Exploring 3D PDFs and Alternatives for the Manufacturing Industry

June 19th, 2023
3D PDF Article Image

In today's technologically-driven world, industries are continuously seeking ways to optimize processes, improve collaboration, and enhance outcomes. The manufacturing sector is no exception, and one area where advancements have been quite significant is in the realm of 3D modeling and design. This article dives deep into the concept of 3D PDFs, a widely used medium to share CAD models using software like SolidWorks, AutoCAD, Navisworks, and Bluebeam. However, as we shall uncover, while 3D PDFs may be prevalent in some industries, they may not always be the best or most efficient option, particularly for the manufacturing industry. Instead, there are innovative alternatives that utilize cloud technology, which can offer enhanced collaboration, flexibility, and security. Let's delve into the details of creating 3D PDFs, assess their limitations, and explore why moving towards cloud-based platforms could potentially revolutionize the field of 3D design and manufacturing.

What is a 3D PDF?

A 3D PDF is a standard PDF that incorporates 3D geometry and product manufacturing information, making it an effective method for presenting complex 3D design data. This format leverages embedded Model-Based Definition (MBD) information, enabling users to interact with the 3D models within the document. A dedicated 3D PDF viewer allows the user to fully leverage these features, including the ability to rotate, zoom, and manipulate the 3D elements. Users can also isolate or highlight specific parts of the model for closer inspection.

The beauty of a 3D PDF lies in its integration of 3D content within the familiar framework of a PDF, facilitating the sharing and access of complex design data without the need for specialized CAD software. The document's universality and easy accessibility have led to a broad range of applications across various industries, from manufacturing and engineering to architecture and beyond. However, as technology evolves, more advanced alternatives are beginning to outshine the traditional 3D PDF, particularly within the manufacturing industry.

History of 3D PDFs

The journey of 3D PDFs begins with the evolution of the Portable Document Format (PDF) itself. Adobe Systems introduced PDF in 1993 as a way to present documents, including text and images, in a manner independent of software, hardware, and operating systems.

In its early stages, PDF was primarily used for 2D documents. However, with the increasing use of 3D content in various industries, including manufacturing, engineering, and architecture, the need for a universally accessible 3D document format became apparent.

Recognizing this growing demand, Adobe introduced 3D PDFs in 2005 with the release of Acrobat 7.0. This version incorporated a new technology called the Product Representation Compact (PRC) format that allowed 3D CAD data to be embedded within a PDF file. The goal was to create a medium that could handle 3D content and allow the viewer to manipulate 3D objects — rotate, zoom, hide or highlight parts — within the PDF itself, without the need for specialized software.

The introduction of 3D PDFs was a significant milestone as it democratized the viewing of 3D data, enabling nearly anyone with a computer to interact with 3D models using the free Adobe Reader. As a result, 3D PDFs quickly gained popularity, especially in sectors that relied heavily on 3D designs.

Industries Embracing 3D PDFs

3D PDFs are commonly used across various industries that leverage complex design and modeling, largely due to the accessibility and relative ease of sharing that these files provide. The use of software like Revit, Bluebeam, and SolidWorks has greatly facilitated the creation and distribution of 3D PDFs in these sectors.

In the field of architecture and construction, for instance, Revit is widely used to create detailed building designs. These 3D models can then be converted into 3D PDFs, making it easier for architects, engineers, contractors, and clients to visualize and understand the design.

Similarly, in the engineering and manufacturing sectors, SolidWorks is a popular tool for creating intricate product designs. SolidWorks to 3D PDF conversion allows teams to share and collaborate on these designs, regardless of their physical location.

Bluebeam, on the other hand, is highly favored in the construction industry. It allows users to mark up and edit 2D and 3D PDFs, aiding in improved communication among the project team. While it does offer some interactive capabilities, the shortcomings inherent to the 3D PDF format still apply.

Despite their prevalence, the usage of 3D PDFs in these industries doesn't negate the issues we've outlined earlier. It simply underscores the need for more effective, efficient, and secure alternatives for 3D design collaboration and sharing.

How to Create a 3D PDF

To create a 3D PDF, you'll first need a 3D model, which you would typically design using a CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software tool. CAD software, such as SolidWorks, AutoCAD, or Revit, allows engineers, architects, and designers to create complex three-dimensional models for various applications.

Once you have your 3D model designed and ready in your chosen CAD software, the next step is to export the model into a 3D PDF format. This process might vary slightly depending on the CAD software you're using, but generally, it involves selecting the "Save As" or "Export" function, then choosing the 3D PDF or Adobe Portable Document Format (*.pdf) as the file type.

By converting your model to a 3D PDF, you're enabling anyone with a 3D PDF viewer to manipulate the model's image and explore it from different perspectives, offering a more complete understanding of the model's design and structure.

Create a 3D PDF using SolidWorks

Creating a 3D PDF from your SolidWorks part, assembly, or drawing documents can be done easily with the following steps. Before you begin, ensure that you have the latest version of Adobe Acrobat Reader installed for best results. If your documents include non-English characters, the Arial Unicode MS font must be installed on your system.

Here's how to export a SolidWorks document as a PDF file:

  1. Click File > Save As.

  2. In the dialog box, select Adobe Portable Document Format (*.pdf) in Save as type.

  3. Click Options to select PDF Export Options, choose or deselect the desired options, and then click OK.

  4. Enter the file name in File name, and click Save.

Remember that the maximum sheet size for PDF is 200 inches (508 cm) in width and height. If a drawing document exceeds this limit, the oversized sheets won't be included in the PDF file.

When saving a drawing with non-English (non-ASCII) characters as a PDF file, ensure the appropriate fonts are available on your computer. If the specified font is not installed or does not support Unicode character glyphs, the Arial Unicode MS font will be used. If it's also missing, the characters won't render properly.

To create a 3D PDF from a SolidWorks part or assembly:

  1. Click File > Save As.

  2. In the dialog box, select Adobe Portable Document Format (*.pdf) in Save as type.

  3. Select Save as 3D PDF, verify the file name, and click Save.

When exporting documents as PDF, several export options are available. You can access these by clicking File > Save As > Adobe Portable Document format (*.pdf) in Save as type > Options. Here you can select options such as 'Export PDF in color', 'Embed fonts', 'High quality lines', among others, based on your requirements.

Create a 3D PDF using AutoCAD

Creating a 3D PDF using AutoCAD involves a multi-step process. You will first need to create a 3D Design Web Format (DWF) file, and then use a third-party application like Autodesk Design Review, Bentley View, or Bluebeam Revu to convert this 3D DWF file into a 3D PDF. Here is a step-by-step guide on how you can accomplish this:

  1. Create a 3D DWF in AutoCAD: To start, use the PUBLISH command in AutoCAD. From the dialog that appears, select the file format as either DWF or DWFx. Remove any layouts and models that are not needed. Check the "3D DWF" option, and then click "Publish." This will create a 3D DWF file of your AutoCAD model.

  2. Open the 3D DWF file in a compatible viewer: Autodesk Design Review is an excellent tool for opening DWF and DWFx files. Once the file is opened in Autodesk Design Review, you can easily zoom and rotate the 3D drawing.

  3. Convert the 3D DWF to 3D PDF: Unfortunately, AutoCAD does not support directly exporting to 3D PDF. To convert your 3D DWF file to a 3D PDF, you will need to use a third-party application. Bentley View and Bluebeam Revu are both compatible applications that can open your 3D DWF file and allow you to plot it as a 3D PDF.

Create a 3D PDF using NavisWorks

Navisworks, an Autodesk software, does not have a built-in feature to create a 3D PDF directly. However, you can still achieve this through a few different methods.

  1. Third-Party 3D PDF Converters: The Autodesk App Store has a variety of third-party 3D PDF converters specifically designed for Navisworks. You can download one of these converters and use it to export your Navisworks model to a 3D PDF.

  2. Export to 3D DWF or DWFX: Alternatively, you can export your Navisworks model to a 3D DWF or DWFX file format. These files can then be viewed using Autodesk's Design Review software.

  3. Additional Options for Revit Models: If your Navisworks model is appended from a Revit model, you have additional sharing options. Refer to Autodesk's resources on viewing a Revit model for more information.

Create a 3D PDF using Bluebeam

Bluebeam Revu is another tool that allows users to create 3D PDF files. It supports Universal 3D (U3D) and Industry Foundation Classes (IFC text) files. Here is a brief guide to creating a 3D PDF using Bluebeam Revu:

  1. Creating a 3D PDF from an Existing 3D Model: Bluebeam Revu allows you to drag-and-drop Universal 3D (.u3d) or Industry Foundation Classes (.ifc) files directly into the software to create 3D PDFs. Alternatively, you can open these files within Revu to create 3D PDFs. Follow these steps:

  • Go to File > Open or press CTRL+O to open the dialog box.

  • From the file type list to the right of the File Name field, select 3D Files.

  • Navigate to the desired file, select it, then click Open. This opens the New 3D PDF dialog box.

  • In the New 3D PDF dialog box, select the desired 3D Content settings and Default Display Settings, then click OK. The PDF will be created and opened automatically.

2. Adding 3D Content to an Existing PDF: Bluebeam also enables you to add 3D content to an existing PDF. This feature allows both 3D and traditional text or graphic content to coexist on the same page. Here's how:

Go to Edit > PDF Content > Add & Edit 3D Content or press CTRL+ALT+3.

  • Click and drag a rectangle to define the area of the 3D model. The Open dialog box will appear.

  • Navigate to and select the desired 3D content. The content should be in a Universal 3D (.u3d) or Industry Foundation Classes (.ifc) file, then click Open. The Add 3D Content dialog box appears.

  • If you want to add views from the 3D file, select 'Views from file' from the 'Add Views' list.

  • Set the desired Default Display Settings, then click OK.

While creating a 3D PDF might seem convenient, especially for sharing design models, it's worth noting that this tool comes with its own set of challenges. As we dive into these challenges in the next section, it's important to keep an open mind about alternative ways to collaborate and share 3D models that might be more efficient, secure, and compatible with various devices.

The Drawbacks of 3D PDFs

While 3D PDFs might seem like a fantastic tool at a first glance, a closer examination reveals a number of shortcomings. Here are a few crucial reasons why 3D PDFs might not be the ideal choice for your manufacturing needs.

Limited Interactivity

The promise of a 3D PDF is interaction; the ability to manipulate a three-dimensional model to gain insight and understanding. However, the actual level of interaction offered by 3D PDFs falls short of expectations. Although a 3D PDF viewer allows some rotation and zooming, the degree of manipulation and interaction possible is rather limited.

For instance, stakeholders cannot modify or annotate designs to provide direct feedback. The viewer's experience is akin to looking at an exhibit in a glass case, where they can see the object from different angles but cannot touch or modify it. This limited interactivity stifles the dynamic nature of design and engineering projects, reducing the utility of 3D PDFs as a collaborative tool.

Compatibility Issues

Not all 3D PDF viewers are created equal. As a result, a 3D model that displays correctly in one viewer might appear distorted or incomplete in another. These inconsistencies can lead to misunderstandings and errors, undermining the very purpose of using a 3D model for clear communication.

In addition, 3D PDFs often require high processing power for smooth functioning, making them cumbersome to use on lower-end devices. This can lead to delays, inefficiency, and frustration, particularly when working with large files or complex models.

Lack of Revision Control

3D PDFs, much like their 2D counterparts, lack an integrated system for revision control. Given the iterative nature of design and engineering processes, this poses a significant challenge.

Without an effective revision control system, multiple versions of a design could circulate among team members and stakeholders, leading to confusion and costly mistakes. This issue is further compounded by the fact that 3D PDFs are standalone files, often shared via email or other means, making it difficult to keep track of the latest version.

Intellectual Property Risk

One of the inherent risks associated with 3D PDFs is related to intellectual property. Once you create a 3D PDF, it can be viewed and shared by anyone who gets access to it, intentionally or otherwise.

While this might be convenient for sharing designs, it poses a significant risk to the security of your intellectual property. Without effective controls in place, your 3D designs could fall into the wrong hands, resulting in potential loss or misuse of valuable proprietary information.

3D CAD in the Cloud

Despite the increasing trend towards digital transformation across various sectors, the manufacturing industry has been somewhat slow to fully embrace the potential of cloud technologies. Many manufacturing companies still rely on traditional, on-premises systems for their operations, ranging from design and production to supply chain management.

However, the benefits of moving towards cloud-based solutions are undeniable and could be a game-changer for the manufacturing industry.

Cloud technology offers several distinct advantages over traditional methods of CAD sharing like 3D PDFs:

Enhanced Collaboration

Cloud platforms provide a seamless environment for real-time collaboration on CAD files. Design teams spread across different locations can simultaneously view, share, and modify 3D models, circumventing the need for converting designs into 3D PDFs. This enables a more streamlined design process and significantly enhances decision-making.

What's more, the real-time nature of cloud collaboration also means that feedback and revisions can be implemented instantly. This efficiency reduces the risk of expensive mistakes that can occur due to miscommunication or outdated versions of designs, thereby saving time and money for the teams involved. By fostering efficient and effective collaboration, projects move faster, timelines are met more consistently, and the overall productivity of the team can be significantly improved.

Scalability and Flexibility

One of the major benefits of cloud platforms is their inherent scalability and flexibility, particularly useful for handling large CAD files that require significant storage space. Unlike traditional systems where you may need to anticipate your storage needs well in advance and invest in expensive server upgrades, cloud platforms can easily adapt to your changing needs.

In the dynamic environment of the manufacturing industry, the ability to scale up or down based on project requirements offers a crucial advantage. Whether you're dealing with a temporary influx of data during a large project, or a reduced need during slower periods, cloud services can adjust accordingly.

Moreover, cloud platforms operate on a consumption-based model, meaning you pay for what you use. This eliminates the need to maintain excess storage capacity "just in case" and ensures that you're not paying for resources that are sitting idle.


Creating and sharing 3D PDFs can often require substantial investments, from purchasing and maintaining expensive software licenses to setting up and managing high-end servers to host your data. The hardware needs for such servers can quickly become a major capital expenditure, not to mention the ongoing costs of electricity, cooling, and maintenance.

In contrast, cloud solutions eliminate the need for expensive server hardware. They typically operate on a subscription basis, effectively converting what would be a large upfront capital expense into a more manageable operating expense. The maintenance and update responsibilities, too, lie with the service provider, which further reduces IT overhead.

In addition to these direct savings, the pay-as-you-go nature of cloud services means you only pay for the storage and computing power you actually use. This cost-effective, scalable approach can provide significant savings and financial flexibility, making the cloud an attractive alternative to traditional 3D PDFs for CAD file sharing.

Improved Security

Securely sharing CAD files is paramount in the manufacturing industry, and the traditional method of sharing 3D PDFs often involves email, which is inherently insecure. Emails can be intercepted, accidentally forwarded, or end up in the wrong hands, presenting a significant security risk.

Contrastingly, cloud providers invest heavily in robust security protocols, including advanced encryption and regular security audits. These stringent security measures ensure that your valuable CAD files are protected against unauthorized access, and they can't be intercepted or misdirected like email attachments. This advanced level of data protection offers a degree of security that surpasses the traditional methods of sharing 3D PDFs, providing an added layer of reassurance in the secure handling of your CAD files.

Accessibility and Real-time Updates

With cloud-based solutions, CAD files can be accessed from anywhere, on any device with an internet connection. This convenience allows for immediate access to the latest version of a design, avoiding the confusion and errors that can arise from multiple versions of 3D PDFs circulating among a team.

While the shift towards cloud adoption might be challenging, the potential benefits for CAD sharing are undeniably substantial. Transitioning to cloud-based solutions could help usher in an era of increased efficiency, collaboration, and security in the management and sharing of CAD files, providing a powerful alternative to the traditional use of 3D PDFs.

Unlike a standard 3D PDF, Jinolo provides a fully collaborative environment. Users can manipulate and modify designs in real-time, promoting efficient collaboration. This level of interactivity greatly surpasses the limitations of a simple 3D PDF viewer.

Jinolo also tackles the issue of compatibility head-on. As an online platform, Jinolo ensures consistent display of 3D models across various devices, removing the discrepancies often associated with 3D PDFs. It also removes the need for reviewers to install any external software to view the 3D CAD model.  Jinolo is designed with data security in mind. It offers robust protection for your intellectual property, mitigating the risks associated with 3D PDF distribution.

Embracing innovative cloud solutions is the key to thriving in the future of manufacturing, where the third dimension offers infinite possibilities. It's time to move beyond the traditional methods and delve into a world where 3D collaboration is seamless, intuitive, and secure.