4 common types of 3D printer file formats and when to use it

Author: Aaron Chen  Date Posted:17 May 2019 

File formats are like the blueprints for printing three-dimensional objects. A 3D printer file is known to be the carrier of information from CAD model to 3D printer. It can encode a 3D model’s appearance, geometry, scene and animations. However, not all 3D printer file formats can carry all kinds of data.

There are several 3D file formats that are used today. These are FBX, 3DS, COLLADA, IGES, STEP and many more. This blog post will introduce 4 3D printer file formats that are commonly used by engineers and designers and when to use it. These file formats are considered as “go-to” formats for 3D printing.

  1. STL

Nowadays, STL is known to be the most common file format in 3D printing. Ever since its invention in 1987, it has remained to be the de facto standard in the 3D printing industry.

STL (Standard Triangle Language/Standard Tessellation Language) is the first file format developed for 3D printing. Its corresponding file extension is .stl.

STL files save 3D models as surface of geometrical shapes and turn it into a triangular mesh. But, it cannot display information about the model’s colour or texture.

When to use STL?

STL file format is used by some designers because of its flexibility and popularity. Almost any piece of software and hardware supports this file format. This means that you can use your favourite CAD programs, repair tools and slicers without any problems.

STL file format is also used when the 3D model requires a single type of colour. If you want to be able to download plenty of ready-to-use 3D models, then use STL file format.

  1. OBJ

OBJ (Wavefront OBJect) is a 3D printer file format that was originally used by graphics designers as a neutral interchange format for 3D graphics. It was first developed by Wavefront Technologies for its animation package. This file format has the extension .obj.

Unlike STL, OBJ can encode colour and texture information, it also supports both approximate and precise encoding of surface geometry. This means that it doesn’t restrict its surface mesh to triangular facets. The designer can also use polygons such as quadrilaterals. However, OBJ doesn’t support any kind of animation.

When to use OBJ?

OBJ is often used when the 3D object requires more than one colour. It is also the choice of some developers because it offers a lot of flexibility on how it encodes the 3D model’s geometry.

Aside from that, with OBJ, the designer can use more advanced schemes such as free-form curves and free-form surfaces. These schemes can be used to encode curved geometry without losing any data.

This file format is also widely used in industries such as aerospace and automotive which are demanding when it comes to precision.

  1. AMF

AMF was introduced in 2011 as a replacement for STL file format and then was called “STL 2.0”. AMF was developed to address the shortcomings of STL format. Some issues that STL has includes bloated, error-prone, incapable of storing colour, material and texture information.

AMF is an XML-based format that has native support for geometry, lattices, scales, duplicates and orientation. Thus, it is a superior format for STL file.

Unfortunately, the 3D printing industry has been slightly slow to adopt this format in spite of its technical advantage.

When to use AMF?

AFM 3D file format is used if a 3D model requires precision, multiple materials and multi-colours all at once. This format will ensure that the file will be easy to read, write and process.

Furthermore, aside from planar straight triangles, AMF allows curved triangles. In this way, you can easily describe a curved surface without the use of many facets.

  1. 3MF

As 3D printing industry advances, developers are trying to look for solutions to some of the notable problems with STL. Thus, Microsoft, along with other big companies such as Autodesk, 3D Systems, EOS, Stratasys, Ultimaker, etc. developed 3MF 3D printer file. It has the goal of creating a seamless and high-quality 3D printing experience for consumers and manufacturers.

3MF features a geometry representation similar to STL but more compact than AMF 3D printer file format. However, 3MF is relatively new to the manufacturing industry. It still lacks more industry recognition.

When to use 3MF?

3MF is often used by designers who want to avoid frustrations related to print failures, bad geometry, etc. 3MF file format can also handle 3D models that use different colours and materials. Thus, it can be used for complicated 3D printing projects.

3MF file format is trying to resolve all issues from other 3D printer file format and bring it together in a single file. Hence, it is considered as an ideal format for the future of 3D printing.


There are a lot of 3D file formats that are used by 3D printing designers today. But STL, OBJ, AMF, and 3MF are the most important among all of them. They have their own strengths and varies in their levels of compatibility with software and hardware.

It is vital to understand and know the key differences between these 3D printer file formats. Your choice of 3d file format can greatly affect the production efficiency, 3D printing toolchain and the quality of 3D prints.

If you have more questions or want to learn more about 3D printing-related topics, cooperate with a 3D printing service provider in Sydney. Aside from that, they can offer services such as 3D design modelling, industrial 3D printing and many more.

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