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3D Visualization for IIoT - Zea

Engineering firms work with 3D Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software to digitally create parts, assemblies, or entire products - this isn’t new. What has changed is what you can do with these digital assets downstream from engineering.


3D is no longer just a luxury only a few can afford and reserved for the R&D teams, it’s central to all operations from manufacturing operations, product documentation, e-commerce, technical training, and spare part catalogs.

3D absolutely dominates over any other form of technical communication. Users need context and the ability to explore beyond what the content creator had in mind. Research shows that 3D visualization plays a key role in increased learner retention, adds unique credibility to the purchase decision, and reduces worker training costs and mistakes on the production line.

Why is this important? If you aren’t building software that allows your clients to deploy 3D for purposes outside of engineering, you’re falling behind.

Whether you’re a software developer, product owner, or CTO, there are many paths forward and it may seem a little overwhelming to pick the right tool for the job. This is why we made this guide.

Continue reading to learn everything you need to know about 3D Visualization and Technical Communication for IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) or use the links to jump ahead to a specific section.

Table of Contents

  1. What are 3D File Formats and Why Do They Matter?
  2. How much should you care about CAD file formats?
  3. How-To Prepare CAD Files Before Publishing to the Web
  4. Software and SDKs for 3D Visualization
  5. Realtime 3D Collaboration is a Powerful Tool
  6. Glossary of Important Terms for 3D IIoT applications
  7. 5 Examples of 3D Web-Visualization in Practice
  8. 5 Myths about Web-Based 3D Visualization


What are 3D File Formats and Why Do They Matter?

This isn’t the sexiest topic to start out with but it’s the one most people overlook. 3D file formats are the file extensions that each 3D software tool creates when they save. I’m sure that you’re aware that Microsoft Word creates a file with a .docx extension, well, CAD software works similarly. Just like the docx files, CAD files can’t always open in another application or on the web. Also, just like Microsoft Word can publish to standard formats everybody can open like PDF, most CAD software will allow users to export into neutral or “non-native” formats.

Now, you’re probably asking yourself what’s the problem? The natural reaction to this is to choose software that can open the file types that you or your clients are working with. This is a good first step but as you expand your audience, you’ll soon come across more than 20 different file formats. You’ll also want to stop asking your partners, your clients, or your engineering team to open each file and manually export it to a neutral format, like a .step file. Let the challenge of choosing the right toolset begin!

Top Neutral CAD file formats

Neutral CAD file formats are interoperable between different 3D CAD visualization software. Here are the most popular neutral CAD file formats.

  • STEP (File Extension: *.STEP, *.STP)
  • QIF (File Extension: *.QIF)
  • JT (File Extension: *.JT)
  • 3D PDF(File Extension: *.PDF) 
  • IGES (File Extension: *.IGS, *.IGES)
  • Stereolithography Files (File Extension: *.STL)
  • ACIS (File Extension: *.SAT)
  • PARASOLID (File Extension: *.x_t, .x_b)
  • OBJ - ASCII variant is neutral, the binary variant is proprietary
  • DXF / DWG
  • IFC
  • VDA-FS

Top Proprietary CAD file formats

These CAD file formats are proprietary, or native, and need to be translated & validated for downstream applications.

  • Catia (File Extension: .CGR)
  • NX
  • Pro / E / Creo
  • 3DXML
  • Revit
  • Rhino
  • SolidWorks
  • Inventor (Autodesk Inventor part (.ipt) or assembly (.iam) files)
  • FBX
  • MicroStation
  • Solid Edge
  • XCGM

Other 3D file formats

  • 3MF
  • glTF / GLB

With all these different formats and properties, working with CAD files can seem quite complicated. File interoperability and data integrity is an issue especially when these files are referenced for Product Manufacturing Information (PMI) in an MDB CAD environment.


Tip #1: if you’re building an application that will support 3D, make sure you know which file formats you need to support and have a plan to support them. It will save you a lot of time in the long run.

How much should you care about CAD file formats?

It’s not always a question of simply being able to open a CAD file. Depending on your intended use, you may need to preserve, remove, or modify some of the geometry or metadata attached to your file. 

CAD files might include a recipe for manufacturing the part and contain information on materials, tolerances, processes, and other data that is typically communicated with accompanying 2D drawings. When CAD files include this additional manufacturing information, they are referred to as Model-Based Definition CAD files or MBD CAD. 

All this information is the engineering team’s recipe for its secret sauce and has to be controlled. Some use cases will require the application to make the recipe visible, also known as displaying PMI,  while other use cases will present a significant risk if the secret sauce is exposed to a competitor.

Consider the stakeholders who will be using the CAD files. They might be:

  • Internal: Other teams, departments, divisions, subsidiaries, sub-contractors.
  • External: Suppliers, vendors, partners, website visitors, clients.

Consider the information the stakeholders need:

  • Do they need manufacturing information, and if so, how accurate does it have to be?
  • Do they simply need to load the 3D model to create an illustration for technical documentation?

Consider where your stakeholders are:

  • Are they primarily located at one site?
  • Are they spread around the world?

Knowing the “what, where, who, why, when” regarding access to your information helps determine the type of product you should use.

When in doubt, make sure that the tool you are using to share 3D models removes all PMI and metadata from the model before sharing. Some tools will even allow you to reduce the accuracy of the 3D geometry so that it becomes useless in a manufacturing environment.

Tip #2: Fully understand how the tool will be used by your clients.

How-To Prepare CAD Files Before Publishing to the Web

Business author and expert, H. James Harrington, once said, "If you can't measure something, you can't understand it. If you can't understand it, you can't control it. If you can't control it, you can't improve it."

Here is the workflow that we come across most often when teams publish CAD content to the web.

  1. Ask engineering to export a neutral CAD file such as .step from the CAD design tool
  2. They use a CAD Importer to import the CAD file into Blender or Maya and “clean” the model by assigning properties, adjusting tesselation, and substituting duplicate geometry on large scenes. 
  3. They export the file as an open web format such as .glb or a good format for 3D rendering like fbx
  4. Import the file into Unity or Unreal
  5. Create the 3D scene, animations, and interactivity. 
  6. Build the finished product from Unity or Unreal for WebGL or upload it to Sketchfab for hosting.
  7. They publish the page or project for the world to check out

It’s obvious that the more steps you can automate in the process, the higher the ROI. We often come across teams that are able to produce incredibly high-quality work but struggle to achieve economies of scale because of the many manual tasks in the process. 

Look to automate 

  • Preparing the model
  • Publishing to the web
  • Making updates to the published model

Tip #3: Leverage scalable cloud-based technology to streamline the CAD file preparation.

  Software and SDKs for 3D Visualization

Broadly speaking, we can divide these tools into two categories:

  • 3D software for end-users
  • 3D Graphic engine SDK for software developers

Although there is some overlap between the two, they target different audiences and needs.

3D Software for end-users

These products are designed for end-users but also provide additional functionalities for advanced users and software developers.



Primary Industry








CATIA Composer



Cortana 3D



3D Graphics engine SDKs for software developers

Software developers can use these tools to add 3D models to their software and design simple to complex 3D visualizations.



Primary Industry














Hoops Communicator









CAD Exchanger






Tip #4: Not all software is built equally. Explore the strengths and weaknesses of each. For many applications, free and open-source software will provide more than enough power and versatility for your application.

Realtime 3D Collaboration is a Powerful Tool

One of the problems facing teams producing technical content is that they have to imagine the problems users will run into or questions they will need to be answered to do their job. One way to design flexibility into any technical document is to support collaborative 3D. This is where many users can join the same scene simultaneously, can interact with each other, and the 3D model. 

Collaboration is important for engineering design reviews but also for purchasing negotiations and after-sales support. Consider the following scenarios:

  • Engineers assemble around a 3D model to work out interference issues before building the prototype.
  • A buyer and purchaser schedule a meeting in 3D or VR to go over the design specifications of the part in question before submitting a quote. 
  • A technician repairing a piece of equipment is able to interact in real-time with a colleague or subject matter expert anywhere in the world.
  • A salesperson is performing a walkthrough or virtual commissioning of a piece of equipment to a buyer in another location.

Choosing a platform that can scale to support pipelines of thousands of models, can be extended to an infinite number of use cases, and can be the foundation of your WebXR projects is an asset moving forward. When it comes to the industrial internet of things, connectivity is at the core. 



Tip #5: Solve problems before they arise by building for the future. Emphasize where you want to go, not where others have been. Choose a tool that’s aligned with your vision. Think of how you can integrate 3D into a connected world, not how to bring a connected world offline.

Glossary of Important Terms for 3D IIoT applications




Model-Based Definition CAD


Product Manufacturing Information


Computer-Aided Design


Internet of Things


Industrial Internet of Things


Realtime multi-user environment


Geometric Dimensioning and Tolerancing


Electronic Part Catalog / Interactive Part Catalog


Electronic Change Notification


Web Graphics Library, JavaScript API

Cyber-Security Awareness.

The consciousness of the various forms of risks when working with digital information

Security Protocols

A procedure or series of procedures to ensure data security


A measure of how an exposed security flaw could compromise the service

Service Level Agreements

A commitment to delivering a service typically specifying time, quality, quantity, and availability

Penetration Testing

Ethical hacking

IT Asset Management

Also known as ITAM, it’s how a company shares, stores, accounts for, deploys, and disposes of digital assets.

Identity and Access Management

It’s a collective term that specifies the controls in place for authorized access to proprietary digital assets and the rest of the world.

Security Monitoring

When there is automated monitoring and reporting of security threats. Often follow-up by appropriate security protocols.

Enterprise Vulnerability Management

A framework to identify, categorize, prioritize, and resolve vulnerabilities.


Code or software designed to circumvent security protocols or bypass controls to perform an unauthorized task or gain unauthorized access


Code or software that prevents users from using or accessing their data until a sum of money, ransom, is paid.


Request for users to enter credentials into an illegitimate site or form. Often initiated by email.

IT Cryptography

Securing digital assets at rest and in transit

Secure Development Lifecycle (SDLC)

Integrating testing and security monitoring into deployed code.

Incident Response Plan

A plan or set of instructions that outline how IT staff should recover a network security incident

Business Continuity & Disaster Recovery (BCDR)

A plan or set of instructions that outline how a business will recover from a disaster or “force majeure”

Cyber-Security Audits

Systematic analysis of digital service and assessing compliance with stated objectives, commitments, regulations, and governing bodies.

5 Examples of 3D Web-Visualization in Practice 

For most, 3D web-visualization projects are still considered a research and development activity. The main reason is that established companies have decades of experience developing desktop applications, but lack the technical expertise to rebuild and relaunch those applications on the web.

Below are 5 examples of increasing complexity where the companies have chosen a web-first approach.

  1. Axya - simple 3D viewer, evolving rapidly
  2. Collab Software - slightly more complex tool with markups and annotation
  3. Zahner - somewhat complex, Bluetooth communication and synchronization (IoT)
  4. Vention - complex, many parts, features, configuration, and functions
  5. OnShape - very complex, engineering application in the cloud

The browser is the web’s operating system. It’s way more powerful than many realize and today it powers the most accessible applications. Building for the web is designing for the future and for scalability.

Tip #6: The trend is clear. Software is moving to the web and to the cloud. SaaS is taking over the software licensing industry allowing teams to test new products and iterate on features much faster. If you’re building an application that targets a wide variety of users, build it with web-first tools. 

5 Myths about Web-Based 3D Visualization

Myth #1: 3D software is hard to learn, expensive, and only runs on a desktop

In reality, web-based 3D solutions are simpler, more powerful, and more cost-effective than ever. You can create and publish high-quality 3D content using free and open-source or cloud-based subscription services that support all CAD file formats without any upfront investment in software or training. 

Have a look at the 3D graphic engine SDKs in this post, some are free!

Myth #2: All 3D viewers are built equally

We get this one a lot, so often in fact that it’s worth its own story.

“Let’s support 3D in our cloud platform, we can start working on it next quarter,” says the CEO. The customer experience manager chimes in “our clients are asking for it”. The CFO then adds, “we can charge more for our top tier products if we support 3D”.  

So it’s decided. The project gets pitched to the board and subsequently gets the green light to go ahead. 

Next, the product development team gets started researching the problem. The lead developer quickly realizes that over 50 CAD Viewers are listed on G2. So the questions start. They look like this:

  • Why are we doing this again?
  • What does an end-user have to be able to get done?
  • What does the publishing process to the web look like?
  • What file formats will it have to import?
  • How are our clients doing the job today?
  • What’s the long-term product roadmap?

A week goes by and there’s no demonstrable progress. The CEO asks for something to show the board, and the customer experience manager would like to demo something to the clients who are asking about 3D.

Meanwhile, the lead developer grabs an embeddable 3D viewer and plugs it into the test platform as a proof of concept without giving too much thought about what’s next. Everybody thinks that this is “promising”.

The result? The lead developer has started out with a tool, a 3D graphics engine, that she will have to replace in the very short term. They can only import .stl and glTF file formats but their initial 3D beta-clients work primarily with SolidWorks.

The company hires a product owner to better understand the customer and guide the requirements. 

In conclusion, they will need a graphics engine, and a partner with 3D experience to design and create the solution their customers are looking for. It also turns out that their expanded client network works with over 10 different 3D file formats and supporting all of them is now part of the project’s critical path.

Myth #3: Open-source software is risky

Blindly trusting open-source software from an unknown source is risky. Recent data from Gartner suggests that creating licensing conflicts when including open-source software is actually riskier than any cybersecurity threat.

Consider the following statement by Mark Russinovich CTO, Microsoft Azure: “Open source software is core to nearly every company’s technology strategy and securing it is an essential part of securing the supply chain for every company, including our own” (Microsoft, 2020). If you’re more of the Google mindset, you can be proud to know that Google uses thousands of open source projects to build scalable and reliable products (Google, 2021).

A local company just launched a web platform for 3D visualization and product configuration powered by Three.js. The product owner stated that “it’s like having a team of developers working for you for free”.

In fact, those developers are working for themselves, solving problems that they need to solve. If you happen to have the same problem or the same vulnerability then you win. If your concern is not their concern then either you propose a fix or stop using the tool. Our position is that a commercially maintained open-source solution is the ideal mix of accountability and openness.

More eyes on the code is typically a good thing. Read More about open source and what it means at Zea here.

Myth #4: Publishing to the web means that others can steal my intellectual property

The truth is the same people who worry about this do their banking online. They also share confidential files on OneDrive, Google Drive, or Dropbox without giving it much thought. 

Furthermore, all levels of government, including defense agencies, are moving to the cloud. 

Finally, Siemens, Autodesk, PTC, and Dassault Systèmes have cloud products that host proprietary and confidential 3D assets.

It’s not about where your data is. It’s about the controls in place between your data and the rest of the world. 

At Zea, we use Google Cloud to ensure maximum uptime and top-notch security for files in transit and at rest. We’ve put it behind Auth0 to control identity and manage access. We choose top-tier partners so everyone using our tools can sleep easy at night.

Myth #5: I won’t be able to load my entire 3D model on the web

This was a problem a few years ago but not anymore. In fact, we’ve demonstrated that we can get better framerates on large CAD assemblies than even the most powerful desktop 3D CAD rendering engines.

Some graphics engines will see their performance start to decrease above 3,000 unique parts in the 3D scene. 

At the time of writing this, we are rendering 40,000 unique parts at VR framerates directly in the browser. We can safely say that this isn’t a problem anymore.



We’ll be updating this post on a continual basis as we learn more use cases and develop elegant solutions to the most pressing issues when it comes to 3D visualization for the industrial internet of things. 

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Zea publishes and maintains many open-source projects, check them out on GitHub here.