A couple years ago I got into a pretty heated discussion with a staffer from an engineering software company about whether software patents were still relevant (or is they ever were to begin with).
While proponents (usually with deep pockets) have touted their benefits, software patents have also been used in the software industry to suppress innovation, kill competition, generate undeserved royalties, and make patent attorneys rich. So I’ll ask again, are software patents still relevant?
It’s no secret that the engineering software business is extremely competitive, as it always has been. Without naming names, the engineering software business has also proven to be a very fertile and lucrative ground for lawsuits regarding patent infringement, reverse engineering, and outright copying and pasting blocks of code.
Could stronger patent protection have prevented this from happening? Maybe yes, but probably, no.
Below is a video on the futility of software patents featuring Linus Torvalds, the creator, and for a long time, principal developer of the Linux kernel, which became the kernel for operating systems such as the Linux operating system, Android, and Chrome OS.
Linus Torvalds: Why Software Patents Make No Sense
Software patents have been hotly debated for years. Opponents to them have gained more visibility with less resources through the years than pro-patent supporters. Through these debates, arguments for and critiques against software patents have been focused mostly on the economic consequences of software patents, but there is a lot more to it than just money.
Although the future of 3D printing continues to look bright, what is still needed is a new file format for 3D print data. Being very mindful of that fact, Autodesk, HP, Siemens, Stratasys, 3D Systems, and some others have come together to form the 3MF Consortium that espouses to get behind a truly ubiquitous file format for 3D printing. It’s really an industry partnership working toward the goal of finding a better, universally applicable 3D printing file format known as the 3D Manufacturing Format (3MF)—a file format originally developed by Microsoft, also a member of the Consortium.
The consortium admits that there is a problem that the 3D manufacturing must resolve – the current file formats used for 3D printing are in serious need of an upgrade. I totally agree.
Typically, data is passed from computer to 3D printer in STL (stereolithography) or OBJ (object) files, common 3D printing file formats. The 3MF Consortium, which now includes the research wing of General Electric, say STL and OBJ are outdated and clunky file formats with interoperability issues when used by some of the newer 3D printers, as well as contribute to 3D printing failures.
3MF Consortium Introduction
Thus, one of the driving forces behind 3MF, an XML-based open format, this new file type could contain information on the texture of a 3D print, the color of the print, and other complex characteristics. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it is—the Additive Manufacturing File Format (AMF), which has been around since 2011, solves many of the issues STL files have, and 3MF and AMF are in many respects pretty similar file formats, but let’s take a closer look.
Like it or not, since the mid-1980s, the STL file format has been the de facto industry standard for transferring information between CAD programs and additive manufacturing equipment. However, the STL format only contains information about a surface mesh, and cannot represent color, texture, material, substructure, and other properties of a fabricated object.
As additive manufacturing technology has evolved from producing primarily single-material, homogenous shapes to producing multi-material geometries in full color with functionally graded materials and microstructures, there has been a growing need for a standard interchange file format that could support these features. A second factor that prompted the development of a new standard was the improving resolution of additive manufacturing machines. As the fidelity of printing processes approached micron scale resolution, the number of triangles required to describe smooth curved surfaces resulted in unacceptably large file sizes.
The Additive Manufacturing File Format (AMF) was introduced as an alternative to the STL file format to address many of the shortcomings of the popular file format. STL files introduce errors such as leaks and inconsistences, and also does not support color, material The choice, or orientation. STL files also rely on triangle subdivision to account for curvature. As the STL file scales in size, retaining resolution means introducing significantly more triangles. For example, a 10cm sphere at 10 micrometer resolution requires 20,000 triangles. Scaling up the 10cm sphere at the same resolution would significantly increase the amount of triangles, resulting in a much larger file. AMF seeks to address these issues by redesigning the way a 3D object is digitally stored.
Since the dawn of 3D printing, a little over three decades ago, there has been one file format that has dominated communicating with 3D printers — STL. Love it or hate it, and even with its limitations and shortcomings, STL has remained the de facto standard for the 3D printing industry. That may finally be changing, though, with the advent of more contemporary and robust file formats for 3D printing, such as AMF and 3MF. Over the next couple weeks we’ll be discussing the evolution, advantages, and disadvantages of 3D printing file formats, starting this week with STL.
So What Exactly Is An STL File?
Essentially, an STL file stores information about 3D models, but this format describes only the surface geometry of a 3D object without any representation of color, texture, or other common model attributes.
As it has been for three plus decades, the STL file format is still by far the most commonly used file format for communicating with 3D printers.
The true meaning of the file extension .STL has always been somewhat of a mystery. I’ve always considered it be an abbreviation of the word STereoLithography, although sometimes I have also heard it referred to as Standard Triangle Language or Standard Tessellation Language. Which is correct? Probably all of them.
Introduction To The STL File Format
The main purpose of the STL file format is to encode the surface geometry of a 3D object using tessellation. Tessellation is the process of tiling a surface with one or more geometric shapes with no overlaps or gaps. Having no gaps is especially important, as an object must be watertight to be printed. A good real life example of tessellation is a tiled floor.
This week at SIGGRAPH, HP today announced a unified approach and commercial solutions for virtual reality (VR), positioning itself as a provider for businesses looking to reduce concept to production cycle times, improve training procedures, and deliver fully immersive customer experiences using VR. As part of this strategy, the company unveiled what it claims is the world’s first professional-grade wearable VR PC – the new HP Z VR Backpack. Designed to realize a fuller potential of VR, it is, as the company claims, a secure and manageable wearable VR PC.
“Virtual reality is changing the way people learn, communicate and create,” said Xavier Garcia, vice president and general manager, Z Workstations, HP Inc. “Making the most of this technology requires a collaborative relationship between customers and partners. As a leader in technology, HP is uniting powerful commercial VR solutions, including new products like the HP Z VR Backpack, with customer needs to empower VR experiences our customers can use today to reinvent the future.”
HP Z VR Backpack Docked
Well beyond gaming, the opportunities for commercial VR are virtually (sorry for the pun) limitless for businesses in product design, architecture, healthcare, first responder training, automotive, and entertainment. Technologies like VR can provide unique experiences, ranging from reinventing the buying experience in automotive showrooms to changing the way fire departments train their staff.