Digital design software has virtually replaced blueprints across all manufacturing sectors. STEP (the Standard for the Exchange of Product Data), a universal format for product data that allows industrial partners with different proprietary software to understand and share engineering data, has accelerated this change. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and PDES, Inc., an industry consortium, have just introduced a new STEP standard that should help ensure that tomorrow's engineers will be able to understand today's complex designs.

The new standard allows more sophisticated descriptions of proprietary designs and processes. This should eliminate the need for manufacturers to understand and consult a wide variety of original software programs. The additional descriptive information covering three-dimensional mechanical designs and assemblies also should help engineers to duplicate or repair complex machines such as aircraft, or ships, long after the original design and manufacturing software has been discontinued or changed beyond recognition.

The new STEP standard, called AP203 Edition 2, supports the latest advances in product design. It can be used to express complex three-dimensional mechanical part models and assemblies with features, tolerances, and colors, which may denote, for example, specific types of systems, such as hydraulic and electrical, or other details especially important in manufacturing.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is expected to publish the new STEP protocol this month for distribution and implementation by software vendors and manufacturers. NIST developed AP203 Edition 2 with private-sector partners, including aerospace, automobile, shipbuilding and computer software corporations.