2007: Doing Your Own Online 3D Parts Catalogs

3D online part catalogs are proliferating, rapidly. An overview originally published in the January 2007 edition of Engineering Automation Report, acquired in 2010 by Jon Peddie Research.

By Engineering Automation Report Staff

Engineering Automation Report, January 2007—As 3D data grows in use across manufacturing, and as usable (as opposed to proprietary) 3D CAD data formats proliferate from vendors, so arise ideas and discussions for using that 3D data in online parts catalogs. Do a Google search for “Online Parts Catalogs” and you will see that even while many companies have one, they tend to be merely a translation of the paper version into a searchable HTML version, using photos of each part. But if you have the data in 3D, why not use it? And why not make it downloadable and accessible to your customers?

CatalogCreator, based in Germany, offers a bi-directional integration between its 3D parts catalog utility and the engineering content management systems TIM-RS.

A statistic used by vendors is that 90% of designers and engineers now use the Internet for locating components for new designs. But there have been barriers that have made 3D parts catalogs too challenging to manage or even contemplate as part of a business model. It would appear that these barriers have started to be addressed or have even disappeared in the last two years, making 3D Parts catalogs potential business strategies.

According to a recent white paper by Catalog Data Solutions (CDS), (available at http://www.catalogdatasolutions.com/DataSheetRegistration.html.) the Manufactured Product market exceeds $15 trillion per year, worldwide. About $4 trillion of that is in the USA and about half of that consists of standard off-the-shelf engineering parts, and engineered assemblies. The other half of the $4 trillion is final products sold to consumers.

In that same paper, and based on research conducted by CDS, about $23 billion per annum is spent by US manufacturers on advertising, which includes printed and online catalogs for parts and assemblies. The company estimates that while almost 100% have printed catalogs, 50% now have PDF catalogs and just 3% so far have digital catalogs. 3DPartstream.NET boasts some 170 customers using its online 3D part catalog solution, and promises a considerable increase in the next few months.

There are multiple vendors specializing in 3D online parts catalog solutions and services, but there is a slightly higher majority in Europe than in the US. These vendors include:

• Catalog Data Solutions (US)

• Cadenas (Germany) also known as PARTsolutions (US)

• TraceParts (France)

• Cevican (Sweden)

• Technicon (US)

• Thomas Publishing (US);

• SolidWorks 3D PartStream.NET (France)

• Docware (Germany)

• CatalogCreator (Germany)

We believe that the Europeans, who in the last year have seen much greater penetration of broadband than in the US (source: http://www.websiteoptimization.com/bw/0607/, also tend to be more forward-thinking than the US in terms of exploiting technology. The European market is definitely ahead in creating the solutions needed for online 3D parts catalogs, but it is impossible at this time to assess if the uptake among European manufacturers is any further advanced than in the US.

Why Even Think About 3D Parts Catalogs?

The vendors themselves provide extensive benefit statements about 3D parts catalogs, including:

• Providing savings on parts ordering processes;

• The increase in sales by having downloadable parts that then become part of a product


• The reduced cost for buyers/customers who thereby do not have to build the part model;

• The increased value caused by being able to reuse valuable existing 3D data

These statements are mostly believable and substantiated by the marketing folks, and remain important considerations in a buying decision. But one of the main reasons, we think, is because people find it more convenient to look things up online, and will gravitate more naturally to being able to find the parts they need, if they can find them online. The printed catalogs, just like the big printed phone book which no one ever uses any more, will become fireplace fodder or doorstops. We are in the ‘Google generation’ and it makes sense for manufacturers to leverage that to their advantage.

What are the Barriers to 3D Parts Catalogs?

With only a 3% uptake so far, there are admittedly barriers that have been in place for 3D parts catalogs. These range among the sheer size of 3D CAD models and assemblies, and a corresponding Internet bandwidth problem for downloading; the need to protect IP that may be contained among the 3D CAD models; the problems of managing changes to the designs, and how to propel those changes onto an online solution; and then the proprietary formats in which 3D data are contained.

Searching for parts is also an issue. We take a look at each of these and in doing so have researched some of the solutions from CDS and 3DPartstream. Both CDS and 3DPartstream.NET offer integrated software and services to make creating a 3D online catalog as easy as currently possible. Both are experienced at handling many proprietary 3D CAD formats and accommodate the services offered by vendors such as SolidWorks and PTC for displaying 3D parts availability to its users. They both offer services departments that help take the strain off the manufacturer’s engineering teams, and integrated interfaces for uploading models, as well as templates for creating a catalog. Both seem to be comprehensive and a good indicator of where the technology is taking us.

Traditional Barriers

Size of 3D CAD Models and Assemblies: Even with broadband Internet service, downloading a 10 GByte model is going to be arduous. The growing availability of lightweight 3D formats means that what used to be a 10 GByte model can now be transmitted, even in high fidelity, at about 5% of that original size or about 5 Mbytes. However, those formats are not always bi-directional, so you may lose ‘engineering usability’ of the CAD model for the size. We are now eagerly awaiting PDF-based formats to have some bidirectionality (something that may be occurring soon with Alibre products using 3D PDF), and that we believe will occur with XML-based formats very soon.

Further, keeping the data choice only to parts, not assemblies, may provide the data in digestible sizes, and reducing the detailed data in a model (as per the IP issue below) can also reduce file size dramatically. 3D CAD model size is an issue that has not been fully resolved, but development trends indicate that it is well on the way to a resolution. Keep an eye on Adobe, Lattice3D and others for movement in that area.

Internet Bandwidth: Broadband was integrated much earlier into European infrastructure than it was in the US, and the growth of broadband uptake by subscribers was much higher in Europe in the last year than it was in the US. However, all regions are showing healthy growth of broadband which means that large file sizes and massive downloads present much less of a problem than they did even a year ago. Software upgrades of 100 Mbytes or more via the Internet are commonplace. 3D file downloads of the same bulk, and more, will probably become normal.

The France-based TraceParts is among the fastest 3D parts catalogs online.

The need to protect IP: Any 3D CAD engineering model probably contains proprietary, and often patented, data that needs to be protected. CDS recommends the use of parametric tools that allow a ‘family’ of 3D CAD models to be created on-demand as the parameters are entered. The attributes of the part are kept in a table, while the engineering IP is not included in the model at all. As parameters are entered, so the model builds as needed. CDS also keeps a skilled team of service personnel that can assist or entirely manage the process of stripping engineering IP out of models.

A lesser alternative is for the manufacturer to manually strip the model of its proprietary data so that just casings or shapes, without the design data, are available. This method, which also reduces file size issues, is also daunting to any company that has more than, say, 100 3D CAD models.

3DPartstream likes lightweight models, says product manager Timo Bruggemann, Product Manager: “We support 3DPartstream customers in creating lightweight models that do not show engineering details. The SolidWorks software has easy-to-use functions to reuse the existing engineering models by reducing the functionality. These “body” models carry enough information to use in their customers design.”

3DPartstream also makes the parametric route, same as CDS, available to customers, as well as a service team for customer needs. But what appears to be missing in all cases is strong ‘repeatability’ or more comprehensive automation of the process. If you have 50,000 3D CAD models, any kind of manual intervention is going to be arduous.

Having said that, we just found out about an unannounced product from Lattice3D, called ‘Reducer’. This is a batch-based system that allows the automatic removal of features from any number of XVL files that meet certain limits, filters or parameters. Having had a quick demo of Reducer, this seems to be tackling the ‘repeatability’ that is needed for 3D parts catalogs, but the filters may not yet be comprehensive enough to ensure the protection of IP without some in-person checking. But the technology is starting to appear.

Managing Changes to Designs: Again, still something of a barrier. If a 3D CAD model changes, CDS recommends that you enable the ability to send engineering changes orders to anyone who has downloaded a specific model, or models. This process can be quickly automated. What is less automated is the actual process of changing the model, and then ensuring the correct version goes online. However, both CDS and 3Dpartstream advise that both solutions can be integrated with PLM and Enterprise software that can also manage much of that process.

Putting Changed Models on the Web Site: CDS recommends an online interface which allows simple upload of the model, attributes, data, etc. This makes perfect sense, especially as it allows fast upload of new models after a design change. It does not, however, remove the need for re-tweaking the models and removing proprietary information. 3DPartstream also provides easy web interfaces to upload models. That makes a lot of sense.

Is This Even Worth It?

Of course! After dealing with all these barriers, you may just want to avoid the subject altogether. But we think that 3D parts catalogs are already powerful, and can be made more so through new software tools.

3DPartstream customers have reportedly created online 3D parts catalog within a day of starting on it. JW Winco, a customer of CDS, has more than 15,000 parts online and estimates that 850 3D CAD models are downloaded every month by customers, while sales leads have increased a corresponding 125% during that time. The same kind of results are reflected by 3DPartstream.NET, which states that its customers have typically found that 80% of the time a 3D model is downloaded from a catalog, it is also purchased.

Pricing of 3D online part catalogs remains a mystery. Bruggemann at 3DPartstream.NET comments, “A typical project where we provide services is often less than $15,000 for model-building and the setup of a catalog.” This is at least a baseline figure for manufacturers considering this kind of solution.

Adopting 3D parts catalogs does require some strategic thinking and planning. A successful catalog does not simply finish with the 3D data being available; there needs to be thought on how to make the data searchable. Thankfully, there are a growing number of 3D search tools unfolding in the industry. Simply searching a part via a specific part number, while easy, does little to address the need for online reference (as opposed to print-based reference). Consideration has to be given to someone who does not know the part number but knows a name or some specific attribute to the part itself.

Image search is also proving to be effective for many parts, but is also not comprehensive when two very similar parts have different internal features. This is where CDS recommends image search tools that combine with parametric and attribute-based searches. CDS and 3DPartstream offer integrated services that plan for the searching and arrangement of parts on the customer site, which also makes the process easier.

3D online part catalogs will proliferate, and the services and software to do it are accumulating rapidly in functionality. This industry trend bears close watching.