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Altium Designer offers advanced capabilities for interacting with mechanical design systems and software (MCAD) through the active exchange of physical design data. The range of systems and interfaces that bridge the ECAD-MCAD domains also rely on standardized data formats such as the industry ratified STEP protocol (Standard for Exchange of Product model data), which provides an information-rich, clear text encoded file format for 3D model design data.
The STEP file format itself (
*.stp) is defined in the ISO 10303-21 (International Organization for Standardization) specification for CAD data exchange and is supported by the majority of MCAD tools and systems. At the fundamental file exchange level, Altium Designer offers both export and import capabilities for 3D STEP files.
This provides the basis for the free exchange of high-quality, standardized 3D modeling data between software domains, which simplifies ECAD-MCAD design collaboration and enhances both the quality and accuracy of 3D model data. Note that both the STEP AP214 and the legacy AP203 formats are supported by Altium Designer – exported files are ISO-10303-21 -compliant (AP214).
An important function in the data exchange relationship between the ECAD and MCAD worlds is the ability to port the PCB assembly into mechanical design software for the purposes of physical clearance checking. This is particularly crucial where the design is intimately matched with a product enclosure that also exposes PCB peripherals such as controls, switches, connectors, and displays.
In this case, the inherent universality and accuracy of the STEP file format allows comprehensive PCB modeling data to be transferred from Altium Designer to MCAD software with a high degree of confidence in the dimensional relationships. The MCAD designer can then import and place the PCB assembly 3D STEP model into the mechanical design to check and/or modify accordingly.
This board export capability is available through Altium Designer’s STEP Export feature, which also includes a broad range of data and object filtering options.
If not already enabled, the STEP exporter checkbox should be selected in the Configure Platform page in Altium Designer’s Extension & Update view. For access to the view, click the user button () at the top right of the application and select Extensions and Updates, then the button under the view’s Installed tab.
To export the currently active board design as a STEP file, select File » Export » STEP 3D from the main menus, then nominate a target file name and location. The following Export Options dialog provides a range of selections that include options to determine which board objects will be included in the generated file.
► See the Export Options dialog for more information on STEP file export settings.
A STEP file may also be exported as part of an Altium Designer Output Job, by adding an Export STEP generator to the Export Outputs category in a project OutJob. See the Export Options dialog for the settings that apply to this export method.
When the Export as Single Part option is selected, the generated STEP model will be saved as a single part, rather than an assembly of component models. This simplifies the exported STEP model but prevents individual components from being selected in the receiving MCAD application.
The automated IPC Compliant Footprint Wizard, which creates an IPC-compliant footprint in the PCB Library editor, provides the additional option of saving (and previewing) the generated footprint model as a 3D STEP file. The STEP based model can be embedded in the generated IPC-compliant footprint and also saved as a
*.step file in a nominated location, where the latter option will allow the 3D model to be reused or distributed as needed.
The IPC Component Wizard is launched from the PCB Library editor (Tools » IPC Compliant Footprint Wizard) and the STEP export option enabled in the wizard’s penultimate Footprint Destination page. The generated STEP file model will accurately match the component dimensions that have been entered in the wizard.
STEP files can be imported and used in Altium Designer through two distinct approaches, both of which use the same mechanism. The approach used is essentially dependent on how a STEP file will be applied in a design:
Within both the PCB and PCB Library domains in Altium Designer, STEP files are imported into a dedicated 3D Body object that is placed and aligned as required.
To place a 3D Body and populate its contents in the PCB Editor, select Place » 3D Body from the main menu, create its object shape and choose the Generic option as the 3D Model Type in the Properties panel. The Souce section in the panel will then offer three alternative source options for importing a STEP file:
► See 3D Body Properties for more information on the 3D Body object options.
The placed 3D Body (including its imported/linked STEP file) will appear as a simple body area in the editor's 2D display mode, and as a fully rendered 3D model in the 3D display mode (shortcut keys 2 and 3).
One of the most important STEP files that can be brought into the PCB space is a 3D model of the design’s host enclosure. Typically developed and then exported from the MCAD domain, the imported enclosure model can be placed and precisely aligned in the board design to check for clearance violations and accuracy.
In the image below, the design’s 3D enclosure model has been imported into the PCB as an embedded model. The imported model’s positioning and snap reference points are configured in the 3D Body mode of the Properties panel.
Using the same mechanism outlined above, a 3D STEP model file can be imported into a component footprint definition to provide a fully rendered 3D component body for that component. The STEP model can replace, or co-exist with, an existing 3D component body constructed from simple 3D shapes (Extruded, Cylinder, Sphere).
A 3D STEP file model is applied to a component footprint in an Altium Designer PCB Library by selecting Place » 3D Body from the main menu then choosing the Generic option for the 3D Model Type in the Properties panel. The STEP model is then loaded into the 3D Body using the Vault or Embedded import option as detailed above. Note that the File linking option is not available in the PCB Library editor.
Alternatively, to replace an existing 3D Body shape applied to a footprint (such as a Cylinder, for example), simply select its 3D Body object and load the STEP file using the Generic 3D Model option – this type of change is easiest to perform with the editor in 3D display mode.
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