ASTM Aids Microsoft’s 3MF Consortium for New 3D Printing File Format

Microsoft’s 3MF Consortium has signed an agreement with ASTM International for industry adoption of 3D printing file format.

Over a year ago, the 3MF Consortium was founded by Microsoft and other industry partners to create a new 3D printing file format meant to overcome drawbacks associated with existing formats, such as STL and AMF. 

Since 3MF was first made available online as an open-source file format, numerous companies, including GE, Ultimaker and HP, have joined the consortium to facilitate the further development of the file type. 

With 3MF now largely bug-free and ready for implementation, the consortium has shifted into adoption mode, looking to see the file format used by the greater 3D printing community. To do so, the consortium has signed a liaison agreement with ASTM International (ASTM) to coordinate respective standards and roadmaps related to 3D printing.

In an interview with, Adrian Lannin, executive director of the 3MF Consortium and Group Program Manager at Microsoft, was able to contextualize the agreement in the larger 3D printing industry as the consortium looks to push wider adoption of the format. 

To best understand that context, however, it’s important to know exactly what 3MF is and how it improves on other file formats. 

STL was invented by 3D Systems in conjunction with stereolithography, the first commercial 3D printing process (hence the abbreviation “STL”). It has since become the industry standard for 3D-printable files, but due to its simple, monochromatic origins, it only contains surface mesh information. 

This leaves STL files wanting for key information related to materials, textures, colors, model orientation and more. As these files pass through CAD and slicing applications, some of the data may even be further lost. 

In 2009, the American Society for Testing and Materials assigned its 3D printing subcommittee, ASTM Committee F42 on Additive Manufacturing Technologies, to tackle these issues, resulting in the AMF format. While AMF does address many of these problems, 3MF is meant to be more compact in size and, therefore, easier to process. 

“Our approach is pragmatic,” said Lannin of the advantages of 3MF. “We want the format to be small enough that it’s easy to implement. We want to make sure that the implementation is straightforward because that leads to fewer bugs and issues that impede productivity when using the format.”

For that reason, Lannin said, new features are not added to the file format just for the sake of adding features. Instead, if consortium members are interested in introducing new features in a given product that they would like to be implemented in 3MF, the consortium works with them to take advantage of those features.

As it stands, Lannin said that the 3MF format is more than ready for adoption. The consortium has spent the last year fixing bugs and implementing extensions capable of improving the format. 

In fact, it has even added some capabilities to the format that have increased the efficiency of the 3D printing process. One printer that already utilizes the format in order for this purpose is the Multi Jet Fusion platform from HP.

“At a high level, you can say that, because 3MF clearly defines the model that’s going to be printed, a user can guarantee much more reliable printing when you send in the 3MF format,” Lannin explained. “We’re doing work in the consortium to lay out the data within 3MF in a way that the printer itself can take advantage of that and be even more efficient.” 

“If you’ve got your HP Multi Jet printer and you send the core spec 3MF to that printer, it’ll print just fine,” Lannin added. “If you use the extension that formats some of the data in a way that the HP Multi Jet understands better, then it’ll print faster.”

Now that the format is ready for adoption, the consortium has signed the agreement with the ASTM. According to Lannin, ASTM will provide input and guidance to the consortium when it seeks to standardize 3MF for international implementation. Though ASTM already received International Standards Organization approval for AMF in 2013, the organization is open to encouraging the use of 3MF, as well. 

“What [the ASTM has] said to me is that they’re interested in standards that have adoption,” Lannin explained. “If they see that 3MF has got traction in the industry, then they want to represent that because it’s a useful format for their members. I don’t know what they’ll be doing with AMF, but they’re certainly going to be supporting 3MF.”

In particular, Lannin believes that, given the organization’s skills at educating industrial players, ASTM will work with government and defense companies to discuss the use of 3MF. 

“Being able to have them talk with authority about 3MF in those conversations is good for everyone,” Lannin elaborated. “It’s good for us because it gets more adoption. It’s good for those companies to get a heads-up that 3MF is a technology that’s getting adoption and that they should be looking at when they’re looking at additive manufacturing.” 

Previous articles on the 3MF Consortium have raised concerns about Microsoft’s role in the development of this new file format, given the tech giant’s strategy to “embrace, extend and extinguish” new tools and standards. The company has previously embraced a new tool, extended its capabilities through proprietary Microsoft products, making products from other companies obsolete. 

Lannin addressed these concerns by saying, “To me, the file format is something that enables you to do other forms of business. It should just work,” Lannin said to address these concerns. “Our focus is not on trying to take ownership of the file format.” 

“From the Microsoft point of view, we just want to solve that problem and get on with doing work we want, where we feel we can have an advantage,” Lannin continued. “That advantage is building a platform that enables people to build very productive applications. There’s no benefit to us in trying to extinguish—I don’t even know how we would extinguish a file format.”

How would Microsoft benefit from a universal file format for 3D printing? According to Lannin, a good deal of 3D design work is performed with Microsoft products. Therefore, by improving the file format utilized for design for 3D printing, Microsoft users can be more efficient and productive when developing apps for their software. 

Another concern that has been raised in relationship to the 3MF format is the role that it might play in IP protection. Earlier this year, an IP-focused startup called Source3 became an associate member of the 3MF Consortium. 

Members of Source3 previously established RightsFlow, a music licensing and rights management platform that was later acquired by Google. Unsurprisingly, the question has been raised as to whether or not Content IDs similar to those used to manage copyrights on YouTube would find their way into 3D-printable files. 

Becoming an associate member signals the firm’s support of 3MF, but does not necessarily indicate that Source3 will play a role in developing the file format. Source3, which now manages licenses associated with 3D models, may not introduce RightsFlow-style IP management to the 3MF format. 

“Numerous people ask me: ‘Please add IP management into 3MF’—and others say ‘please don’t add IP management into 3MF,’” Lannin said. “My personal point of view is that we’ve got some more fundamental things to solve before we get to IP management, just in making sure the whole design-to-print workflow is solid and works correctly. If you ask me again in a year if we’re going to look at IP, I’ll probably have a more thoughtful answer for you.”

ASTM’s Committee on Additive Manufacturing Technologies (F42) now consists of almost 400 experts from 22 countries. The group will be meeting July 11-14, 2016 in Tokyo, giving members an opportunity to discuss the 3MF format further. For those interested in exploring the format further on their own, 3MF is open-source and free to download

“All we’ve got to do now is get it out there in the wild because, as long as there are a ton of STLs out there, that’s what people will find when they go up on Shapeways or do things with their 3D printers,” Lannin concluded. “We have to drive adoption so that we can change the mindset of people so that when they think of 3D models, they think of 3MF and they don’t think of STL.”