“STEP,” “STEP model,” and “STEP files” are terms that are casually thrown around in the industrial space. An engineer might say, “Just send ’em a STEP file,” or “Hold on, I’ll STEP this out for you.” Many marketers get enough information from the context to understand that STEP is a CAD file format, and little more. Why are STEP files different? Why would a manufacturer provide STEP files? What do engineers think about STEP files? What are the benefits or limitations of STEP files?
In this article, we look at everything STEP to demystify the format for manufacturers and marketers so they can determine if STEP is the right format for them and their audience.
What is STEP? And What are STEP files?
STandard for the Exchange of Product model data (STEP) is the most common neutral CAD file type. A neutral CAD format enables CAD geometry to be transferred between different CAD systems. Think of STEP as a CSV file compared to an Excel file, an SVG compared to an AI file, or a TXT compared to a DOCX file.
For instance, if an engineer designs a motor in the SOLIDWORKS CAD system, but their colleague that needs the file uses the Siemens NX CAD system, the engineer cannot accurately transfer that file to their colleague as a native SOLIDWORKS CAD file. Instead, they would typically export the motor as a STEP file. Neither the SOLIDWORKS nor the Siemens NX CAD system can accurately read each other’s native file formats, so the engineer and the colleague must export and read the files in STEP format.
STEP files enable engineers to pass geometry between suppliers, contractors, and customers even if they all use different CAD systems. Without neutral file types like STEP, a CAD model would have to be recreated in multiple CAD systems in order to use it in various applications.
The benefits of offering STEP files of your products
There are a few key benefits to offering STEP files:
- Many engineers are familiar with STEP files
- There’s a lower cost of implementation with existing STEP files
Many engineers are familiar with STEP files
STEP is the de-facto format for most manufacturers that offer CAD models of their products online. It’s a known file type among engineers because nearly all CAD systems enable STEP import and export. When engineers need a file format they can use, STEP is always there.
If you want to offer CAD to engineers, it’s a good idea to offer STEP files, or miss out on a portion of the market.
There’s a lower cost of implementation with existing STEP files
Suppose your company has already created CAD models for most of your products. In that case, it’s typically more cost-effective to offer STEP files on your website than to recreate the library from scratch in multiple native formats or implement a product configurator.
The drawbacks of STEP files
Even though STEP files are versatile and many engineers want them, they have some drawbacks and limitations worth considering.
STEP files can:
- Be expensive to create by the engineering team
- Contain your manufacturing IP
- Break when imported
- Have bulky file sizes due to unnecessary detail
- Lack engineering and purchasing data like the part number and manufacturer information
- Be cumbersome to update in bulk manually
STEP Files can be expensive to create
Designers create product models in a CAD system individually and export them as STEP files. That means every variation of a product must be created separately. If there are only a few variations, no biggie. If, on the other hand, there are many variations, the costs of having high-paid engineers create hundreds, or thousands, of files can add up quickly.
In the case of many variations, or if your company doesn’t have STEP content, it’s more cost-effective to utilize a product configurator.
STEP files contain engineering IP
Your customers want CAD data, but so do your competitors, and foreign actors with malicious intent.
Engineers create exact product models in their CAD system and export a STEP file. Unless the engineer strips all intellectual property (IP) from the model before exporting it, the IP will be available to anyone with access to the STEP file. If you offer regular STEP files on your website, losing your intellectual property is as simple as a bot scanning your website and scrapping all your CAD data in one go.
To prevent this, you either:
- Need your engineering team to take extra time to strip out any IP from the models
- Offer form, fit, and function sales models instead. Form, fit, and function models are specifically designed to act as a “sales” model, or a usable placeholder that doesn’t contain IP.
STEP files can break when imported
Every CAD system processes data in different ways and no two CAD systems will treat a STEP file the same. Sometimes files can “break,” causing errors or other usability problems. There is no way to know if your STEP files work correctly unless you import every STEP file into every CAD system your customers use.
STEP files often have bulky files sizes
Engineering teams have detailed geometry in their manufacturing components. They typically put this information within the STEP files that their manufacturing companies offer on their website. This risks IP and creates bloated file sizes.
When an engineer downloads a STEP file, that file is typically only a small part of a larger assembly. If the file sizes for each item in the engineer’s assembly are bulky, it slows their system and workflow down.
It’s best to offer lightweight files by stripping out IP and manufacturing information.
STEP files lack engineering and purchasing data
To create a STEP file, an engineer exports it from their CAD system. The file is converted from its original native format into a STEP file. The customer then imports the file into their CAD system and converts it into the new CAD systems format. This process causes a lot of data loss and decreases the model’s functionality.
For example, STEP files are not mated and constrained, which means moving parts are either completely separate or come in as one solid model. Where the native CAD file of a moveable product includes motion data for testing and simulations, a STEP file has to be reworked for the motion within to function correctly.
Other metadata is also stripped from STEP files. This includes data like:
- Beams and reaches
This lack of data makes the model less valuable to the end user.
More importantly, purchasing data is also stripped from STEP files. The manufacturer’s name, the part number, and other purchasing data will not be imported into the customer’s CAD system.
When an engineer sends the bill of materials to their purchasing department, the procurement team won’t know where the part came from or how to purchase the part unless the engineer added that information manually to the model after importing it (hint: not going to happen). If you’re the manufacturer of the downloaded part, this means fewer sales for you.
STEP files are cumbersome to update in bulk
If you need to update one or two STEP files, it’s no big deal. Even updating 10-20 STEP files isn’t the end of the world. But what if you need to update 100 STEP files or more? That’s a major project. Products with frequent updates take a lot of engineering resources to maintain.
How can industrial marketers offer CAD models while mitigating some of the issues with providing STEP files?
There are two main ways to mitigate some or all of the issues inherent in standard STEP files. You can have your STEP files imported into a system that generates models instantly, or have a native catalog created for your parts.
How to Boost STEP Model Performance
Leverage Your Data with STEP Enhancement
So, you already offer STEP files on your website. You’re done then, right? Now you can check the “we offer CAD models” box and move on in your endless to-do list.
Not so fast. You can capture even more sales-ready marketing attributable leads from your current website traffic by adding features with eCATALOGsolutions STEP enhancement. The best part? It’s easy to get started.
Here are some features sure to allure more engineering leads:
- 3D previews
- 3D PDFs
- Part metadata
- 150+ native CAD formats
With an enhancement of your STEP files into eCATALOGsolutions, you can capture more sales-qualified leads from your current website traffic.
Let’s take a closer look at these sale-increasing features:
As it turns out, a picture IS worth a thousand words. And a 3D preview? I’ll let the math nerds work that one out. A number we know for sure is this: 92 percent of engineers and architects see a 3D preview as an important part of their product selection.
Why? Because they need to visualize your product to ensure that it meets their needs and project specifications. Sure, they can download a model from you without viewing it first, but by adding a 3D preview, you eliminate friction and save your engineering customers valuable time.
3D previews also give non-engineers the ability to visualize your products. You see, STEP files can only be viewed in a CAD system. That’s an unfortunate limitation for many non-engineers that don’t have CAD systems on their computers.
Suppose someone from your customers’ procurement department wants a visual of your product before making that quarter-smashing order to ensure they are purchasing the correct part. In that case, they’d have to have a CAD system to see your STEP files (hint: not likely).
On the other hand, if you have a 3D viewer on your website, they can press send on the order with confidence!
Gone are the days of guessing which leads came from marketing. With eCATALOGsolutions, when an engineer downloads a CAD model, the marketing department gets a high-intent sales lead. A lead that is clearly attributable to your marketing efforts.
Tired of dealing with clunky form plugins? No more with eCATALOGsolutions. It’s all built-in! Forms that match your brand’s style are built into the online catalog for customers to fill out. The forms capture the data you need; no coding required.
You also get actionable customer details from your website downloads in an easy-to-understand dashboard.
Dig into the details of the companies and individuals that download your components.
You own your customer data. We never sell your leads to your competitors.
3D PDF Product Datasheets
eCATALOGsolutions STEP enhancement includes access to 3D PDF product datasheets. Across the hundreds of millions of downloads from our CAD portals, the 3D PDF is the most popular format, and it’s not even a close race. 3D PDF product datasheets give engineers the documentation they need to back up their design choices and pass purchasing information to their procurement team.
If your audience wants 3D PDFs, give the people what they want.
With an eCATALOGsolutions STEP enhancement, you can add essential metadata to your CAD models. Why is metadata necessary, you ask? I’ll tell you:
Metadata contains your company name, part number, and other essential information directly within the CAD model. eCATALOGsolutions enables this information to travel with your part into the engineer’s CAD system when they download in a native CAD format (covered below). Embedding metadata like your company name and part number makes it easy for the purchasing department to buy your part vs. shopping around.
You can also embed your product metadata into the 3D PDF datasheet, making it simple for any procurement team to purchase.
150+ Native CAD formats
STEP exports have their place. To be honest, many engineers are fine with STEP files for importing geometry alone. However, often manufacturers find STEP files limit the delivery of key product attributes such as the part number and manufacturer information, which slows or impedes the purchasing process. When engineers import STEP files, there is a loss of data, meaning manufacturer product information is no longer in the file. The data loss isn’t always obvious, but you should give engineers key manufacturer information so their purchasing department can quickly source your product. This data transfer is smoothest when you provide CAD models that are directly supported by the engineer’s CAD systems.
Offering native CAD models (CAD models with a file type that matches the engineer’s/user’s CAD software) makes it easier for engineers in specific industries to use your CAD models in their designs.
Here are a few examples of why providing many CAD formats increases your addressable market:
- Autodesk has the most extensive user base
- SOLIDWORKS is popular with midsize manufacturers
- Solid Edge is prevalent in consumer goods
- CATIA is a staple of the aerospace industry
- Creo has significant use in government and military projects
- NX is widespread in the automotive industry
Find out if an eCATALOGsolutions STEP import is right for you
Did we pique your curiosity? Let’s take some of the risks out of the equation. What if you could see if your STEP files are a good fit for an import project before committing? Just send us some of your files; we’ll import a few of your current STEP files and show you how swoon-worthy (dazzling, irresistible) your parts will look in a 3D preview like this one:
When STEP isn’t enough
As good as an eCATALOG STEP import is, sometimes you need a bit more. Here are a few reasons your STEP files may not work:
- The STEP files are too large (poor user experience loading files)
- Your IP is accessible in the STEP files (can be stolen)
- The STEP files don’t import properly into different CAD systems
- Your product lines are highly configurable (takes too much time and wastes engineering resources)
- Engineers require configurable assemblies of multiple products
- Your customers require data that STEP files can’t hold
- You need component digital twins
If any of the above applies to your products, you may want to consider an eCATALOGsolutions native catalog.
Beyond STEP: The Benefits of Native Content
Sometimes, a STEP library just isn’t going to cut it.
Here are some benefits of building your products in eCATALOGsolutions :
- Form, fit, and function models (better usability for engineers + removed IP)
- Catalog and product-level updates
- Backward and forward compatible in 150+ formats
- Custom component + assembly configurations
- Dynamic part numbers for easy purchasing
- Enhanced CAD data and CAD model function
- Component digital twin compatible
Form, fit, and function models
eCATALOGsolutions native catalog models are form, fit, and function models. Translation: they represent how the part will look and fit in the design and contain metadata for part function. This enables engineers to spec the part into their design but doesn’t give away intellectual property or manufacturing information.
The models are “lightweight,” for zippy downloads and snappy load times in the engineer’s CAD system.
Catalog and product-level updates
One downside of a STEP library is that each model must be updated individually. If an entire product line with 100 STEP files needs a minor tweak to the design, it can mean hundreds of engineering hours.
With an eCATALOGsolutions native catalog, updates can go to an entire product line or catalog without editing each individual model. If you have an update to product names, part numbers, or design changes, you can make those changes globally without updating individual models or your website.
When you need to make an update, our team will walk you through the process and help add the changes to your entire product line with minimal burden on your engineering and marketing teams.
Backward and forward compatible in 150+ formats
Never worry about CAD system versions again. eCATALOGsolutions maintains compatibility with over 150+ CAD formats. We keep things up-to-date so you don’t have to. Engineers can download the latest version of the CAD model, or download previous versions if they’re using an older version of their CAD system.
We automatically update the platform soon after new versions of each CAD system are released, ensuring the latest formats are always available to your audience.
Rules-Based Configurations for Components + Assemblies
Let’s face it; if your products are highly configurable, it isn’t feasible to create a STEP file for every possible configuration of your products. When an engineer needs a custom part, they must wait for your team to make the part they need. This places a heavy burden on your engineering team.
A native build is created with a “master” model and uses your product rules and parameters. The master model and parameters power a configurator that lives on your website. When engineers need a customized part, they can quickly use sliders and dropdowns to customize your products to their specifications.
Once they configure a custom part, they can preview it before generating a CAD model. After visually reviewing the 3D part, the engineer can choose their preferred CAD format and download a CAD model.
The real magic begins when an engineer hits the download button. eCATALOGsolutions uses the master model and parameters to create a customized CAD model within seconds. That particular variation of your component may have never existed before, but the engineer gets the customization they need in their preferred CAD format.
You can also offer custom assemblies. Engineers can configure multiple customized components into a custom assembly and download the assembly as a CAD file or a 3D PDF datasheet.
Dynamic part numbers for easy purchasing
Don’t all of those configurations lead to issues with ordering specific parts? The answer is simple: No.
We work with your team to create a dynamic part numbering system unique to your needs. The dynamic part numbers work in conjunction with the custom configuration. That means every customized configuration comes with its own unique, dynamically generated part number.
The unique part number is embedded in the native CAD formats. When the engineer imports the part into their CAD system, your company name and the purchasing part number are visible within the CAD system. In many cases, this info also transfers into the bill of materials for purchasing.
When the purchasing team is ready to buy the part, they can see your company and part info, making it easy to purchase the correct component from your organization.
Enhanced CAD data and CAD model function
STEP files are limited in their functionality and usability with CAD systems. For instance, moving parts imported as STEP come in as either one solid, immovable part, or multiple parts that are not tied together. Also, necessary metadata and design intent information is lost with STEP files when they are imported into most CAD systems. This decreases the functionality of the model for the end user.
Native CAD models are not as limited. When engineers download a native build model in their CAD systems format, the models are “high fidelity,” meaning parts come embedded with movement information like mates and constraints and kinematic data. These models are easier for engineers to spec into their designs and make it easier to run virtual simulations.
Component Digital Twin Compatible
The sky’s the limit with the metadata and fidelity you want to include within your eCATALOGsolutions native build. Some of our customers have embedded enough data for their models to be considered component digital twins.
These advanced CAD models include enough data for engineers to use for automation programming and simulation testing. For instance, sensors can include beams and reach data so engineers can plan optimum sensor placement, and motors can include horsepower, torque, voltage, and power source data.
As companies embrace Industry 4.0 tech within their organizations, engineering requirements become more strict. The data you provide within your CAD models can help engineers meet deadlines faster and differentiate your products from your competitors.
Ready to find out if one of our solutions is right for your products? Let’s talk.
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