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Print sample made on HP's MultiJet Fusion 3D printer

5 Tips For Choosing an Additive Manufacturing File Format

Manufacturing is changing rapidly from a physical industry to a digital industry. Selecting the right digital infrastructure is critical to the efficient running of your additive manufacturing system.

For engineers, designers, and management, one of the most critical additive manufacturing decisions -- along with choosing the hardware -- is selecting the software to use in an additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, system. Manufacturing is changing rapidly from a physical industry to a digital industry. Selecting the right digital infrastructure is critical to the efficient running of your additive manufacturing system.  

It's more than simply getting the right software. You also need to use the right standards and services. The 3D file format you select as part of this process is a small but important piece of the additive manufacturing puzzle. Getting the 3D file format right at the beginning simplifies development and operation which leads to a faster, more efficient additive manufacturing process and a reduction in errors.  

In short, the right 3D file format can help optimize and future-proof the additive manufacturing process for you.  

Below are the five most important attributes a 3D file format should have, to help you fully realize the benefits of additive manufacturing.

Print sample made on HP's MultiJet Fusion 3D printer. (Source: HP Inc.)

1. Designed for additive manufacturing: Pick the right tool for the job.  

For an efficient additive manufacturing solution that is optimized for productivity and designed to minimize error cases, select a file format that was designed for additive manufacturing. Many 3D file formats used today were developed years ago, for different purposes, and were simply never designed to operate efficiently in a modern additive manufacturing system. Formats not designed specifically for additive manufacturing can contain too little information, which is limiting, and they can contain extraneous information, which is inefficient.

2. Future-proof: A 3D file format's extensibility will help protect your investment.  

3D printing hardware has surpassed the abilities of existing software. In other words, software is not quite capable of describing objects that could potentially be built on modern additive manufacturing machines. With this in mind, changes in your additive manufacturing processes are inevitable. Look for a file format that is designed with extensibility, so that you can take full advantage of technical advances and future-proof your additive manufacturing system.

3. Broad industry support: Broad industry support for a file format leads to standards.

Use a file format that is broadly supported by industry. This will reduce interoperability problems, and make it easier to select products that work well together. This means you'll experience fewer problems when you integrate products and services from several different companies.

Look for a file format that has industry endorsement so that you can be sure that new additive manufacturing capabilities will be adopted promptly. Think through all of the use cases where people in your organization will be using the file, and consider the cost of having file viewers available for all of your users. Some formats have viewers natively supported in the operating system, which mitigates the cost of deploying a separate viewer.

4. Minimize exceptions: Edge cases and exceptions reduce productivity.

Whether designing a 3D printing workflow, or choosing an appliance for your home, look at the requirements and select the solution that best matches your needs. For example, do you need to handle printing in color? If so, ask yourself if the file format can handle that natively, or whether you will need to build a special process in your workflow to handle that requirement.

Ideally, you should be able to encapsulate all of the information that you need for printing the physical model in a single file, so you don't need to manage multiple files for a single part and invent processes for keeping multiple files in sync.

Tooling inserts printed on 3D Systems' direct metal production systems. (Source: 3D Systems)

5. Don't settle for STL: Modern file formats drive greater efficiency.

There is broad consensus that the use of the STL file format in additive manufacturing is limiting our industry's ability to grow. STL was designed decades before additive manufacturing became a viable manufacturing model. It defines a simple mesh of triangles, but doesn't define any of the other information required for an efficient additive manufacturing workflow, such as units, colors, materials, or textures. Users of STL in an additive manufacturing system need to create or purchase additional software and/or develop separate processes to enable these basic features.

Modern additive manufacturing file formats such as 3MF contain all of the information that is needed to produce the physical object, in a single file, thus enabling a more efficient additive manufacturing process.

When we formed the 3MF Consortium, it was with the goal of encouraging progress in the additive manufacturing industry by increasing efficiency. As software capabilities approach the capabilities of modern additive manufacturing machines, selecting a file format as the foundation of your additive manufacturing solution is an important decision. I hope these five tips will help you choose the right 3D file format for your additive manufacturing system and get the results you want both today and in the future.

Adrian Lannin is the Executive Director of the 3MF Consortium, and Group Program Manager at Microsoft, where he manages the 3D Printing team. The 3MF file format allows design applications to send full-fidelity 3D models to a mix of other applications, platforms, services, and printers, eliminating the issues with legacy file formats.

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