Where's my 3D Standard?

As CAD products mature they all tend to “give in” to using a format standard in order to move CAD technology forward in the industry. Back when 2D was the standard, there were tools all over the industry that would create electronic drawings but communicating it was still mainly done on paper. As other post design tools came to the forefront, like CAM, reading the CAD file was key to leveraging the design process to avoid “rebuilding” designs from scratch. Enter DXF (Drawing Exchange Format), developed by Autodesk, which became a common 2D output from many CAD programs.

Technology pushes forward into the early 3D days where parametric tools were not standard yet and the list of CAD platforms expands, bringing even more file formats into the game. Being a long time user of CADKey, the best 3D wireframe modeler of it’s time ;-), featureless 3D modeling was useful but time consuming and allowing the capability of viewing or sharing of this data needed a format standard. In those days I was using formats like ACIS, IGES (or “I Guess”) and STEP to name a few. These formats were read by many CAD platforms and would facilitate your typical fit, form and function requirements. These were featureless models but so were the CAD tools used to create them so the translated geometry was essentially the same as the original.

Today the industry has many CAD tools, many with extremely robust capabilities and this “bridge” to post design tools has not changed much since then.  Many users still import/export ACIS, IGES, STEP or Parasolid formats to other systems, however the need for feature-based models seems to be in high demand. Currently many systems rely on internal tools that can recognize some features however this translation is typically done from one side of the fence. This approach, although functional, tends to be inherently out of date or limited, resulting in ad-hoc models or inaccurate geometry reproduction. With various technologies to reverse engineer the feature tree on both CAD and CAM platforms, this seems to be evidence the market is ready for a format standard.
Imagine if there was a feature-based 3D model standard that could be imported/exported out of most 3D parametric tools. Obviously this “standard” would not be able to export every complex feature especially considering most complex features today are not currently recognized.  However, if this “3DSTD” file could translate the most common features like Extrudes, Cuts, Fillets, Revolves, Sweeps, Lofts, Sheet metal, etc. this would be a huge first step to true inter-interoperability in the industry. Various platforms could adopt this standard for both import and export, allowing clean transitions between tool sets.
Proprietary file formats are the DRM (Digital Rights Management) of the CAD industry. DRM is used in the Entertainment industry (Music and Movies) to prevent piracy. The problem with DRM is it tends to get in the way of the end user who leagally purchased the content and forces them to find a way to use it the way they want to or need to. In design, we use tools (CAD, CAM, CAE, etc) to get our ideas to market and sometimes this process requires a variety of tools. Interoperability through a 3D feature-based standard could inspire innovation and allow everyone in product developement to focus on the design and not the tools they use. ~Lou