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AECbytes Product Review (July 25, 2007)

Adobe Acrobat 3D Version 8

Product Summary

Adobe Acrobat 3D allows professionals from the AEC and manufacturing industries to publish 3D design information in PDF format and share it for review with any user who has access to the free Adobe Reader software.

Pros: New version provides direct support for the DWG and DWF file formats, making it easier for 3D content from CAD and BIM applications to be converted to 3D PDF; retains all the object property data from DWF and other files formats, leading to a much richer PDF; interface enhancements include a new Tilt tool for rotating building models so that they remain vertical, improved transition between views, and the ability to hide and isolate parts of a model; better compression leading to smaller file sizes; includes all the enhancements from Acrobat 8.0 Professional including more PDF creation options, the ability to assemble a diverse array of documents into a PDF package, a new shared review capability, one-click Acrobat Connect launch, and some 2D CAD specific improvements.

Cons: The creation of 3D PDF from BIM applications such as Revit and ArchiCAD is not directly supported; the graphic display of the 3D content is poor compared to the display quality in other 3D modeling and visualization applications; missing some useful interface features such as a Zoom Extents tool and the ability to select multiple objects; twice as expensive as Acrobat 8.0 Professional.

Price: $995 for the full version; $295 for upgrade from the previous version of Acrobat 3D; $545 for upgrade from Acrobat 8.0 Professional.

Adobe recently released the new version of its Acrobat 3D application, which had been launched last year to extend the visualization, publishing, and collaboration capabilities of the ubiquitous Adobe PDF format from 2D documents and drawings to 3D models. It is targeted primarily towards design engineering, technical publishing and creative professionals in industries such as manufacturing (including automotive, aerospace, machinery, etc.) and AEC, where 3D is becoming increasingly more significant. It allows 3D design information from most of the major CAD and BIM applications to be published in PDF format and shared for review with any computer user who has access to the free Adobe Reader software.

The new version of Acrobat 3D incorporates some key technologies Adobe gained from its acquisition of TTF, a small, privately held company based in France, including a highly compressed file format called PRC. This allows Acrobat 3D Version 8 to now provide precise and highly compressed conversion of native CAD formats to PDF, enhanced capabilities for viewing and navigating 3D models, and the ability to convert files in several CAD formats to PDF without having a CAD application on the computer. While many of these enhancements are more applicable to the manufacturing industry, Acrobat 3D Version 8 does include some AEC-specific enhancements that we will explore in this review.

For those not familiar with the application, please refer to my review of the first version of Acrobat 3D published last year, which will provide a detailed overview of its functionality.

Improvements Relevant to AEC

Recall that there are three ways to get 3D content into the PDF format for use in Acrobat 3D. Files in several CAD formats can be directly converted to PDF, while some other file formats can be opened using the Acrobat 3D Toolkit (a separate but associated application that is installed along with Acrobat 3D) and saved as U3D (Universal 3D) files that can then be opened in Acrobat 3D. Content from other CAD and BIM applications can be brought in using the 3D Capture utility, which works with the OpenGL rendering mode. While the Capture method only captures geometric information about the model, the first two methods preserve information such as layers and object names. They also preserve dimensional information and material and texture information more accurately than a 3D capture, and are therefore preferable.

Acrobat 3D Version 8 expands the range of file formats that can be directly converted to PDF. While most of the newly supported formats are more common in the manufacturing industry, there are two that should be very useful to AEC: DWG and DWF. Direct support for these means that files in these formats can simply be dragged and dropped into Acrobat 3D for conversion to PDF. Thus, for an application like Autodesk Revit, you can now save files in the DWG or DWF format to get them into Acrobat 3D, in addition to using the DGN format or the 3D Capture methods that were demonstrated in the last review. Figure 1 shows a Revit Structure file, the DWF file exported from it, and the PDF file generated from that DWF file. As you can see, the PDF file captures the same object property data as the DWF file. Its size is a little larger: 94 KB compared to the 38 KB of the DWF file. The size of the original Revit Structure file is 3.2 MB, which shows that the PDF still provides significant file size benefits, thanks to the advanced compression capabilities of the new PRC format incorporated in Acrobat 3D.

It should be noted that for DWF files exported from the latest releases of the Revit BIM applications, the PDF files created from them do not retain the object data as they do for DWF files exported from the earlier versions of Revit.


Figure 1. (a) A sample file in Revit Structure 4. (b) The 3D DWF file created from it. (c) The 3D PDF file created from the DWF file.

Other BIM applications such as ArchiCAD and the Bentley Building Suite have the ability to save models directly to the U3D format which is one of the main file formats that Acrobat 3D works with. Acrobat 3D also directly supports Bentley's DGN format. The Rhino format is directly supported as well, and files from other design and modeling applications such as SketchUp and form.Z can be saved in formats such as 3DS or OBJ from which PDF files can be created. For a geometric application like SketchUp that does not carry information about building objects, the 3D Capture method can also work just as well and can be quicker. After the Capture has been set up, it just takes one click of the Print Screen button to capture the SketchUp 3D model and bring it into Acrobat 3D. For the example shown in Figure 2, the size of the original SketchUp file is 412 KB while the size of the PDF file created from 3D Capture is substantially lower at 139 KB.


Figure 2. (a) A sample file in SketchUp. (b) The PDF generated from it using 3D Capture.

Acrobat 3D Version 8 features some improvements to the navigation and viewing of 3D models. A new Spin tool has been added that solves the earlier tilt problem so that a building model continues to remain vertical when rotated. Transition between the different saved views has been improved with a smooth animation from one view to another. In the last release, showing or hiding selected parts of the model involved manipulating the object listing in the model tree. Now you can directly select a part of the model and hide or isolate it or make it transparent, as shown in Figure 3. The option to zoom to it is also available. This makes it easier to create and save a variety of views showing different aspects of the building. Even users viewing the model using the free Adobe Reader have this ability to hide or isolate different parts to better understand the model. Unfortunately, there is no multiple select option which would make it easier to select multiple parts of the model and hide or isolate them in one step. It would also have been useful to have a Zoom Extents tool on the toolbar rather than in a menu as it currently is, since zooming the entire model to fit in the window is such a frequent requirement.


Figure 3. Making a wall of the building model transparent to examine it in more detail.

Other Enhancements

Acrobat 3D Version 8 includes all of the enhancements from Acrobat 8 Professional that were described in my review earlier this year, such as the new polished user interface with more screen real estate available for the document area, the expanded set of PDF creation options including a new "blank page" authoring interface for creating new PDF files directly within Acrobat, the ability to assemble a diverse array of documents into a PDF package instead of combining them into a single PDF file, a new shared review capability that stores comments in a central location increasing the efficiency of the review process, and a one-click Acrobat Connect launch that allows the collaboration to easily extend to real-time interactive web conferencing. It also includes some 2D CAD specific improvements such as batch conversion capability from within AutoCAD, improved conversion speeds, reduced file sizes, and commenting and markup enhancements.

In addition to the compression improvements mentioned earlier, Acrobat 3D Version 8 has enhanced performance with files opening up faster compared to the previous version. It also includes some critical enhancements for the manufacturing industry, such as the ability to display PMI (Product Manufacturing Information, which is used to convey information such as geometric dimensioning and tolerancing, annotations, dimensions, and other specifications) directly on the 3D model and from the assembly tree, and the ability to export precise geometry from PDF to the CAD formats used in manufacturing such as STEP, IGES and Parasolid. This reduces the need to create 2D drawings to share with suppliers, and also benefits suppliers by eliminating the need to buy expensive CAD translators.

Analysis and Conclusions

In an AEC and manufacturing world that is increasingly going 3D, the ability to capture 3D design data in the ubiquitous PDF format and share it for free with anyone who needs to view it makes Acrobat 3D a compelling application. The Acrobat 3D Toolkit that accompanies the application adds to its power by providing advanced model editing capabilities such as adding and modifying lighting, materials, textures, or colors, and creating exploded views and animations. Anyone using the free Adobe Reader can access the saved views and animations and manipulate, analyze, mark up, and comment on the designs without proprietary CAD applications or CAD viewers. Acrobat 3D also allows any kind of project documentation such as specifications, reviews, project proposals, presentations, etc. to be enhanced with 3D models, which can be inserted into Word and PowerPoint files and converted to PDF for easy distribution. The new PDF package creation feature makes it possible to create consolidated PDF design packages collating 3D models with 2D drawings and other text-based documents. Essentially, all the aspects that have made PDF so powerful for text-based and 2D electronic publishing—ubiquity, security, reliability, and data compression—can now be extended to 3D data as well.

Despite the stronger focus of Acrobat 3D on the manufacturing industry as evident by the number of file formats supported and the critical enhancements related to manufacturing processes in the new release, AEC users will certainly benefit from the direct support of DWG and DWF. In particular, the new ability to capture object property data makes for a much richer PDF file and puts PDF on par with the DWF format in that respect when it comes to sharing 3D models. The navigation improvements in Acrobat 3D, in addition to its already powerful cross-sectioning capability, make it easier for users to explore and analyze the model. At the same time, the application could do with some interface improvements such as a tool for zooming the entire model to fit in the window and the ability to select multiple objects. Also, the quality of the graphic display of the 3D model, while acceptable, is nothing to write home about, as you can see in Figures 1 and 2 when comparing the model displays in Acrobat 3D to their original authoring applications. For AEC users, the display quality of the model matters a lot more than to manufacturing users, who can get by with the more utilitarian display that Acrobat 3D currently has.

With established users such as Crate & Barrel and a more recent deployment at SOM, Acrobat 3D is starting to gain traction in the AEC industry. Hopefully, future versions of the application can address the interface limitations just mentioned as well as provide more AEC-specific functionality such as direct support for BIM applications like Revit and ArchiCAD, ways to better integrate the 2D and 3D data related to a project, and perhaps at some point even the capability to bring multiple disciplinary models together for consolidated viewing and conflict checking. The last idea may seem extremely far-fetched, but given how far Acrobat has already come in working with 3D models, I wouldn't rule it out as impossible.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at lachmi@aecbytes.com.

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© 2003-2007 Lachmi Khemlani, AECbytes. All rights reserved.

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