The 10 Best 3D File Formats & When You Should Use Each One

There are a variety of 3D file formats available, each with its strengths and weaknesses. The file format you choose is critical to the final product when it comes to 3D printing, animation, or 3D rendering.

Different 3D file formats have been created for specific purposes, so selecting the right one for your needs is essential. Below are the ten main 3D file formats.

1. STL (Stereolithography)

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STL file stores information about 3D models in a series of triangular facets connected to form a mesh that 3D printers can read. Because of its simplicity and reliability, this file format has become one of the most widely used 3D modeling and printing options.

When working with this format, it is essential to remember that the resolution of an STL file depends on the size and complexity of each facet. Therefore, ensuring that your model has well-defined edges and sufficient spacing between triangles will help to produce the best results during 3D printing.

If your STL file has issues, there are several STL editors available that you can use to edit them or even convert them to different file formats.

2. OBJ (Object File)

OBJ file logo on gradient background feature
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Just like STL, you can use OBJ file format for 3D printing. The difference between these two formats is that OBJ can store additional information about 3D models, like materials and textures, and can also support multiple colors.

OBJ files are commonly used for storing data on 3D models for computer graphics and typically contain information about the object’s surfaces, including geometry, color, textures, and materials.

You can also use OBJ files for communicating 3D model information between different applications and platforms. You can export and import in various 3D designing programs.

Whether you’re working on a design project or creating digital renderings of your latest product idea, an OBJ file is sure to be an essential part of your workflow.

3. FBX (Filmbox)

Exporting a 3D model in FBX file format

FBX files help exchange animation and 3D digital content between different applications. It stores details like rigging and animation, and you can use it in various settings, ranging from video games and motion graphics to virtual reality and architectural design.

FBX file stores multiple data types, including geometry, texture maps, and animation keyframes. If you would like to create virtual environments for a video game or render realistic characters for an animated film, the versatility and flexibility of FBX files are a proper file format for any digital artist or designer in the 3D media industry.

4. COLLADA (Collaborative Design Activity)

Exporting a model in COLLADA file

Like OBJ and STL, which can store mesh details, COLLADA can store additional details like images and animation information. In addition, it uses the DAE extension (which stands for “digital asset exchange”), making it easier to share digital assets across multiple programs.

These files contain 3D mesh data and information about materials, textures, and other vital elements that define a model’s visual appearance. Its open-source nature makes it easily accessible and customizable to suit various purposes.

Graphic designers, animators, and game developers are some professionals using COLLADA files to share 3D designs quickly and even work with different 3D designing programs simultaneously.

5. STEP File (Standard for the Exchange of Product Data)

Exporting a file format in STEP format
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A STEP file, or Standard for the Exchange of Product model data file, is a computer-aided design format commonly used with other software to create digital models.

Unlike other standard 3D file formats, a STEP file contains graphical information, metadata, and constraints that help ensure accurate modeling, and it’s helpful in scenarios where the model’s appearance is essential.

You can use this format when creating digital models for prototyping or simulation software or want to invest in skills that will help you leverage existing CAD files.

6. AMF (Additive Manufacturing File Format)

Exporting a 3D file format in AMF in Cura
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Just like OBJ, AMF format stores the data of 3D models to be used in additive manufacturing or 3D printing. It can store information like colors and textures, but it can even store details of curved polygons, which can sometimes be hard in other formats.

AMF files can contain 3D models, textures, physics data, materials, and additional information about 3D objects. Since these files can be opened and modified in many 3D designing software, they help share 3D files between creators and collaborators working on the same project or using the same 3D modeler software.

Additionally, because AMF files are usually reasonably small, they are a convenient format for transferring 3D objects over the Internet and posting 3D models online.

7. IGES (Initial Graphics Exchange Specification)

3D file format for IGES
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IGES format is helpful in engineering to detail a model in circuit diagrams, wireframes, and precise free-form surfaces, and it doesn’t store information about the colors, textures, and animation.

Depending on the type of 3D model you are working on, you might need to combine multiple IGES files to achieve your desired outcome. For example, suppose you are building a 3D landscape model.

In that case, you might need to import several different terrain and plant files into your design program to represent the natural environment accurately.

Similarly, if you are working on an architectural or engineering project, you might need to merge several different 3D CAD files to build a complete 3D model of the proposed structure.

8. 3DS (3D Studio File)

Editing a 3DS Max in 3DSMax
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3DS is a file format used by Autodesk 3D Studio, but just like other file formats, you can modify 3DS easily using most commonly available 3D software.

It stores more information about the model, like camera locations, viewport configurations, lighting information, bitmap references, smoothing group data, and attributes to create vertices and polygons for rendering a scene.

3DS files are commonly used by computer-aided design software, as well as by video game developers and 3D animation programs.

For example, when you import it, you can change manual controls like rotation, resizing, and positioning of individual objects within the file. Alternatively, users can paint or texture their models or change lighting properties within the file.

9. MAX (3DS Max Scene File)

Exporting a 3DSMax file
Image Credit: Digital 3D/YouTube

MAX file format was created for use in 3DS Max only. It stores information on the model’s textures, animations, and wireframes.

It can also store other essential details like the shape, color, texture, and lighting of 3D objects, making it an ideal choice for everything from interactive video games to film animations.

Additionally, the MAX format supports both mesh-based and volume-based geometry, giving it the flexibility to represent various shapes and structures.

And because it uses industry-standard compression algorithms, the MAX file format offers superior performance and compressibility compared to others.

10. X3D (Extensible 3D)

Opening x3d file in Cura Slicing Software

X3D is a powerful file format widely used in 3D graphics and animation. It was initially developed as a standard for viewing 3D models on the web, and it supports features like animation, interactivity, texturing, and lighting.

X3D is based on the same XML syntax as SVG, making it easy for humans to read and edit.

Additionally, tools are available for converting X3D files into other formats, including STL, OBJ, and FBX. This makes it an ideal format for sharing 3D models with others or using them in various applications for design or entertainment.

Choose the Right 3D File Format for Your Project

Choosing the best 3D file format can be challenging, but with the above 3D file formats that we have described, you should be able to find the one that works best for you and your needs. Before choosing a file format, ask yourself what purpose the file is. How will it be used? Who will be using it? Answering these questions will give you a suitable format for your next project.

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