3MF: The Lingua Franca of 3D Printing

We are at a pivotal moment in the history of manufacturing. Modern additive manufacturing has the ability to create amazing things, to manufacture objects that would have been difficult or even impossible to fabricate just a few years ago. We can now manufacture items of unprecedented complexity – and the industry continues to innovate at a rapid pace.

Concurrently, there has been an extraordinary level of popular interest in 3D printing. New 3D printers are common on crowdfunding platforms, and some Kickstarter/Indiegogo projects have funded companies that now build successful products, such as Printrbot. These devices are aimed at either consumers and hobbyists seeking to build replacement parts at home, or parents and teachers who want to stimulate children’s interest in science and technology.

Unfortunately, a large portion of these newly- launched devices are hard to use and produce inconsistent results. At retail, disappointment rates are high, as are product returns. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel as new, innovative, and easy to use consumer printers come to market.

For consumers, we see some interest in mail-order 3D printed parts. The ability to order 3D models online from a 3D printing service gives people access to parts with much greater accuracy and strength. It enables them to select from a wide range of materials, such as metal, ceramic, and plastics with various finishes and material properties. However, today’s printing services still have to accept and fix poorly-described 3D models in a range of file formats that were never designed to support the needs of modern 3D printing, and which lack the capability to accurately describe the 3D model in full fidelity.

In the world of commercial 3D printing, we’re lost in translation.  We have the ability to create incredibly complex objects, but lack the language to describe them efficiently.  When we use microstructures to describe the internal design of objects, existing object formats cannot fully describe the complexity of the design.  Simply describing a model can result in a file terabytes in size that still lacks critical information about colour or texture.

For software developers to create applications that truly make full use of 3D printing hardware, they need a way to accurately and fully describe the printed model so that printers and print services can print the model reliably.  Without it, the pace of innovation in 3D printing is bound to slow down.

3MF Provides a Way Forward

With better integration among printing devices, applications, services and operating systems, it’s easier for developers to create great applications that can maximize the potential of the printing device. Advanced applications that can understand how to really use materials available on a modern printer could revolutionise the design process. Imagine a 3D design application that is driven by requirements rather than by drawing the object. A user could specify that they want a support of a particular size, able to support a particular weight, and the application could generate the optimal design based on the materials available and the user’s requirements.

Microsoft has partnered with additive manufacturing solutions provider FIT AG/netfabb GmbH to deliver 3D capabilities that will enable the next generation of 3D design and printing applications.

3MF File Format

Because current model interchange formats are not adequate, Microsoft, FIT and other industry leaders have joined forces to develop a new model format that meets the needs of modern additive manufacturing. This group, the 3MF Consortium is delivering a format – 3MF – that is open and available for anyone to use. This format is:

  • Rich enough to fully describe a model, retaining internal information, colour, and other characteristics;
  • Extensible so that it supports new innovations in 3D printing;
  • Open and interoperable;
  • Practical, simple to understand, and easy to implement; and
  • Free of the issues inherent in other widely used file formats.

By working with the industry to standardise on 3MF, we believe that we can remove barriers to success in this industry, and enable companies and individuals to realise the full potential of this technology.

FIT has been building its business around 3D printing technologies for 20 years, and in this time has learned a great deal about the insufficient processes and instabilities that even high-end commercial printers exhibit.  That experience has shown that the digital data handling and preparation is the key factor for obtaining repeatable, reliable results.

The reason for this is the inherent and unfortunate vulnerability of 3D printing to minor defects in the input description of the model data. While repeating similar processes layer-by-layer, each minor deviation leads to a failure of the whole print, and ultimately, a waste of material, machine time, and revenue.  In a commercial environment, stability of 95% is not enough, because it is the remaining 5% that determines the final economic success of a 3D printing operation.