3D file formats are quite numerous nowadays, and that makes for a hard choice. The main problem is, each software package uses its own file format. As a result,  among a myriad of available CG file formats one needs to pick the most suitable one. Oftentimes, it is difficult to understand which one is the best for a particular case. The main requirements – it should be easily integrated into the workflow and deliver the right level of precision. For the wrong choice may lead to a lot of troubles with transfer of information, waste of time and even – loss of precious data. As a result – a lot of time was wasted, the project – failed, 3D file – faulty. For one cannot expect to deliver quality architectural rendering under such conditions on time. How can one avoid such situations? By choosing the right format.

3D File Formats – the Most Popular Types

The most important thing one needs to keep in mind is that each of 3D file formats is specialized in a certain area. For instance, that can be static visualization, animation, printing, CNC, games, applications. Therefore, the choice of format for your file should be based on what it was created for. It is especially relevant when you are working on a project with a complex workflow and multiple software packages. Let’s have a look at the best options available from which you can choose.

Choosing the best 3D File Formats for the project - FBX

FBX is a 3D file format originally developed by Kaydara, to be purchased by Autodesk afterwards. It was created to bridge the gap between different file formats within the same pipeline. That is, it serves to ensure interoperability between  Autodesk software packages, such as Maya, 3Ds Max, Motion Builder, Cinema4D, Modo, Rhino,  Mudbox.

FBX is the most popular choice for animation. That distinguishes it from the competitor – OBJ, we are going to talk about next.  FBX format is often a part of game creation pipelines and used in film industry. As well as that, it supports geometry, materials, textures, mesh, skeleton, morphs etc. Which is why FBX is also used in architecture, design, education, science, medicine, engineering, furniture and product prototyping. From all those spheres, this CG format is especially popular for architectural rendering.

Choosing the best 3D File Formats for the project - OBJ

OBJ is a 3D model format developed by Wavefront Technologies. It is hugely popular for transferring mesh geometries from one 3D application to another. Its main area of use is 3D design. OBJ format does not support any type of animation, transformation or object hierarchy. Moreover, the file itself does not store information about colors and materials. For that, one has to turn to  .MTL file that supplements .obj. However, although OBJ file is simple to use and easily compatible with many other software programs, .MTL format is not universally supported. In order not to lose the necessary data, one should keep that in mind when choosing between 3D file formats.

Since .obj is the most popular 3D format, it is supported by the majority of software. For instance, Maya, XSI, Blender, MeshLab, 3D Studio Max и Rhinoceros 3D ,Modo, Cinema 4D, and many more.

Choosing the best 3D File Formats for the project - 3ds

3ds Max is one of the file formats used by Autodesk 3ds software. For a long time, it has been universally accepted as standard for transferring information between 3D software programs. As a result, it is supported by almost all 3D software packages, and can be opened by the majority of tools, for instance, Autodesk 3ds Max, Cheetah3D, MeshLab, IMSI TurboCAD Deluxe. However, nowadays it is mainly used for simple geometry, for it stores only the most necessary – information about mesh, object animation, camera location, lighting, material, color, roughness, transmission. For the scene to be loaded completely, it needs to be supplemented with other formats – MAX and PRJ.

3ds is one of the best 3D file formats when it comes to drawings and objects. Since the 3DS format is understood by virtually all 3D-related software, such files can be opened or imported with a large number of tools. The main areas of use are architecture, engineering, education, manufacturing.

Choosing the best 3D File Formats for the project - STL

STL format was developed by 3D Systems. The abbreviation is commonly believed to mean STereoLithography. Although, there are also versions that it stands for ‘Standard Transform Language file’ or “Standard Tessellation Language”. This 3D file format stores the information about the layout of a three-dimensional object. It is probably the most popular type of files for rapid prototyping, 3D printing, and it is also used for computer-aided manufacturing. Although STL is a popular choice for 3D visualization and 3D printing, it supports only simple geometry and therefore provides low-fidelity information.This CG file format is easy to use and is supported by a lot of software programs, among which are Maple, MeshLab, FreeCAD, OpenSCAD, SketchUp, Blender, SolidWorks, Solid Edge, Rhinoceros 3D.

Choosing the best 3D File Formats for the project - COLLADA

This 3D file format has been developed by Sony Computer Entertainment, and now belongs to the Khronos Group. COLLADA is used to exchange data between interactive 3D software applications. This CG format has file extension .dae. Most importantly, it stores data about geometry, materials, textures, animation.

Originally, it was intended to become a standard among 3D file formats, so it is supported by every major 3D software application. Such as, for example, 3ds Max (ColladaMax), Blender, Cinema 4D (MAXON), Maya (ColladaMaya),  MeshLab, Poser Pro, Shade 3D , SketchUp, LightWave 3D etc. Furthermore, it is compatible with many game engines, such as Blender Game Engine, Panda3d, Visual3D Game Engine, ShiVa.

Choosing the best 3D File Formats for the project - IGES

IGES is no longer developed, but is still widely used as a neutral format to transfer 3D model files between CAD, CAM and CAE software programs. The abbreviation stands for International Graphics Exchange Standard. This 3D format comes in 3 versions: “Bounded Surfaces”,  “Surfaced NURBS” and “BREP Manifold Solids”. It’s better to use the third version, since the first two are outdated.

IGES stores information about 2D and 3D geometry, bounded geometries, layers, colors. This 3D file format has the reputation of being a good choice for amateurs in 3D; professional 3D artists now prefer STEP. It is mostly used for 3D modeling and creation of technical drawings. IGES is still very popular in product design.

Choosing the best 3D File Formats for the project - STEP

The abbreviation means STandard for the Exchange of Product model data. It was designed to cover all aspects of the product, and stores data about geometric shape, topology, features, material properties etc. It is still less used than IGS, but its popularity is growing steadily. The main spheres of use are engineering, product design and testing.

This 3D file format is supported by virtually all CAD/CAE/CAM software packages. One of its advantages is that it keeps separate types of data in the 3D model.

Another important question rises when working on a 3D models in a few programs – its conversion from one format to another. It’s especially relevant for large-scale projects, so it’s vital to know which 3D file extension it is better to choose from the very beginning. For instance, when you need to add animation to the model you have. For that, you can use multiple online converters available for free. For instance, Online Mesh Converter, 3D Object Converter or Online 3D Model Converter.

However, when working on a model in the software program it wasn’t created in, one might face unexpected problems. Such as loss of data, impossibility to change certain parameters and poor quality of the output. That is why you need to choose the format that will store the data with the utmost accuracy and give a high-fidelity result.

After-3D modeling
Before-3D modeling

As you can see, choosing between 3D file formats is vital. Decision should be based upon the further use of 3D model – whether you will need static visualization, animation, games, 3D printing or something else. That means that before anything, you should define it and communicate to your team of 3D modelers.  If you need a reliable provider of 3D modeling services, contact ArchiCGI. We will create for you a 3D model of an impeccable quality, of any type and for any purpose.

We wish you lots of happy loyal clients and interesting projects!

Present your architectural project like a work of art with AI-powered CGI

Keith Gardner
Senior Project Manager

Keith is a seasoned scrum master who can turn even a team of complete strangers into a well-oiled machine. Outside of work, he is the king of social games and a caring dad for a ferret Tyra.