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With A New Executive Director, 3MF Strengthens The Digital Thread For Additive Manufacturing

The 3MF Consortium announced Duann Scott as its new Executive Director. This change of guard shows that the open source file format, conceived to add intelligence to simple geometries, has staying power. It is yet another example of how additive manufacturing can teach digital manufacturing a lesson or two.

Additive manufacturing has matured from its inception as a rapid prototyping technology but the growing complexity of the processes require better ways of communicating complex, high value data. An open source file format developed by the 3MF consortium, a collaboration of otherwise competitors is ushering in a new era of advanced manufacturing with rich and robust data communication that both strengthens and broadens the digital thread for additive manufacturing.

The early days of additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing consisted primarily of machines to make prototypes of a product, out of inferior materials to test a part for form and how it may fit in an assembly. Typically this was part of a design phase disconnected to the final manufacturing process.

Fast forward thirty years and additive manufacturing is now used in end use applications including high performance aerospace components and medical implants to industrial robotic components that require documentation and integration into the full manufacturing process.

To capture, store and communicate the necessary information from design intent to manufacturing process, just as the additive machines and materials have matured, so too has the data format used from a limited, discretized representation of the surface of an object, to a rich and extensible open source file format that can include all necessary information to manufacture a part, assembly and/or an entire production run of components.

The massive geometric and material complexity possible with additive manufacturing means a single design file can reach 10s of gigabytes, while the data to fill an entire machine can be 10s of times larger.

Duann Scott, who was recently named Executive Director of the 3MF consortium, says: “Having worked with software, hardware and materials companies to connect data from design intent to final part, I know first hand how painful and time consuming it is for engineers to use fragile and hacky workflows to get parts into production with additive manufacturing.”

The 3MF (3D Manufacturing Format) file format first released in 2015 has been developed and expanded by a consortium of over twenty software and additive manufacturing hardware companies originally brought together by Microsoft
MSFT
to create a more optimized way of communicating data for 3D printing. The instigation of the consortium by a company that was not focused on design software, enabled otherwise competitors in the CAD space such as Autodesk
ADSK
, PTC, Siemens and Dassault to collaborate to solve common problems in communicating complex manufacturing data to advanced manufacturing systems.

By adopting a single common, lightweight 3MF file format, design and manufacturing data for multiple processes can be stored, and simultaneously communicated to multiple software and manufacturing processes without breaking the digital thread.

Scott says: “3MF can enable more advanced solutions to complex engineering problems without wasting time and money on duplicated effort or human error. As additive manufacturing expands beyond the current leading adoption in aerospace and medical applications, the 3MF consortium has taken the learnings from these industries to create 3MF as a flexible and robust format to weave a digital thread to store and communicate all the necessary data.

3MF goes beyond just the geometric description of the object. In doing so, 3MF allows the digital thread from a single authoring source to include multiple threads, strengthening an otherwise fragile and human error prone process of handling multiple file formats. Because the format is open source and extensible, other companies and even individual users can add functionality to communicate data required for their process. This is highly valuable in highly regulated industries such as aerospace, medical and dental applications.

This extensibility means that the end-to-end traceability and the numerous advantages it brings can also be adopted by other manufacturing domains. Many other industries – such as subtractive manufacturing (commonly called Computer Numerical Control [CNC]) – are already starting to stitch together processes by removing manual processes such as toolpathing (commonly called Computer-Aided Manufacturing [CAM]). This is currently a gap in the digital thread that the additive manufacturing sector has already largely overcome. Ultimately, using 3MF to stitch together the digital thread can lead to bi-directional feedback from the system and the ability to generate smarter designs and deliver them faster. As such, 3MF is enabling the overall objective of reducing the time it takes to turn an idea into a part.