What is a 3MF file - and why is the format perfect for 3D printing?

If you want to be up to date, you should know what a 3MF file is. This 3D print file format will become important in the future as requirements have changed.

As differently as the individual technologies in the field of additive manufacturing work - all approaches have one thing in common: For an idea to become a printed product, a computer-aided design process is needed in advance. Step by step, a digital, geometrically determined model is created on the screen, which is then interpreted by the 3D printers and converted into axis movements and material feed.

Currently, the most widely used file format is STL, the "Standard Triangle Language." Introduced in 1987 by the 3D Systems company, the STL format is now used in a wide variety of industries for the digital design process. However, the STL format also brings with it some disadvantages in the field of 3D printing.

With 3MF, a fairly young alternative is available for data handling, which could outstrip the time-honored STL format, especially in additive manufacturing. What exactly a 3MF file is and why this format is perfectly suited for modern 3D printing, you will learn in this article.

What exactly is a 3MF file?

In 2015, a 3MF consortium was initiated by the software company Microsoft, which should specifically overcome the weaknesses of the current industry standard STL in the area of data exchange. The STL format is sufficient for many applications, but has some weaknesses. The 3MF format is intended to provide the manufacturing industry with a file exchange that:

  • Is free to use without licensing fees or patents
  • Contains all the information needed for manufacturing in one archive
  • Is also human readable
  • Offers a simple structure that significantly speeds up the development of new products
  • Is extensible
  • Is unambiguous and consistent in structure and works on all major platforms

The 3MF approach is based on XML (Extensible Markup Language), a text-based format for file exchange of structured data of all kinds. In principle, a 3MF file works very similarly to the well-known ZIP archives: different information can be compressed and sent in one file.

3MF 3D-Druckdatei

This enables, among other things:

  • Create 3D models
  • store color and material information
  • Create support structures
  • Set variable layer heights
  • Store printer profiles
  • More than one 3D object in a file
  • Use modifiers
  • Define scaling

The 3D printing formats 3MF and STP in comparison

With a track record of almost 40 years, the STL format is compatible with all major CAD programs and understood by all slicers (which calculate the layers). It is successfully used in additive manufacturing. So why would anyone want to replace the established "gold standard"?

The reason lies in the significantly increased complexity of modern 3D printing environments. The STL format is based on modeling objects by countless triangles. Any geometric shape, be it simple cubes or highly complex structures, are defined by triangles in an STL file. Roughly speaking, the more triangles an object consists of, the more accurate the print will be. However, the STL file lacks additional information around the manufacturing process. No materials, textures or colors can be added to the models - the file always consists only of the geometries of a component. Only by using a slicer can manufacturing-relevant data be added - but not saved directly in the file. Manufacturers or service providers are therefore dependent on additional work around 3D printing when processing STL files. This slows down the production process and can lead to expensive readjustments.

This is where the 3MF format comes in. By combining geometry and additional information in one file, the workflow from design idea to finished product in particular is drastically accelerated. The archive file contains the print object - or even several individual parts of an assembly - as well as information on the color scheme, the required scaling, necessary print options and the textures of the surface.

In short: in a 3MF file, it is possible to specify directly during design what is to be implemented later in production by the 3D printer. Another plus point: the information in a 3MF file can also be read by humans. If the extension .3mf is replaced by .zip, the archives can be easily opened on any computer and the contents can be viewed.

3D Druck Filamente FDM
3D-Druck Bauteil SLM Metall mit St├╝tzstrukturen

How to create 3MF files - and how to convert STL files?

The development of the 3MF standard is supported within the consortium by well-known manufacturers such as Dassault, HP and Autodesk. Accordingly, programs such as Solidworks from Dassault or Netfabb from Autodesk are inherently capable of creating 3MF files. It is also possible to open and edit a 3MF file with Microsoft's 3D Builder or Paint 3D. The creation of 3MF files directly from the design environment is correspondingly simple and can be realized with a few mouse clicks using the "Save as..." functions of the programs.

However, if only an STL file is available, this still has to be finalized for printing. An excellent tool - and one that is available free of charge - is Meshmixer from Autodesk (external link to Meshmixer page). The "Swiss Army Knife," the developers' own term for the solution, can not only optimize the triangular meshes of STL designs, but also enrich the model with a wealth of additional information. And, of course, at the end of the design process, save everything in 3MF format. Of course, the reverse also works: converting a 3MF file into STL is possible at any time with the solutions mentioned.

Also on the Internet, numerous providers offer free online tools for converting STL files into 3MF format. However, we do not recommend this option - especially if the designs contain confidential information.


One file instead of many individual files - Why 3MF is so ingenious and the future


In the field of industrial manufacturing, the complexity of the required components is continuously increasing. Particularly in special sub-areas such as 3D metal printing, perfect surfaces are required - or parts are required that consist of different individual components. The "classic way" via STL files has reached the end of its capabilities here when it comes to realizing the products at external service providers. In the case of complex components, extensive enrichment of the data with additional information, for example the alignment of the workpiece in the installation space of the printer or the coloring of individual layers, has been an indispensable part of the production process up to now. The disadvantages: A complex, cost-intensive workflow with numerous potential sources of error.

3MF significantly simplifies data exchange. As in a PDF, multiple pieces of information can be bundled within the 3MF file. Assemblies consisting of different parts, each with individual coloring or its own materials, printer configurations, support structures: Everything that is needed for 3D printing in terms of information can be listed, saved and sent in the 3MF environment.

We are sure: The future belongs to the 3MF format! Almost every week, enhancements and revisions appear that adapt the solution for production, slicing or optimization of lattice structures. The cooperation of the consortium ensures that 3MF is already compatible with the programs of the renowned manufacturers in the best possible way.


Order your components from Jellypipe via 3MF file

We at Jellypipe have also recognized the enormous potential of the 3MF format and are working on adapting our online configurator accordingly. Currently, we offer our customers the possibility to order components based on 3MF files via our individual inquiry.

We would be happy to advise you on all questions regarding the ordering process in a personal meeting. Just give us a call and let our Solution Partners advise you!

Your Jellypipe


Markus Grimm
Chief Virtual Printfactory

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