While the hardware becomes ever cheaper, more stable and consumer-friendly, the democratisation of 3D printing has arguably been hamstrung by a lack of standardisation on the software side. A multitude of printing solutions have cropped up, but the need for applications and users to deal with multiple 3D model formats has been a key issue. Enter the 3MF Consortium, an organisation founded by seven major players in the market: Microsoft, Autodesk, Hewlett Packard, Dassault Systemes, Shapeways, SLM Solutions and netfabb.
Their aim has been to finalise a 3D printing standard free of the issues associated with other formats, extensible enough to support further innovations in 3D printing and rich enough to fully describe 3D models and their associated characteristics (mesh, textures, materials, colour and print ticket). "3MF will align CAD software and 3D printing hardware and software in a more information-rich file format, specifically designed to support the needs of modern 3D printing throughout the entire printing process," says Adrian Lannin, executive director of the 3MF Consortium.
Prior to the announcement, Microsoft had already been developing its own specification, which has been used as the foundation for development by the seven parties. Each of the seven members has agreed to make its individual patent claims available for implementation on a royalty-free basis.
Autodesk has also been working with Microsoft to develop 3D printing support in the upcoming release of Windows 10. Autodesk's Spark 3D software printing platform will now be embedded in the operating system, making it easier for developers to provide support for 3D printing. Microsoft's Hololens augmented reality system will also be fully supported, enabling users to create models in 3D space using Autodesk software and then print them out on any Spark-compatible 3D printer.
The introduction of the 3MF standard has been broadly welcomed, but there has been noise in some quarters about the format's support for digital rights management and also whether it actually offers an improvement over the open source AMF format. Some have also questioned whether Microsoft might leverage its position to ultimately gain market superiority (as per its infamous 'embrace, extend and extinguish' strategy, previously deployed in markets such as networking, web browsing and instant messaging), though 3MF has chosen to make the standard free of charge under an open source licence.
The file standard and several tools provided by Microsoft and netfabb are available to download at the 3MF Consortium home on Github: http://www.github.com/3mfconsortium.
And you can read what is effectively our 3D Printing 101 here: 3D printing is changing the world. You can even make cameras with it!