Overcoming Supply Chain Tech Data Challenges


The exchange of technical data (drawings, models, etc.) is a major stumbling block to U.S. manufacturing supply chain efficiency.  Despite advances in standards and translation technologies, the inability of manufacturers to easily exchange technical data is costing U.S. manufacturers time and money.

Some of the means of compensating for this challenge include the following:

  1. Many companies buy translation software or services, even though a manual review of the translated file is typically required.
  2. Some very large companies require their suppliers to buy a seat of the same CAD or modeling software they use, despite the fact those seats often sit idle.  (Many suppliers choose to translate it into their software anyway.)
  3. Incredibly, some Fortune 500 manufacturers still send drawings out on CDs and even paper just to try and retain greater control.  (It often doesn’t work.)

These and other approaches are not particularly efficient.  In fact, a 2004 report from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) cited manufacturing data challenges as one of the key supply chain inefficiencies that cost U.S. automotive manufacturing about $5 billion annually.  (They estimated it to be about $3 billion in the electronics industry.)

A number of efforts have tried, with varying degrees of success, to make technical data more interchangeable.  The work done under programs like the Initial Graphics Exchange Specification (IGES) and Standard for the Exchange of Product model data (STEP) has certainly helped.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t solved the problem, as software and file complexity are always evolving.

This is such a major issue that many organizations are working diligently to increase the interchangeability of technical data.  There are ongoing efforts at the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), NIST, the Department of Defense (DoD) and other organizations to tackle this challenge.  While there does not appear to be a near-term solution, much of the immediate focus is on approaches using a 3D PDF.

Portable Document Format (PDF) is a neutral, open standard created by Adobe that allows many file types to be read with a simple viewer.  These viewers, such as Adobe Reader, are already installed on a high percentage of personal computers, including those behind government and corporate firewalls.  That often overcomes the need to get special permission to install new software.  The viewer then allows individuals to see and manipulate 3D models without the need to own the originating software.

There are several companies making the software to generate these 3D PDFs from very sophisticated engineering software programs like CATIA, SolidWorks, Creo and others.  Each company’s software has different capabilities, but they all have the same underlying goal—to make it easier to exchange technical data while retaining greater control.

Use of a 3D PDF is particularly useful when sourcing manufactured items.  You don’t have to worry about the prospective supplier having the right software, you have much better control over your intellectual property and can even collaborate—opening up greater opportunities for innovation.  This use of a common platform to exchange technical data can have a profound impact on sourcing manufacturing supply chain participants.  For instance, reaching more prospective manufacturers in less time with less effort can deliver the following benefits.

  • Increase the number of responses per RFQ.
  • Decrease item costs due to greater competition.
  • Improve innovation by identifying new processes and capabilities.
  • Shorten production cycles by more readily finding available capacity.

As there are a variety of companies providing 3D PDF capabilities, here are some of the key features to consider when choosing the right one for your needs.  Bear in mind that you’ll need to evaluate the capabilities of both generating and viewing the 3D PDF.

  • Make sure the 3D PDF generator is compatible with your CAD software.
  • The generator should allow you to block or crop certain portions of a model or drawing, protecting sensitive information without having to create new files.
  • Look for digital rights management (DRM) tools that protect intellectual property, such as:
    • Password protection that allows you to control who can see what;
    • Distribution controls that limit the recipient’s ability to distribute the file; and
    • Expiration dates that prevent the file from being opened past a certain period.
  • Users of the viewer should be able to manipulate models, through features like explode, isolate, measure and so on.
  • Users also should be able to use the viewer to collaborate with you, highlighting specific items for a dialogue that is captured for non-repudiation later.

For now, the use of 3D PDF files may be one of the simplest ways to improve the exchange of technical data.  That, in turn, can help manufacturing supply chains gain significant efficiencies. Whether assembling a new supply chain or coordinating an existing one, facilitating the smooth flow of technical data is one of the best ways to improve quality and delivery while reducing cost.