Taking 3-D to heart

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Jeff Greer knows that medical engineering clients prefer to take a good look at complex heart defibrillator parts before they buy them. But that’s not always an easy proposition, especially when customers are located halfway around the world from his company.

So, Brockton, Mass.-based Alden Products Co., which also manufactures cable assemblies, connectors and fiber-optic platforms uses Web-based, three-dimensional imaging technologies developed by SolidWorks Corp. to instantly reach and dynamically present its defibrillator sets—the wires that lead to the patient’s chest—and the rest of the company’s products. The company recently began using SolidWorks’3-D renderings to make its catalog of highly technical wares more vivid and informative.

The 72-year-old company views 3-D as a way to bring more reality to the online buying of products including high-voltage and instrumentation connectors, items whose proportions are as about as easy to render on a two-dimensional Web site as the Sistine Chapel.

"When it’s [in 2-D], you still don’t get a sense of proportionality," said Greer, president of Alden, whose clients include Xerox Corp. and Agilent Technologies Inc. "With 3-D, if we have a client out on the West Coast, we can direct them to our site and portray a product to them just like it’s right in front of them."

Marketing meets product design

With SolidWorks’ guidance, Alden began building its online catalogs with 3-D effects early in the product design process. Company engineers used the technology to collaborate online in a more realistic environment than that which was available two-dimensionally, Greer said. "We … enabled everyone in our building to communicate [in a more graphic manner]," he said.

Also, 3-D environments speed up the design process, Greer said, something that means a lot in an industry where many products are intricate and often needed yesterday. "When an engineer is working on a design, they want to get everything right off the shelf, and right into the marketplace, as efficiently as possible," Greer said.

Perhaps even more important to Alden’s customers than speed is adaptability. Engineers are keen on dragging products out of catalogs and importing them into their own Web sites to check for compatibility.

It’s a process that Alden’s catalog allows for, and one that is much enhanced by 3-D, said Ilya Mirman, director-product marketing at SolidWorks. "With 3-D, you can allow someone to configure, and build on the fly," he said. "We’re making it a lot easier to evaluate that product."

Show me the money

The advantages not withstanding, 3-D catalogs also have a few drawbacks and do not make sense for every company. Some potential b-to-b clients—especially those working outside of main offices, without T-1 lines—simply do not have the bandwidth needed to view products in 3-D.

Additionally, a top-quality 3-D catalog can cost a lot to develop. Neither Greer nor Mirman disclosed prices, but industry experts said that a single 3-D rendering can cost as much as $15,000, making it all but unobtainable for smaller companies.

"On the b-to-b side, the downside is price," said Geoff Dunkak, VP-creative services at Raleigh, N.C.-based agency BtB Marketing Communications Inc. "There is always the sticker shock. It’s sort of a champagne-taste, beer-budget type of situation."

However, for companies that try to forgo paying a lot for a 3-D catalog, the risk is getting an amateurish site, something that could effectively sink on sales. "What you don’t want is another cheesy animated little logo," Dunkak said.

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