There’s just nothing like getting in on a good thing at the very beginning, and especially when you’ve had a hand in creating it yourself. Tech titans like Microsoft certainly know what that’s all about, entering a lawless technological land where no one has really walked before. Innovation is allowed to spring forth wildly with no constraints—but that can only last for so long before some semblance of structure becomes required for survival, ultimately, and even the most creative types eventually must acquiesce to creating standards.
While Microsoft was certainly not behind the creation of 3D printing (let’s all take a moment to bow down to true industry pioneer Chuck Hull, thank you very much), they stepped in as founders, offering support and undeniable expertise, when it came time to forge ahead with standardization in file format and the creation of the 3MF Consortium. Since Microsoft unveiled 3MF a little over a year ago in an effort to facilitate easier operations with Windows, we’ve seen progress in the form of heavy-hitting new members, associate membership levels for joining, and even newer file standards.
When 3D Systems produced the original .stl system for 3D printed files, along with that famous first SLA 3D printer, it became the default standard with no question, and of course, there was nothing else to go on. Since then, it’s been used in the mainstream routinely. STL files, though, contain only surface mesh information and on this basic level, much is lacking in terms of other key information related specifically to the model—and data is often further lost in translation through other design and slicing applications.
Now, as they continue to work on making file formatting easier and free of bugs, the 3MF Consortium is ready to start implementing what they’ve been working on so steadily. Their first step in moving forward was to sign on ASTM International for further coordination of standards to see that the 3D printing community soon has access. ASTM has had previous experience with the ASTM Committee F42 on Additive Manufacturing Technologies creating the AMF format, so bringing them on board was a logical fit.
Consortium executive director Adrian Lannin, also group program manager at Microsoft, revealed in a recent interview that they are indeed hoping to see the format widely adapted with the help of this latest collaboration.
“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.”
Letting on that the 3MF format is ready for adoption already, Lannin says they’ve cleared out all bugs and also added extensions which will offer further quality, including capabilities that will allow for better 3D printing—already in process with the Multi Jet Fusion platform from HP.
It’s clear, however, that they are not just adding features willy-nilly—any that consortium members are interested in adding must be carefully considered, and the consortium works with them in development. It’s also of note that members in the Consortium consist of not just the mega-companies like Stratasys and 3D Systems, but also smaller startups. With that wide range, a great deal of expertise is brought forth.
“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.”
Lannin states that as they work to standardize 3MF for implementing around the world, ASTM will play the role of offering both guidance and expert input. They also have the advantage of being able to talk to government and defense entities about the advantages of 3MF.
“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.”
“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.”
Obviously, the major involvement of Microsoft here raises questions about formats and standards, with their history of steamrolling over other company’s tools within the tech industry.
“To me, the file format is something that enables you to do other forms of business. It should just work,” Lannin said. “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.”
There has also been the question of IP protection, as many were aware that earlier this year, Source 3—a startup focused on IP—became a member of the Consortium.
“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.”
The benefit to having Microsoft involved, and hopefully the central focus, is that their design work allows for a quality standard that’s comprehensive and serves the sole purpose of helping users globally.
“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.”
While that does sound a bit like the typical and slightly oppressive Microsoft mindset that many fear, time will tell whether or not the world wants to adopt the new standard. In the meantime, ASTM’s Committee on Additive Manufacturing Technologies will be meeting next month in Tokyo where they will take time to further discuss the 3MF format. The group consists of 400 experts from 22 countries, so that should allow for quite an intelligent and well-represented conversation on the subject.
The 3MF format is open source and available for free download. Are you curious about this format, as opposed to using .stl? Discuss further over in the 3MF File Format to Standardize 3D Printing forum over at 3DPB.com.[Source: Engineering.com]