What is a STEP File? Let me Explain…

I’ve Had Many Clients ask me “What is a STEP File”? So I thought I would explain…

Let’s begin with an analogy. You’re probably familiar with Microsoft Word documents and with PDF files. Often times, you create a document using Word, then save (or print) it to PDF before sharing. PDF is more universal and not easily edited. It’s basically a snap shot of that Microsoft Word document at the time you saved it.

That’s effectively what a STEP file is to 3D engineering model data. It’s one of several universal formats we use to communicate between CAD systems. I’ve run into many clients that come to me because they “need a STEP file.” In reality, the vendor needs engineering data and could likely accept it in several formats – STEP just happens to be one of the most common.

Why Use Universal Formats like STEP?

In most cases, we introduce some revision control into the process, so the supplier gets a STEP file marked as “Rev A” or similar. This ensures that when we make changes down the road, we’ll have confidence that our supplier is quoting (and manufacturing!) the part at the correct revision level.

Comparing it back to the Word Document to PDF comparison – it also mitigates risk of the part geometry getting modified accidentally. The SolidWorks files are editable in SolidWorks. This means that your engineer (or your vendor) could screw up and accidentally change a detail and overwrite the old file. The best way to mitigate this kind of risk is to create incremented revisions (Rev A, Rev B, etc) saved out to a non-editable format – such as STEP.

How Does a Vendor Use a STEP File?

The vendor will import the 3D geometry into their tool chain. For a process such as 3D printing, the quoting has become mostly automated. Simply the upload the part into the vendor system and you’ll get instant quotes for a variety of materials.

In manufacturing, just about any modern production process will begin with a 3D model of the part to be created. Manufacturing engineers will use the model to design the tooling and/or machine paths necessary to produce the part.

Sounds Easy. How do I get a STEP File Then?

Remember, the STEP file is the final output of some design process. We create the STEP file when we are ready to prototype or manufacture some component. The act of creating the STEP file is as simple as clicking “save-as” within your CAD software of choice. Designing a part that meets its intended requirements, and is appropriately detailed for the manufacturing process it is intended for, is where the real work lies.  A well designed part could quite literally save you thousands and thousands of dollars in tooling and manufacturing costs.

So this is where vendors like me come in. If you need help generating a STEP file for a manufacturer, give me a call or send me a message.

Elon Musk’s Take on the Future of 3D Design Tools


New 3D Design Paradigm in Action?

Elon Musk and SpaceX released a video yesterday showing what might be the beginning of a revolution in how we interact with 3D space:

My Quick Thoughts

Using a spaceball type of controller is the only alternative modeling interface that I’ve seen used with any frequency. Even then, most designers I’ve worked with in industry have stuck with a keyboard and mouse most of the time (myself included). While a spaceball is nice, it’s only an incremental change in how you interact with 3D space on screen.

Is Elon Musk’s vision a disruptive shift in interaction? Will it make designing complex parts easier? Maybe not, but it will make being a mechanical designer or 3D artist alot more fun. I see this more useful for industrial design and character modeling than I do for designing rocket engines. The freeform nature of subdivision modeling makes this particularly appealing, especially when haptic feedback can be incorporated into your hands. At that point, an artist could literally sculpt in 3D space.

future-of-design-elon-musk-spacex 3d design
Elon Musk/SpaceX

I see tremendous value on the visualization side. We often refer to 3D models as “virtual prototypes.” Seeing a design through the eyes of an Occulus Rift adds a new level realism to that experience, and this has tremendous potential for gathering feedback and improving our virtual prototypes. And that’s exactly what SpaceX demonstrated in the video above. It has presented a fantastic tool for Elon Musk to review and dig into the 3D designs his engineers are working on. What we did not see were any examples of usable interaction in the design process. Nothing we saw was designed using this type of interface. That’s OK, but it’s important to realize that design utility will lag the visual utility for some time.

In my opinion, a tool that combined haptic feedback with a holographic display is when we will see the benefits during the design process. The idea of my desk surface becoming a usable volume where I can “feel” virtual parts is a game changer. Instead of double clicking a feature, I might double tap it’s surface, see dimensional information appear, and simply grab a triad and stretch a dimension. That type of demonstration will get me excited, as that has the ability to really disrupt how design is done on a day-to-day basis.

Exciting stuff, but I suspect usability is a long way away. It’s awesome to see a company like SpaceX leading the charge.