In 2015, some of the world’s leading additive manufacturing and tech companies came together to launch the 3MF Consortium in an effort to introduce a new, universal 3D printing file format. The format, known as 3D Manufacturing Format (3MF), has evolved over the past years with the consortium’s founding members—including 3D Systems, Autodesk, Microsoft, HP, Materialise, Stratasys, SLM Solutions, Ultimaker, and others—contributing to its development and adoption.
The general impetus behind the 3MF Consortium is to establish a 3D printing file format which can account for all of additive manufacturing’s use cases and overcome the limitations imposed by other commonly used file formats such as STL and OBJ. Compared to STL, for instance, 3MF integrates color and other material information which is important for AM applications. And, thanks to a recent development, 3MF now also has a Beam Lattice Specification Extension.
Still, there is more work to be done before 3MF is the universal, interoperable format the consortium envisions. We recently caught up with 3MF Consortium member Luis Baldez, Head of Software at HP 3D Printing, to discuss the current state of the file format, its adoption, and how 3D printing will look once it is the standard.
What have been some recent developments in building the 3MF format?
“3MF’s development started about three years ago, and since then the 3MF Core Specification hasn’t changed much. What has been changing are the available extensions that 3MF allows, which cover different requirements for 3D printing. There was an early release with the materials and color extensions, then we worked on a slicing extension, production extensions, and very recently we released the lattice extension.
In terms of future extensions, there are several ideas. A lot of the focus lately has been on voxel representation—the ability to describe not only the surface of the object but its interior. We’re thinking about functionally graded materials, about the color inside a part, and, down the line, even printed electronics.”
And what about long-term goals for 3MF?
“We want to focus on how to increase adoption. In other words, how do we make sure that people move away from STL and other formats and start using 3MF in their workflows. As part of this, a lot of the founding members of the consortium have been incorporating 3MF in their releases. HP, for its part, has supported 3MF in its systems from day one. But for companies that have been in the market for a long time, it is a bit more effort.
Another thing we’re learning is that—as we see more adoption of the 3MF color extension—that adjustments to the specification are continually required. I think as we get more adoption, we will find inconsistencies in the spec and interoperability problems, so we’ll have to make adjustments as we go. The point I want to make is that as you drive more adoption and as more people use 3MF, we probably need to refine the specs to really ensure interoperability.”
What are some of the consortium’s strategies to push adoption forward?
“The first step is really awareness. Ultimately, we would like to think that everybody will associate 3D printing with 3MF, but we are still finding companies that don’t know that the consortium exists. The second step is making sure that the founding members really adopt 3MF across their portfolios, which might involve dropping other formats to really push 3MF’s adoption.
I think the third thing—what is really going to drive more adoption—is when 3MF demonstrates capabilities that you can’t achieve any other way. I think color is a good example of that: STL doesn’t support color and I think with new color products coming to market, we’ll see the only way to express color in a neutral, accurate way will be 3MF. I think a similar thing will happen with lattice. Lattice structures nowadays typically use proprietary formats, so they are very tied to the machine that builds them—there’s no interoperability. I think the more unique cases that we can cover with 3MF will drive more adoption.”
The more hardware capabilities are created, the higher the importance of 3MF will become and then the need will grow for some of these applications to keep up with these capabilities. – Luis Baldez.
Down the line, what are the expectations for the 3MF format? How will its adoption impact the additive industry?
“In the long-term, I think that the ultimate goal is that 3MF is able to describe anything you can do with any 3D printing technology. We’ve also discussed the potential of one day—again, in the long-term—transitioning 3MF from a consortium to a more standard body, like with ASTM and ISO.
A couple of years ago, we announced we had been talking to them, however, the reason why we’re not there yet is because once you go into a standard body, the change cycles are slower. So we’ll probably stay as a consortium until we feel that 3MF covers all the use cases and the spec is stable enough. Only then will we transfer the format over to a more standard body.
You see it across different industries. If you try to standardize too fast before its adopted, it just slows things down. For example, with PDF—a format everybody is familiar with—it was initially Adobe driving it forward and it took years to stabilize. Now, as we know, it’s a mainstream, interoperable format. I think in the future, that’s where we’d like 3MF to be; a way to describe 3D printing content in a very reliable, standard way. At some point, people should forget that 3MF is a format.
In the end, this will allow companies to focus on innovation instead of basic interoperability problems and that’s what the objective of the consortium is.”
What types of challenges are the 3MF Consortium facing?
“I think awareness remains a bit of a challenge. The more we talk about it and the more we get people interested in the spec and seeing the benefits of 3MF the better. We want everybody to be aware of it. I should say, we’re quite open to talking to other people who have ideas on how to make the format better. We have some open source code that we’re always looking for more people to contribute to, so I think anything that publicizes 3MF is beneficial.”