acrobat 7 it was obvious that Adobe was starting to really focus on the CAD market and had opted to support 3D in PDF through Intel’s U3D format (Universal3D), which while ‘open’ was unfortunately not universally endorsed. In fact it was quite the opposite, with each CAD vendor deciding to have its own 3D publishing standard (Autodesk had DWG, Siemens had JT and Dassault Systemes has 3DXML, to name but a few).

The following year Adobe released a bespoke

3D variant of Acrobat and the company had acquired the French file format reverse engineering developer TTF and so had gained the PRC file format (Product Representation Compact). This highly compressed 3D file provided both tessellated (inaccurate) and B-rep (exact) geometry, together with a raft of translation tools that would usually have cost thousands of pounds. The release of Acrobat 3D was a significant event with Adobe now having CAD translation and high accuracy. In a market where CAD vendors couldn’t agree common standards, it was seen as a great hope that Adobe would take up the role of bridging the divide between proprietary file formats.

Pulling the plug

Sales of Acrobat 3D and subsequent 3D versions were slow and while it became ISO endorsed, there was still strong competition from CAD vendors which provided free tools to create their publishing formats, while Adobe charged a considerable sum for its tools. At some point a decision was made to exit the market and literally overnight the plug was pulled on the division, leaving many questions as Adobe ‘killed’ its high-end 3D products.


As the 3D/PRC part of PDF, Adobe still needed to own it but it had no in-house capability and so partnered with a component company called Tech Soft 3D to develop and maintain the 3D PDF library.

Adobe also sold the 3D translator business and technology to Tech Soft 3D together with the development team in Lyon, France. To sell these translation tools, Tech Soft 3D formed a new company called Tetra 4D to provide Acrobat data exchange plug-ins. So if you want to use PDF and 3D, you will need to source a suite a tools on top of the Adobe writer.

3D PDF consortium

Recently Tetra4D, Adobe, Actify, Anark, ITI, Techsoft3D and a number of other firms launched a new consortium to help guide the development of 3D PDF and the PRC file format.

Called the 3D PDF Consortium, it is responsible for collating the requirements of its members and providing input to the various standards organisations for the ongoing development of the formats. It is hoped that firms in AEC and engineering will join and impact the development of 3D PDF, promoting it as an open industry endorsed standard. With a number of developers on board, the consortium will work to provide development toolkits for publishing to 3D PDF from software applications as well as provide SDKs and APIs within Adobe Acrobat and, importantly, the free Adobe Reader’s support for 3D PDF and PRC.


Our industry is going 3D and while Adobe was perhaps premature, its absence on the 3D stage is greatly missed. A solution for continued development with Tech Soft 3D and new Tetra 4D offers some respite but 3D PDF is now a diluted force.

That said, the current solution keeps it alive and in development, if a little messy. The 3D PDF Consortium is an opportunity for your firm to get involved and shape the future of 3D in PDF, who knows, it may eventually win through.

I should also point out that Adobe hasn’t given up on the 2D drawing and technology market. The company recently launched a new version of its Technical Communication Suite (TCS), a publishing/ authoring system which includes: Acrobat X Suite, FrameMaker, RoboHelp, Captivate and Photoshop. Adobe’s TCS is a good solution for 2D workflows but firms that are moving to a model-based design system will find this system limiting. |


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