Thanks to the rise in 3D printing, those working in design, engineering, dentistry and additive manufacturing are now very familiar with the STL format and use it regularly. With this widespread use comes a closer look into the file type to see where and how it could be improved for those who rely on 3D printing within a professional environment.
STL, the acronym for Stereo Lithography or Standard Tessellation Language format, is the favoured format for rapid prototyping and computer-aided design, and as a result, the majority of CAD systems now support STL with fast, easy conversion. However, whilst this simple format is ideal for a home user with a 3D printer, the format has limitations within organizational workflows.
When typical STLs are shared, the files can lack context, security, file compression and metadata which can cause problems for those who need to communicate critical detail to peers, clients and stakeholders. Cumbersome STL file collections can slow down workflows and decision making, and any simply can’t afford to take the risk of sharing valuable unsecured data.
Some vendors already use special proprietary extensions to STL as a way of navigating the issues. Similarly, additive manufacturing and 3D printing organizations are actively working on possible successors to STL such as 3MF and AMF, but as yet they haven’t emerged in the main stream and will once again require some special software for viewing and review.
Fortunately, there is another straightforward solution being adopted by users and developers that uses one of the most universally known formats today: Adobe’s PDF.
PDF conversion plugs the gaps left by STL. Using today’s advanced PRC within the 3D PDF conversion software means that compression can remain high, regardless of model size, and details such as surface colour can be added to for enhanced richness and greater explanation of the 3D image, model or scan.
3D PDF conversion can be achieved as easily as saving a CAD file into the STL format. With PDF3D’s ReportGen or STL products, for example, one click of a button can turn the STL format into an interactive and animated 3D PDF file complete with accompanying design description, part names, version details and project details.
Security is also strengthened when the STL is converted into PDF. Once the 3D model is inside the PDF – unlike the STL – encryption, password protection and digital signing can be added to protect valuable or sensitive designs.
Sharing is vastly improved too. STL files cannot easily be opened without special 3D software application. Even when it is possible to open and view in the STL file in 3D, it is typically not part of any document which causes problems for both the recipient as well as the sender. By converting STL to PDF (the universal format that pretty much most people can open on their computer), the barrier for viewing the file is removed.
As 3D printing continues to rocket forward at a staggering pace, we expect to see much interest in the area of STL to PDF conversion.