Altium Designer Documentation

PDF3D Exporter

Modified by Annika Krilov on Apr 11, 2017

Altium Designer users have long enjoyed the ability to interactively view PCB designs in fully rendered 3D, which provides a unique insight into the real structure of the board design, its components and associated mechanical parts.

There are significant advantages in being able to bring this 3D capability to those outside the immediate design team, such as fabrication and assembly houses, and not in the least, customers. This has been possible through the use of the Altium Designer Viewer and to a limited degree, by generating multiple fixed views of the 3D design in PDF format.

With this new Altium Designer release however, the insight provided by an interactive 3D view of the design has become available to external stakeholders through the introduction of PDF 3D export. This interactive 3D format is accessible for everyone with a recent version of the ubiquitous Adobe® Acrobat® Reader.

Interactively view an exported 3D design in Adobe Reader – zoom, rotate and select what design elements you'd like to see.

3D in Acrobat Reader

Interactive 3D viewing became possible for PDF files with the introduction of advanced 3D view capabilities in Acrobat Reader, starting with Version 7. Progressively enhanced through subsequent versions of the Acrobat Reader, the high-level detail and configuration options produced by Altium Designer’s PDF 3D export is compatible with versions 9 and above.

The foundation of this new 3D capability is the industry-developed Universal 3D (U3D) format for computer graphic files, which has been standardized by the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA) as ECMA-363. U3D is natively supported by the PDF format and can be simply embedded (and compressed) in a PDF file for interactive 3D viewing in Acrobat Reader.

The result is a modestly sized, cross-platform 3D file format that does not require specialized 3D viewing software. In the case of PDF 3D files exported from Altium Designer, the embedded content includes the majority of the data viewable in Altium Designer’s own 3D view – including all tracks, pads, vias, polygons etc, all components and the full set of board layers.

Export 3D Extension

The PDF 3D export capability is enabled in Altium Designer with the installation of the PDF3D Exporter software extension.

To install the extension, select the Purchased tab in the Extension Manager (DXP » Extensions and Updates) and locate the PDF3D Exporter Extension. Click its  icon to download and install the extension, and then restart Altium Designer to enable the extension’s export functionality.

Once installed and ready to use, the extension will appear under the Extension Manager’s Installed tab.

Generating a PDF

To export a PDF 3D file, open the desired PCB design document in workspace and select File » Export » PDF3D from the main menu.

As distinct from a fixed view of a board 3D design, from a particular angular perspective, the new PDF 3D export is notionally equivalent to Altium Designer’s own interactive 3D view. 

As such, the resulting PDF 3D export offers the same rotate, zoom and pan capabilities and can adopt any of the color schemes defined by the system View Configurations.  To examine or edit the current configurations, and therefore the available rendering colors for the exported PDF, open the View Configurations dialog by selecting Design » Board Layers & Colors or use the L keyboard shortcut.

A PDF 3D file will be created in 3D format, regardless of current PCB editor view mode (2D or 3D).

Export Options

Once the PDF 3D export has been instigated (File » Export » PDF3D) and a target file name/location nominated, the Export 3D dialog opens to allow the rendering, behaviour and included design content to be defined for the PDF.

The Export 3D dialog allows you to configure how the exported PDF will look and behave.

The Export 3D dialog options are grouped as Geometry, Color Scheme and PDF Settings as follows.


  • Selected Only – Include specific objects types that are selected in the workspace.
    • Only selections of Tracks, Pads, Vias etc (that is, copper objects) and silk screen objects are recognised in the Selected Only mode.
    • Components and Polygons are not exported in the Selected Only mode.
    • Solder masks and the Core are always exported in Selected Only mode.
  • Core – Include the PCB core material.
  • Solder – Include the board's top and bottom solder masks.
  • Silk – Include the top and bottom silkscreen overlay.
  • Copper – Include the objects on all copper layers.
    • Hide Internal - Include top and bottom copper layers, but not internal copper layers.
  • Text – Include all free and associated (component designators, etc) text.
  • 3D Body – Include all simple/extruded/STEP 3D rendered bodies
  • Merge meshes – Combine common groups of objects for navigation purposes, such as grouping all pads togther that belong to a component.

3D files can be large, even with the format’s inherent data compression, so consider what level of design content is important for the target user.  For example, the content of the copper layers (tracks, pads, etc) may not be required by someone looking at the mechanical aspects of a board design.

Note that Acrobat Reader allows users to toggle the display of model elements (in groups, or individually) to suit their own needs – see below.

When making the choice of included 3D content, it is also worth considering the 3D rendering capabilities of the viewer's PC. While the resulting PDF 3D file size might be reasonable, the target machine's CPU and graphics system may struggle to fluidly render a complex multi-layer design.

Color Scheme

Use the drop down menu to choose the PDF render style from a list of predefined View Configuration color options, which includes the system's current 3D View settings and the board layer colors.

PDF Settings

  • Auto Activate – Defines if the 3D image will be automatically rendered when the PDF is opened in Acrobat Reader. If deselected, a Click to activate button icon will first appear in the PDF:
  • Toolbar – Enables the 3D Toolbar in PDF Reader – see below.
  • Navigation – Enables the Model Tree Navigation pane in the PDF Reader – see below.
  • View – Defines the initial view angle in PDF Reader. The Default setting is a perspective view.
  • Light – Defines the initial 3D light source type in PDF Reader.
  • Color – Defines the initial image background color.

The above options define the initial settings when the PDF is opened in Acrobat Reader, and can be easily altered to taste from the reader’s 3D Toolbar. Note that if the Toolbar is disabled in the PDF 3D export options (see above), the user will not be able to change the view.

Viewing a 3D PDF

As you would imagine, viewing a 3D PDF in Acrobat Reader is quite straightforward, with commands and menus that are logical extensions of the familiar 2D functions.

The 3D objects can be panned, zoomed and rotated using simple mouse drag and scroll-wheel operations, with functions selected from the floating 3D toolbar.

Acrobat's 3D toolbar provides controls for 3D navigation and lighting/view settings.

A feature of particular value in the reader is the Model Tree navigation pane, which can opened (if not already) with the button. This allows the user to navigate through all objects in the 3D PDF, select and highlight those of interest while toggling their visibility.

The Model Tree is particularly useful for controlling the display of specific components and nets.

The Model Tree offers a powerful way to examine all aspects of a 3D design to a high degree of detail. Whether it’s a close examination of the component positioning and layout, or a detailed inspection of the internal board structure, the navigation tree can be used to find and display the appropriate objects.

The design displayed with components and board overlays deselected, illustrating the degree of 3D control available in Acrobat Reader.

When selected in the model tree, Individual objects are highlighted in the view window with the color defined at the top of the pane (red in this case). This makes locating a particular component or net simple, and avoids the need to toggle an object's visibility to find its location. Similarly, selecting an object in the 3D view window highlights its entry in the Model Tree pane.

For more information on using the various controls, functions and settings in Acrobat Reader see the relevant Adobe help content:

PDF 3D OutJob export

To include a PDF 3D file export in a project OutJob, click Add New Export Output under the Export Outputs entry, select PDF3D and then the desired PCB document to export.

The PDF 3D generation settings can be pre-configured by selecting the Export PDF3D job and choosing Configure from the right-click menu. This opens the Export 3D configuration dialog (as outlined above).

When the Output Job is run or manually instigated, the PDF 3D file will be exported as defined in the OutJob's Output Containers section. This is to the configured Vault container and path, or the local/remote publishing target defined in the Data Management – Publishing Destinations entry in Altium Designer Preferences dialog (DXP » Preferences).

Generating a PDF 3D file to a local folder from within a configured OutJob.

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