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.

Zalaco Featured in CAD Collaboration E-Book from Tech-Clarity

Can small engineering and design firms afford CAD collaboration?

Can small engineering and design firms afford CAD collaboration? That was the question Jim Brown addresses a brand new e-book over at Tech-Clarity. I had the pleasure of speaking with Jim on the phone to discuss how modern CAD collaboration tools are dramatically improving the work flow of small service firms like Zalaco, and providing better value to the clients we serve.

To read an overview of the e-book, head over to Tech-Clarity. If you’d like to download a copy of the book, you’ll need to head over to GrabCAD and fill out a registration form.

Can small engineering and design firms afford CAD collaboration?
Can small engineering and design firms afford CAD collaboration?

The CAD  Data Problem

If you’re trying to figure out how to manage CAD data you need to solve two problems:

  1. Data Backup: Needs to be (almost) real time and invisible to the user.
  2. CAD Specific Issues: Versioning, Revision Control, and Collaboration

Ok, so item #2 is more than one problem. Fortunately, any system designed for CAD data should handle those out of the box. Unfortunately, real time (or regular) data backup is not something that meshes well with a good CAD data system.

Product Data Management (PDM) systems built for CAD work on a “check in” basis. They typically save every single version a user ever checks in.  These officially checked in versions become the basis of collaboratively working on the same assembly in CAD.  If a bunch of users were just working out of the same network drive, you’d perpetually be stepping on each others toes and overwriting each others files.

However, in the real world, we do a lot of work we don’t want to check into the official system for a myriad of reasons. As a result, we need to know that all of that “in work” data is safe and backed up somewhere. For this purpose, a traditional data back up system works just fine.

My Solution

My two pronged solution is incredibly powerful yet exceedingly simple.

  1. DropBox provides real time backup of everything I do.
  2. GrabCAD Workbench gets the official “updates” that I need to maintain version control on, share with a client, or mark as an official revision.

As a single user, they play together nicely. DropBox and GrabCAD are syncing the same directories without significant issue. However, this is a single user environment and sure it would wreak havoc if two users were doing the same thing with the same file sets

So that’s that! I love consulting on CAD Data and PDM issues, and I love the challenge of getting data into the cloud, so please feel free to contact me if I can be of service!