Common 3D Printer File Formats in 2023: Pros and Cons
If you're just stepping into the world of 3D printing, you might find yourself overwhelmed by various 3D printer file formats. You might wonder: what files do 3D printers use? What are their advantages? Which file format should you use to store the information of the 3D printing object?
In this article, we'll explore 6 common 3D printing file formats, their pros and cons, as well as applications. As you embark on your 3D printing journey, understanding these file formats could be a crucial initial step. So, let's dive in.
What Are 3D Printing Files?
3D printing files are specialized digital file formats used to store the details of 3D models in a way that a computer can understand. The details include the object's information, like geometry, surface texture, size, and structure. Not all file formats can store all the information. Therefore, you need to choose the right file format so that the computer can store the exact information and recreate the physical object accurately.
3D print file formats are used throughout the whole printing process, especially during model creation. After 3D models are created in the CAD software, the next step is to choose a file format to save your work. Different 3D printers require different 3D print files and choosing the right format should be based on the specific needs of your projects. Common file formats include STL, OBJ, AMF, 3MF, PLY, etc.
3D Printing File Formats
Plenty of 3D printing file types are available, and each has its distinctive characteristics, advantages, and applications. In this section, we will provide a brief introduction to the common file formats you're likely to encounter and tell you when they should be used.
As the most common 3D printing file format, STL (Stereolithography) is supported by the majority of 3D CAD software. The STL file format mainly describes an object's shape. They do not store details about color, texture, or other attributes beyond the object's geometry. Therefore, they are widely used in prototypes and projects that focus on complex shapes over texture or multiple colors.
OBJ is another common file format for 3D printing. Apart from geometric shapes, OBJ also can store texture information, making it suitable for creating visually striking 3D prints with multiple colors and textures. However, it's important to note that OBJ does not support animation. Although not as common as the STL format, the OBJ file format is still supported by many 3D printers.
If you're in search of a 3D printer compatible with both STL and OBJ files, consider AnkerMake M5C 3D Printer. This printer supports these two file formats and can store information about geometry, colors, and texture coordinates, making it suitable for prototyping and many practical applications. To help print your objects accurately with the best quality, this 3D printer also offers an automatic leveling feature, fast printing speed, and a proper extrusion rate of 35 mm³/s, excelling in perfect bed alignment and delivering quick outputs. Therefore, it is the preferred choice for beginners and professionals.
AMF (Additive Manufacturing File Format) is often considered the "STL 2.0" as it supports multiple materials and more colors, addressing the limitations of STL and OBJ formats. The AMF file format also permits the creation of more intricate and complex geometric structures, thereby offering higher design flexibility and making it ideal for projects that feature details, texture, multi-color, and -material designs.
Nevertheless, it's worth noting that the AMF file may not be as universally supported by 3D modeling and printing software as STL and OBJ. Also, it contains more data and has a larger file size than the other two files.
3MF (3D Manufacturing Format) is a versatile file type for 3D printing known for its ability to store a wide range of data, including authorship information, licenses, and copyright details. This is valuable for protecting intellectual property. Therefore, 3MF gained wide industry support. Besides, it promotes collaboration by allowing users to store essential project-related information within the file itself.
Despite its aim to improve interoperability, 3MF files are not fully supported by all 3D printers and software. Also, it contains much more information, resulting in a large file size.
PLY (Polygon File Format) is a versatile 3D printer file format used for storing 3D models composed of polygons. It can include color and texture information, making it adaptable to various applications. Its simplicity and ease of use make it a preferred choice for those new to 3D modeling and printing.
However, PLY files may not handle highly complex geometric structures as efficiently as some other formats. The size of PLY files can become large when dealing with detailed textures or high-polygon models.
The last common file format for 3D printing is FBX (Filmbox). It was initially developed by Autodesk and has gained popularity, particularly in the gaming and entertainment industries. It can store not only 3D geometry but also animations, textures, and scene information, making them ideal for complex projects.
FBX excels in preserving animations and skeletal structures and is frequently used for transferring 3D models between different 3D modeling and animation software. However, FBX is a proprietary format owned by Autodesk, which may limit its use in open-source or non-Autodesk software.
TheWhole 3D Printing Process
The 3D printing process primarily consists of three stages: 3D modeling, slicing, and G-code. After creating a design in the CAD software, you can export the file in the right file format and use a slicer to convert it into G-code that contains the instructions to control the 3D printer for actual printing operations. These three crucial stages work together to transform digital designs into physical objects.
In the 3D modeling stage, designers employ specialized software to create intricate digital models of the objects. These 3D models serve as the blueprint, defining the object's shape, size, and details. Designers have the versatility to create objects from scratch or generate models by scanning real-world objects. Once the modeling process is complete, the model can be exported in a file format compatible with 3D printers.
After the details of 3D models are stored in a 3D file format, the next is slicing, a process that determines how the 3D printer will construct the physical object layer by layer. The digital model will be divided into thin, horizontal layers or "slices." Slicing software calculates each layer's geometry, ensuring precision and accuracy in the final print. The output of the slicing process typically is a G-Code file that will guide the printer's movements.
Finally, the G-Code stage comes into play. G-Code is the language that 3D printers understand. Based on the sliced model, G-Code is generated and provides precise instructions about how a 3D printer constructs an object. These instructions contain the printer's movements, temperature settings, and extrusion rates. The 3D printer follows the G-Code instructions layer by layer, to craft the tangible representation of the initial digital design.
It should be noted that not every 3D printer has slicers. Even if it has, it may not meet your specific needs. Therefore, it is recommended to pick a 3D printer that comes with more than one slicer, for example, AnkerMake M5 3D Printer. It not only has its own AnkerMake Slicer (macOS, Windows), but also supports the common and free ones, like Simplify 3D, Ultimaker Cura, and PrusaSlicer. With these four slicers, the printer enables you to fine-tune various printing parameters to meet the specific needs of your projects. For file format, it supports two popular formats, STL and OBJ, so that you can print objects that feature multiple colors and textures.
Now that you’ve got a basic understanding of common 3D printer file formats, their advantages, limitations, and applications, we hope you’ve learned when you should consider using them. Remember that the choice of file format should align with your project's requirements, whether it demands precision, complex geometry, multi-material, or intricate texture.
Do all 3D printers use STL files?
No. While STL is one of the most common file formats, it is not supported by all 3D printers, especially those designed to meet advanced printing requirements in color and texture. If you are not sure whether your 3D printer supports the format, check its specifications and capabilities.
Can STL files be printed directly?
No. Because STL files only store geometric information of a 3D model and they don’t have the necessary printing parameters and instructions required for a 3D printer. To transform an STL file into a printable object, you need to import the STL file into a slicer and convert it into a 3D printable file, which is a G-code file.
Which 3D printer file format is commonly used?
The STL (Stereolithography) file format stands out as one of the most prevalent options. Its widespread use can be attributed to its simplicity and broad compatibility with numerous 3D printers.