Product Data Formats for the 21st Century

Data formats is an interesting topic in the context of engineering and manufacturing. Manufacturing is relaying on a significant amount of information that resides in the organizations. I had a chance to write in the past – 3D CAD Future: How To Liberate Data? I think, the topic is actually much wider than 3D and CAD. Engineers are using multiple applications and – CAD, CAE, Office, various databases driven applications. In addition to 3D CAD formats, organizations deal with multiple public and proprietary formats. Some of them are specific for the existing applications. However, formats like CSV are generic and used by multiple applications. I read an article Is JSON the CSV of the 21st century by Martin David on the th.inking blog. Martin is discussing what are the perspective to have JSON-like formats to have wider expansion in the next decades and replace CSV and similar formats.

I decided to put some of my thoughts about the history of product data formats and share some ideas about what may happen in the 21st century.

Technology and Interoperability
The story of data formats and interoperability is going together very often. Time ago, all application developers saved data into proprietary file formats. The interoperability was very poor. Then, the idea of relational databases invented by Edgar Codd came in to solve an interoperability problem. Everything is in relational tables and all applications supposed to use SQL. Nevertheless, multiple proprietary data models caused an interoperability problem again. Later in 1990s, XML was introduced as the next magic thing that will solve the problem of the interoperability. Since the first introduction in 1996, lots of different XML formats were developed. Some of them were developed in CAD, PDM and PLM space. However, the problem of interoperability is still with us.

Product data formats make their origins in hundreds and thousands of applications developed for engineering and manufacturing space. From the technological standpoint, I can classify them in the three groups: design related, database oriented and office applications.

Design related applications (CAD, CAM and CAE) are impacted by the development of major CAD systems. CAD applications are continuing to be very protective with regards to the formats. However, the adoption of geometrical kernels (Parasolid, ACIS and others) maintain today’s status quo in this space. Many “integration service” companies are dealing with multiple translation of all possible and impossible CAD data formats.

Office tools became part of engineering application and continue to make a significant influence on the product data because of wide adoption of MS Excel. Excel files are everywhere and you can find complete data management systems developed on top of the Excel and corresponded to the Excel data formats. Whatever will happen in the future, Excel legacy will continue to dominate for a very long period of time in everything related to product data formats.

The majority of engineering and product data related application is using database technology. This is what we have today in the industry. Relational databases and SQL-driven data development continues to dominate in this space. These applications created a huge amount of legacy data in engineering and manufacturing organizations. In most of the situations, companies continue to use data in relational databases even after application themselves becomes useless.

Product data format in CAD and other applications are tightly related to the issue of standards. My favorite association related to standards is tooth brush. We, obviously, need them. However, everybody wants to use their own tooth brushes. During the last 25 years, there are multiple attempts to create standards for CAD, PDM, PLM and other engineering applications. Some of them were more successful and adopted such as STEP and IGES. Some of the vendors related standards succeed on the level of visibility that can make them very close to become de-facto industry standards.

Product Data Ownership
The question of data ownership is an important one. Many organizations are using software to create various types of product data. It resides in application files and databases. Who owns these data? The reasonable answer – data belongs to the people and organizations that created these files. However, an absence of agreed and open standards created the situation when organizations are dependent on applications to access data.

Product data Format in the 21st Century
So, what will happen with product data formats in the visible future? I think, industry will need to find an answer on this question. The situation we have today was created by the business strategies of software vendors, existing technologies and specific application dominance. In my view, there is no “silver bullet” solution that can solve the problem of product data format in the short term. However, introduction of new web technologies, data standards and product data ownership can create a demand for the future innovation in this space.

These are just my thoughts.. I’m interested to know what is your take on the product data formats?
I’m looking forward to having a discussion around this topic.

Best, Oleg


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  • Ricardo Velez

    Hi Oleg, I’ve been dealing with data formats in engineering for a very long time, and I have to agree with you that there is no “silver bullet” solution, especially when there are large software vendors who impose data formats on their users.

    Interoperability will always be a problem, until computers are able to understand natural language and users don’t have to care about the format its stored in. For example, the advent of X3D and Collada and 3DXML marked a new step in 3D formats. X3D and Collada are open and available to anyone who wants to use them. On the other hand, 3DXML is a proprietary format, but a standard none-the-less. Interoperability between X3D and Collada is very straight forward, 3DXML being a bit more difficult to access due to APIs.

    Collaboration between standards bodies is a must if interoperability is the goal. However, there will always be a software vendor that will decide to go its own way. End user initiative is the key here! Latest examples of industry battles (being) settled by a market is Blue Ray vs. HD DVD, and Flash vs. HTML5. Granted, this is a special market I don’t care to go to, but it clearly shows the power of customers and markets, not technology providers.

    I believe the future will be on semantic interoperability of knowledge entities, not formats. Semantic systems are still in its infancy, and not very useful in engineering domains at the moment, but I believe it will come to the point that users don’t need to care which format a part or a process is defined in, as long as I can get the information I need to perform my task.

  • Ricardo Velez

    I’d be happy to discuss this topic further. Thanks for the post!

    Best regards,

  • Ricardo, Thank you for your comment! My strong take is that bottom-up customer-driven initiatives will help to solve a problem of data formats, standards and interoperability in the future. Semantic technologies are interesting. I’d be happy to discuss it further… Best, Oleg
    PS. you are welcome to visit my new blog/website on I’m running the current blog site for compatibility purpose, so people that regular to this site can get information in the same way they’ve been doing for the last two years. However, expanded content is going on