- STL (file format)
Infobox file format
name = STL
extension = .stl
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STL is a file format native to the
stereolithographyCAD software created by 3D Systems. This file format is supported by many other software packages; it is widely used for rapid prototypingand computer-aided manufacturing. STL files describe only the surface geometry of a three dimensional object without any representation of color, texture or other common CAD model attributes. The STL format specifies both ASCIIand binary representations. Binary files are more common, since they are more compact.
An ASCII STL file begins with the line:
where "name" is an optional string. The file continues with any number of triangles, each represented as follows:
facet normal "n1 n2 n3" outer loop vertex "v11 v12 v13" vertex "v21 v22 v23" vertex "v31 v32 v33" endloop endfacet
where n1-n3 and v11-v33 are
floating point numbers in sign- mantissa'e'-sign- exponentformat and concludes with:
The structure of the format suggests that other possibilities exist (eg Facets with more than one 'loop' or loops with other than three vertices) but in practice, all facets are simple triangles.
White space (spaces, tabs, newlines) may be used anywhere in the file except within numbers or words. The spaces between 'facet' and 'normal' and between 'outer' and 'loop' are required.
Because ASCII STL files can become very large, a binary version of STL exists. A binary STL file has an 80 character header (which is generally ignored - but which should never begin with 'solid' because that will lead most software to assume that this is an ASCII STL file). Following the header is a 4 byte unsigned integer indicating the number of triangular facets in the file. Following that is data describing each triangle in turn. The file simply ends after the last triangle.
Each triangle is described by twelve 32-bit-floating point numbers: three for the normal and then three for the X/Y/Z coordinate of each vertex - just as with the ASCII version of STL. After the twelve floats there is a two byte unsigned 'short' integer that is the 'attribute byte count' - in the standard format, this should be zero because most software does not understand anything else.
Floating point numbers are represented as
IEEE floating pointnumbers and the endiannessis assumed to be little endianalthough this is not stated in documentation.
Colour in Binary STL
There are at least two variations on the binary STL format for adding colour information:
VisCAMand SolidViewsoftware packages use the two 'attribute byte count' bytes at the end of every triangle to store a 15 bit RGBcolour:
* bit 0 to 4 are the intensity level for blue (0 to 31)
* bits 5 to 9 are the intensity level for green (0 to 31)
* bits 10 to 14 are the intensity level for red (0 to 31)
** bit 15 is 1 if the colour is valid
** bit 15 is 0 if the colour is not valid (as with normal STL files)
Materialise Magicssoftware does things a little differently. It uses the 80 byte header at the top of the file to represent the overall colour of the entire part. If colour is used, then somewhere in the header should be the ASCIIstring "COLOR=" followed by four bytes representing Red, Green, Blue and Alpha channel(transparency) in the range 0-255. This is the colour of the entire object unless overridden at each facet. The per-facet colour is represented in the two 'attribute byte count' bytes as follows:
* bit 0 to 4 are the intensity level for red (0 to 31)
* bits 5 to 9 are the intensity level for green (0 to 31)
* bits 10 to 14 are the intensity level for blue (0 to 31)
** bit 15 is 0 if this facet has its own unique colour
** bit 15 is 1 if the per-object colour is to be used
The red/green/blue ordering within those two bytes is reversed in these two approaches - so whilst these formats could easily have been compatible the reversal of the order of the colours means that they are not - and worse still, a generic STL file reader cannot automatically distinguish between them. There is also no way to have facets be selectively transparent because there is no per-facet alpha value - although in the context of current rapid prototyping machinery, this is not important.
The Facet Normal
In both ASCII and binary versions of STL, the facet normal should be a unit vector pointing outwards from the solid object. In most software this may be set to (0,0,0) and the software will automatically calculate a normal based on the order of the triangle vertices using the 'right hand rule'. Some STL loaders (eg the STL plugin for
Art of Illusion) check that the normal in the file agrees with the normal they calculate using the right hand rule and warn you when it does not. Other software may ignore the facet normal entirely and use only the right hand rule. So in order to be entirely portable one should provide both the facet normal and order the vertices appropriately - even though it is seemingly redundant to do so.
History of use
Stereolithography machines are basically 3D printers that can build any volume shape as a series of slices. Ultimately these machines require a series of closed 2D contours that are filled in with solidified material as the layers are fused together.
The natural file format for such a machine would be a series of closed polygons corresponding to different Z-values. However, since it's possible to vary the layer thicknesses for a faster though less precise build, it seemed easier to define the model to be built as a closed
polyhedronthat could be sliced at the necessary horizontal levels.
The STL file format appears capable of defining a polyhedron with any polygonal facet, but in practice it's only ever used for triangles, which means that much of the syntax of the file is superfluous. It is also the case that the value of the normal shouldn't be necessary, since that is a direct calculation from the coordinates of the triangle with the orientation being controlled by the right hand rule.
STL files are supposed to be closed and connected like a combinatorial surface, where every triangular edge is part of exactly two triangles, and not self-intersecting. Since the syntax does not enforce this property, it can be ignored for applications where the closedness doesn't matter.
The closedness only matters insofar as the software which slices the triangles requires it to ensure that the resulting 2D polygons are closed. Sometimes such software can be written to clean up small discrepancies by moving endpoints of edges that are close together so that they coincide. The results are not predictable, but it is often sufficient to get the job done.
Obviously, there is much scope for "improvement" of this file format, which in its present form is nothing more than a listing of groups of 9 (or 12 if you care about the normals) floating point numbers embedded in some unnecessary syntax. Since each vertex is on average going to be used in six different triangles, considerable savings in memory could be obtained by listing all the points in a table at the beginning of the file, and concluding with a list of triangle definitions composed of triplets of integers that referenced this table.
However, for the purpose of generating a single contour slice using a very lightweight piece of software on a computer with little memory, this format is perfect since it can be processed in one pass regardless of file size.
Use in other fields.
Computer-aided designsystems are able to output the STL file format among their other formats because it's quick and easy to implement, if you ignore the connection criteria of the triangles. Many Computer-aided manufacturingsystems require triangulated models as the basis of their calculation.
Since an STL file output, of a sorts, is almost always available from the CAD system, it's often used as a quick method for importing the necessary triangulated geometry into the CAM system.
It can also be used for interchanging data between CAD/CAM systems and computational environments such as
Once it works, there is very little motivation to change, even though it is far from the most memory and computationally efficient method for transferring this data. Many integrated CAD and CAM systems transfer their geometric data using this accidental file format, because it's impossible to go wrong.
There are many other file formats capable of encoding triangles available, such as
VRML, DXF, but they have the disadvantage that it's possible to put things other than triangles into it, and thus produce something ambiguous or unusable.
RepRapis an OpenSource project that uses STL file input and generates solid objects as output.
PLY (file format)is an alternative file format with more flexibility that is in use in some stereolithographyapplications.
MeshLabis an open source Windows and Linux application for visualizing, processing and converting three dimensional meshes to or from the STL file format.
* The STL Format - Standard Data Format for Fabbers: [http://www.ennex.com/~fabbers/StL.asp The STL Format]
* [http://www.protocam.com/html/stl.html How to Create an STL file] Guide to exporting STL files from various CAD packages (courtesy of ProtoCAM)
* [http://www.solidview.com/ SolidView] SolidView is a commercial STL manipulation package that has a Lite version available (under provision of a business email address) for STL viewing.
* [http://www.varlog.com/products/admesh/ ADMesh] is a GPLed text-based program for processing triangulated solid meshes, and reads and writes the STL file format.
GLC_Playeris a GPL software used to view 3d models in OBJ, 3DS, STL and OFF Format and to navigate easily in these models.
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