Adobe vs. Autodesk: This Is Getting Really Interesting

November 7, 2005

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Both companies have the expertise and the will to create a universal format for sharing engineering drawings and, apparently, neither is willing to give a scaled inch.

Clearly, Adobe's PDF is the most accepted form of "universal" document (with few exceptions such as much less capable formats, such as MS Word within the HR community -- but that's another story). Being the biggest doesn't necessarily mean you're the best, however, especially in the engineering community.

Within engineering, Autodesk's AutoCAD application is probably the most widely used computer-aided design program. But, for example, have you ever tried to print a complex AutoCAD file, even from within a View & Markup package? As soon as a V&M app opens an AutoCAD file, elements are lost — not only all of the math and dimensions behind the drawings, but also shapes and curves that are specific to the file's originator: the engineer and/or designer. So, what you get from most V&M apps — even the best ones — is often not quite what the designer intended. Sometimes, it's not even close.

So, what's the universal file format for engineering? In an article that I wrote for Desktop Engineering a while back, I said, "While widely credited for enabling file sharing en masse, Adobe's debut in engineering V&M occurred only last year with Acrobat 6 Professional. Pitting a relative newcomer against well-developed V&M applications seems unfair — unless you're a company with the power of Adobe. Add Autodesk to the mix and we might have a brawl in the works." (It's actually a decent article on the subject of Adobe vs. V&M, with some interesting expert opinion.)

It's certainly turned into a brawl since then.

Adobe has moved forward with its PDF for Engineering, or PDF-E format, taking with them the likes of Agile, Bentley Systems, Hewlett Packard, PTC and UGS. To better organize and, hopefully, move PDF-E ahead more quickly, they've also connected with AIIM (The Enterprise Content Management Association, formerly The Association for Information and Image Management). Through that association, those and other vendors have become quite active with their PDF/Engineering Committee. They're shooting for an ISO standard for PDF-E by 2007, according to this article which states, "The goal is that the complex, large-format drawings and renderings these professionals pass among each other — and their clients — will display properly, show multimedia content in a consistent fashion, handle form fields, and maintain the document-level security they require in a competitive field."

While Autodesk, it's been reported, has reverted to blatantly slamming the PDF format, its site as it appears today is diplomatic. "Whether your business is building, infrastructure, mapping, or manufacturing, the DWF(TM) file format is the key to project lifecycle management. Here's why: Design is a collaborative process, and DWF (Design Web Format(TM)) files offer a simple, secure way to share design data. Developed specifically for engineering design data, the DWF format is the best way to share 2D and 3D design information, because the file size is smaller and faster to transmit than either native design file formats or alternatives like PDF. DWF files are print ready and maintain absolute data fidelity."

Adobe is, of course, pushing hard with its DWF format and related free viewer. The plot thickens when one visits Bentley's site and finds, for example, PDFs that include dynamic 3D data — within files that are of very reasonable sizes.

While I'd like to side with Adobe on this one, there's a problem with doing so. I respect what both companies have done for the marketplace — and either could potentially create a unified standard for sharing engineering drawings throughout the enterprise — or with the supplier down the street.

I think it comes down to who's going to be using the documents. Some of those individuals and departments will, of course, be engineering-related. There's no problem there, however, as most of those folks already have the CAD app. The situation gets sticky when you consider, for example, marketing, purchasing and management — just as a start — individuals and departments who need to view and/or print a engineering drawings or models as quickly, cleanly and easily as possible.

What do you think? PDF-E or DWF?

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