Technical Documentation in 3D

Published: 2022-01-04 Updated: 2022-08-23

3D models in manuals. Have you ever wondered whether this is really necessary? On the other hand, the 3D data from R&D already exists anyway, so it would be a shame were these data just left to gather dust in the PLM system. So today, let’s take a look at what 3D models can do for technical writers and how best to use them.

Technical Documentation in 3D

3D Models for an Enhanced User Experience in Documentation

Let’s start with the numerous benefits. As 3D models are clearer and more descriptive, they motivate users to engage with the manual: finding an interactive 3D model on the start page awakens that instinct to play that we all have. You look at the model from different angles, zoom in for a closer look, and automatically start to check out the product functionalities. This is an advantage that should not be underestimated, as many manuals end up being left to lie forlorn and forgotten in an old cupboard somewhere – whether in paper or CD form.

With users free to choose their own viewing angle, 3D models are also much more descriptive than conventional graphics. Whereas normal illustrations require multiple graphics to fully represent the device, the 3D model provides a full view of the front and back, top and bottom, and every perspective besides, no matter the angle. 3D models thus replace the device overview and the (sometimes confusing) “supplementary graphics”.

New Functions with 3D in Technical Documentation

But 3D models can do much more than just present content in a clearer and more stimulating way. 3D models also add a new interactive dimension to the instructions: various layers of the product can be faded in and out so that you can successively see deeper and deeper into the device. The exact identification and localization of the components is thus much easier for all users.

3D is also an asset for accurately identifying parts as the text and the model can be directly linked to each other. If a component is mentioned in the text, the term can be presented as a link that the user can click to view the corresponding component graphically highlighted in the 3D model, e.g., by color or by detaching it from the main product and displaying it in the foreground.

In turn, the 3D model then becomes a navigation tool: clicking on an element of the model automatically opens the corresponding page in the manual. This means that users do not first have to know what a component is called to access the information they need, but can simply click on the part instead.

Last but not least, 3D models can of course be animated. This makes it possible to show very clearly how a device can be assembled or which actions have to be performed on which part. All in all, there are a whole host of advantages to be gained from using 3D models in technical documentation.

What Are the Problems with 3D Models in Technical Documentation?

Naturally we must not hide the fact that 3D models do bring some problems too. But what are they and how can they be managed? The two most serious issues are the security problems associated with 3D models. As 3D models contain metadata, they can be exploited as starting points for industrial espionage. For example, the data may contain the names of the people who designed the device, who can then be targeted through social hacking attacks. Or the metadata could record the tolerances of the components, a coveted piece of information for product pirates. So before 3D models are used, you need to make sure that all the metadata that are unnecessary for the documentation are deleted.

However, the 3D model itself can also be a starting point for industrial espionage and reverse engineering, as it contains the complete outline of the product. The dimensions of the product must therefore be made unrecognizable to prevent a competitor from simply reading out the relevant data. Modern M-CAT systems are able to randomly rewrite geometries within certain limits in order to protect against just such a danger. The advantage of this approach is that the data are not merely hidden, but completely destroyed. These 3D models are thereby rendered completely unsuitable for a reverse engineering attempt; it would frankly be easier to get hold of one of the machines and physically examine it instead.

There may also be some other minor problems that arise, such as not all parts of the end device being modeled in the R&D department that provides the 3D model data. Purchased standard parts such as hydraulic hoses or plug connections are often missing. As a technical writer, you should check this before deciding on a 3D model and whether you can do without these parts or need to model them retrospectively.

The problems of using 3D models are thus manageable, but how does a technical editor actually get hold of the data in the first place? We reveal all in our next post.

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