Even before developing our 3D printing Customizer, we at trinckle 3D have been working with different 3D printing formats for several years. And just as most of the other companies in the industry, we have been using STL as our go-to file format most of the time. As we all know, this is not a file format that easily adapts to the fast-paced evolution of modern 3D printing trends.
So, when we first heard about Microsoft’s idea of a new, unified file format for 3D printing, we were just as excited as everyone else, and we quickly decided to implement it for our own 3D printing solutions.
“With the rapid adoption of 3D printing capabilities and increased usage across industries, the need for a file format that can accurately and completely transfer data from a CAD system to a 3D printer became instantly obvious.” – Gian Paolo Bassi, CEO, SOLIDWORKS, Dassault Systèmes
Our 3D Printing Solutions
First, a little background. We started the online 3D printing service at trinckle 3D in 2012. Along the way, we also developed our own software to optimize the workflow. This helped us become one of the leading providers of 3D printing solutions in Germany. In 2015, we launched our 3D Printing Enterprise Solutions, which combines cloud-based software products with our proven production infrastructure to help businesses to enter the 3D printing market.
Our killer application is the Customizing Cloud Engine, or for short, the Customizer. It uses generative design algorithms to power mass customization. In other words, it allows our customers to create individualized 3D models in no time, using a simple web interface that works on any device.
The Enterprise Solutions also include software tools for 3D model handling (printability check, automatic file repair, real-time pricing…), and we manage the fulfillment for our customers, too.
So, to cut a long story short, we gained a lot of knowledge about 3D printing.
We know the challenges that come with it, and we are aware of the urgency of having a new file format that is powerful enough to work through the complete 3D printing workflow.
Turns out, 3MF has a lot of potential to be just that new format.
A File Format with 3D Printing in Mind
Fortunately, we were one of the first companies to get their hands on the 3MF source library, and we spent some time to take a deeper look into the format.
Here are four things that we really like about 3MF:
- When looking at the file structure, you immediately notice the standardized form of it. Using the Open Packaging Conventions and XML containers makes it both easy to read and easy to handle. 3D models can be composed of different build items, allowing a better distribution during the print process. Different properties, like material, color, or a more freely definable print ticket can be assigned to each model. 3MF users can not only define what parts should be printed, but also what parameters the 3D printer will use to process the parts.
- For us, this improves interoperability between the various CAD tools and the 3D printers. It saves time during the whole process, which means faster delivery for customers.
- The file structure also allows for efficient storage of repetitive structures. Instead of storing every single triangle as in other mesh formats, 3MF can reduce the file size tremendously by dividing your 3D model into repetitive sub-units, with each sub-unit being defined only once.An example: Our Customizer is able to automatically generate very complex structures. Since the software runs on our servers, we want to handle files as efficiently as possible. Repetitive sub-units are a great way to reduce memory consumption, and 3MF allows us to store the results accordingly.
- Apart from that, 3MF is the first mesh format to deliver a long overdue clear definition of manifoldness, thus eliminating a major source of errors in 3D models. For every 3D printing service, manual model checking and correction take up a significant amount of their time in customer service.
Why Should You Use It, Too?
Apart from these advantages, there are other reasons to implement 3MF.
3MF is a modern container format, with all the versatility that comes with it. The possibility to store meta information and to extend the format keeps 3MF open and flexible enough for future developments in additive manufacturing.
But all technical aspects aside, the best format is worthless, if nobody uses it. The 3MF consortium consists of well known 3D printing players like Materialise, Shapeways, 3D Systems and Stratasys, as well as global tech heavyweights like HP and Siemens, all under the leadership of Microsoft. This might very well be one of the best reasons to adopt 3MF, as they are almost guaranteed to establish 3MF as a new standard 3D file format (e.g., 3MF is integrated into Windows 10).
Last but not least, it is free and open source. And who doesn’t like that?
“There is a pressing need for a standardized data format for large additive manufacturing organizations.” – Carl Fruth, CEO of FIT AG, founding member of the 3MF consortium
Any Tips On Implementing It?
We found the implementation into our existing services to be very straightforward. The 3MF core specification (available here) can be followed to the letter.
Pro tip: The ability of the 3MF format to efficiently pack repetitive structures may become a subtle pitfall for software implementing it. It implies that the file size is no good measurement of the unpacked model size. In a naïve implementation that stores all triangles in place, the memory consumption may become excessive on loading a normal sized 3MF that contains many repetitions.
This can be avoided by storing the files accordingly, or by implementing checks to cancel the upload, if it proves too excessive.
The only setback: as of now, the lib3MF only works under Windows, so we had to write our own library for Linux. Upon inquiry, the 3MF consortium assured us that compatibility with other operating systems will be implemented in the near future.
3MF is not another 3D format, it is a dedicated 3D printing format. It is versatile enough to be used for the complete product development chain from initial design to CAD to 3D printing. This is a tremendous improvement for the workflow of both small and large companies. The use of 3MF in closed work environments can serve as a further stepping stone to a broader adoption of 3D printing technologies.