What is happening with 3MF? An update on 3D printing’s next generation file format

Cast your mind back to 2015, a group of additive manufacturing (AM) industry heavyweights came together to introduce a new file format which aimed to ultimately replace the most commonly used printing format, old faithful, STL. It was to be named 3MF – the 3D Manufacturing Format – and was said to support the next generation of 3D printing hardware with full-fidelity 3D models.

It had bold ambitions to be the dominant 3D file format for AM. Yet, after generating significant buzz upon launch, the conversation around 3MF appears to have somewhat quietened but Adrian Lannin, Executive Director for 3MF, says four years on, its core vision remains the same.

“This is a big, long-term goal,” Lannin told TCT. “To get there we set interim goals. This year a specific goal of 3MF’s was to be the industry leader in colour; having colour work well end-to-end in a 3D system. There is more work to do but today, we believe 3MF is a key component of the best colour manufacturing solutions. As for adoption, focusing on colour, we worked closely with our members to improve colour support, and to make 3MF the default in their applications. We’ve made a great deal of progress.”

What does that progress look like exactly? Well, there are a stack of over 30 brand names currently listed as 3MF adopters including Materialise, 3D Systems, and Ultimaker among many others who have introduced 3MF compatibility to their hardware and software products. HP says it is using 3MF natively for its Jet Fusion printers, specifically its 300/500 colour series, while Microsoft supports 3MF across Windows and Office. Lannin says the organisation is also in ongoing conversations with emerging companies in the 3D space to turn them on to 3MF.

“I’m in contact and regularly field questions from companies wanting to understand the relevance of 3MF to their products,” Lannin explains. “I can’t get specific as that would reveal the company’s identity and these discussions are under NDA. I can say that we are working with general purpose machine companies for additive manufacturing and less so with companies that are purely vertically focused – although we would like to change that.”

In the last two years there have been a number of updates to 3MF including four extensions for Materials and Properties, Production, Beam Lattice and Slice, in addition to the strengthening of its support for colour 3D printing. Volumetric and Laser Tool Path extensions are next on the list and currently in development.

“We are seeing a great deal of interest in colour. Probably because the challenge of colour has largely been solved with the use of 3MF,” Lannin offers. “I think we’ll see a groundswell of activity in this area over the next 12-18 months. The Beam Lattice Extension was also well-received primarily because it solves real problems by maximising potential for innovative, efficient and lightweight additive manufacturing design.”

Getting an industry to overhaul the way it does things certainly has its challenges, as the consortium has learned. In the same way AM encourages engineers and designers to step out of their comfort zone and think differently about design, users of 3D printing have become used to selecting STL (or OBJ and VRML) as their go-to printing format. 3MF however claims to solve all common problems associated with STL such as lack of colour or material information, inability to save mesh topology, and loss of manifoldness which results in ambiguity. While Lannin does not expect STL to disappear any time soon, he is confident in 3MF’s progress and sees no good reason for manufacturers to continue pushing STL when building out new AM platforms.

“Inertia is difficult to overcome.” Lannin concludes. “3MF is the next generation file format and solves many of the issues users experience with STL. We have really focused on highlighting the real-world applications of 3MF in additive manufacturing environments. Word of mouth in the industry has been particularly strong for us too.”

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