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Let Your Designs Talk for You: Export Altium 3D Layout Artwork to Adobe® PDF

Created: May 25, 2018
Updated: October 7, 2020

Render 3D in pdf with Altium Designer<sup>®</sup> export command

It wasn’t long ago that getting to new places around town required talking and writing down verbal instructions from another. I’d pull out my city map and study the route, having to note each street and intersection where I’d turn. It worked, but it took concentration and good map-reading skills. Today, I use my smart phone’s map feature and audio capabilities to get where I’m going.

Assembly instructions for printed circuits contain the same minutiae critical for putting together a printed circuit board, its components, and its accessories. Although assembly drawings contain orthogonal views and detailed written assembly instructions, there continues to be a need for verbal discussions with assembly houses to sort out small details.

Sometimes the details are difficult to verbalize within the instructions or over the phone, so engineers spend time taking photographs of an existing circuit board and putting them together in precise detail. Preparing the photos and instructions to show the progression of assembly is painstaking, try having a 3D body illustration available to quickly show what you are describing. The following discusses a method to export Altium Designer 3D layout.

3D Viewing Is Easily Managed From the View Pulldown Menu

Viewing in 3D mode is simple, once the PCB editor has the layout environment set up. We’ll leave layout setup to another learning, and for this discussion, we’ll use one of the Altium Designer reference designs, the NanoBoard-NB3000XN. The reference design already has schematic capture and layout files within the zip download for the NB3000XN to help you follow along. We’ll open the layout from Altium Designer Project Panel by double-clicking on NB3000XN.PcbDoc from the directory, as shown below:

 Altium Designer open 3d View Layout menu

Open layout of NB3000XN by double-clicking on NB3000XN.PcbDoc in the Projects Panel

Take some time to view the design and its configuration. Now to get into a 3D model view, simply use the pulldown menu and select View -> 3D Layout Mode, as shown below:

Altium Designer switch to 3d View Layout menu

Use pulldown menu to switch into 3D model view

You now see the layout in three dimensions. The View Configuration menu to the left of the screen within the layout environment allows you to select your views. Next to each selection is an icon. The icon shape is similar to an “eye.” If it is greyed out, that particular feature isn’t shown on the desktop. However, if you would like to activate any, all you need do is click the icon. Other commands while in a 3D model, include:

  • Zooming - Ctrl + Right-drag mouse, or Ctrl + Roll mouse-wheel, or the PgUp / PgDn keys.

  • Panning - Right-drag mouse, or the standard Windows mouse-wheel controls.

  • Rotation - Shift + Right-drag mouse. Note how when you press Shift a directional sphere appears at the current cursor position, as shown in the image below. Rotational movement of the model is made about the center of the sphere (position the cursor before pressing Shift to position the sphere) using the following controls. Move the mouse around to highlight the required control, then:

    • Right-drag sphere when the Center Dot is highlighted - rotate in any direction.

    • Right-drag sphere when the Horizontal Arrow is highlighted - rotate the view about the Y-axis.

    • Right-drag sphere when the Vertical Arrow is highlighted - rotate the view about the X-axis.

    • Right-drag sphere when the Circle Segment is highlighted - rotate the view about the Z-plane.

Altium Designer 3d View cursor movement tracker

3D cursor ball in the environment moves while you change the view

3D Portable Document Format (PDF) File is Made

One of the awesome features of 3D within Altium Designer is its ability to output a complete 3D rendering of your layout in Adobe® Acrobat® Reader (version 9 or higher), a free program available universally. Within Reader the file can be viewed, configured, and manipulated similarly to an Altium Designer 3D PCB layout environment. This facilitates discussions with your PCB assembly house, or other invested partners, regarding your design layout.

Although free, you will need to install the PDF3D Exporter, located here. Some Altium Designer installations come with the extension. It is straightforward to check your installation for the extension. First, use your pulldown menu File -> Export ->

Adding PDF3D with Add Exporter

Check to see if you have PDF3D, and if not, install with Add Exporter

If you need to add PDF3D, after selecting Add Exporter, you will get the following window:

Extensions & Updates tab

Add PDF3D Exporter in the Extensions & Updates window

You’ll need to select the Purchased tab in the Extension Manager shown above, locate the PDF3D Exporter, and click its download icon to install. More information is located here.

Now you can export your 3D layout to Adobe! Select File -> Export -> PDF3D. It will take a little time, at the end of which an Adobe window will open with your design, as shown below:

Exported 3D in Adobe Reader

Exported 3D rendering in Adobe® Reader

Once I was in the Adobe environment, I was able to use the navigation tree to the left for selecting components, nets, net nets, silkscreen, and/or board. With my system, it took Adobe about 10 seconds to render the new view. For rotating the view, I was able to click and hold the left mouse key while I dragged. causing the view to rotate. It did take about 10 seconds for the view to fully render, as shown below:

Upside down view of PCB in Adobe

Bottom side of the assembly after rotating within Adobe®

Being able to create a picture to assist with describing features on a printed circuit assembly is helpful in moving conversations forward with your assembly houses. As not all vendor have access to powerful PCB design software and design tools, you can now export your layout to the universally adopted PDF format. The 3D file you export may be rotated and zoomed to examine details of the design.

Your Altium Designer environment already has the capability to use 3D visualization for generating 3D pdf outputs. Take some time to work through the easily accessed menus and call us if you’d like to discuss with an Altium Designer expert.

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