Example of full color part with mapped image, created from 3MF file format brought into GrabCAD Print and printed on a Stratasys PolyJet 3D printer. (Image courtesy GrabCAD)

3MF Printing Format Comes to GrabCAD Print

Example of full color part with mapped image, created from 3MF file format brought into GrabCAD Print and printed on a Stratasys PolyJet 3D printer. (Image courtesy GrabCAD)

Example of full color part with mapped image, created from a 3MF file-format brought into GrabCAD Print and set up to print on a Stratasys PolyJet 3D printer. (Image courtesy GrabCAD)

What is the 3MF format? How does it differ from the standard STL format? And what can you do with it, especially if your 3D printers run GrabCAD Print software from Stratasys?

For most designers, engineers and users involved in 3D printing, regardless of the 3D CAD software you use, you save (convert) your model to print as an STL format file. A lot has been written about it, including a PADT post from back in 2012 – and STL-wise, things really haven’t changed. This format approximates the native CAD solid model as a closed surface comprising small triangles of various shapes and sizes. STL has been the standard since the AM industry began, and although different CAD packages use different algorithms to create the mesh, for the most part, it’s worked pretty well.

A Sample STL File Segment

However, an STL file is simply a large text file listing the Cartesian coordinates for each vertex of the thousands of triangles, along with info on the normal direction:

Sample code from saving a CAD model in STL format.

A modest number of large triangles produces relatively small files but doesn’t do a good job of reproducing curves (think highly faceted surfaces); conversely, big files of many small triangles produce much smoother transitions but can take a long time to process in slicing software.

And, perhaps the biggest negative is that an STL file cannot include any other information: desired color, desired material, transparency, internal density gradient, internal fine structure or more.

What is 3MF?

In early 2015, Microsoft and a number of other major corporations including Autodesk, Dassault Systèmes, HP, Shapeways and SLM Group created a consortium to address these issues. They decided to overhaul a little-used file format called the 3D Modeling Format (3MF), to make it support highly detailed 3D model information and be more useful for 3D printing and related processes.

Logo 3MF Consortium

This ongoing consortium project defines 3MF as “a set of conventions for using XML to describe the appearance and structure of 3D models for the purpose of manufacturing (3D printing).”

In developer language, 3MF is a standard package or data that follows a core specification and may include some task-specific extensions.

In user terms, a 3MF file contains some or all of the following information in ASCII format:

  • Metadata about part name, creator and date
  • Information on the mesh of triangles (yes, it still creates and uses these, but does it better for a number of reasons, one of which is that it cannot create non-manifold edges (i.e., triangles that share endpoints with more than one triangle, which confuses the printer))
  • Color information (throughout the complete part body or in sub-sections)
  • Ways to define multiple materials combined as a composite
  • Texture information – what it is and where to place it
  • Ways to assign different materials to different sections of a part
  • Ways to duplicate information from one section of a part to another section, to save memory
  • Slicing instructions

Without getting into the nitty gritty, here are just two examples of XML code lines from 3MF metadata sections:

Example code of saving a solid CAD model in 3MF format.

Meaning, information about the part number and the part color rides along with the vertex coordinates! For a deep-dive into the coding schema, including a helpful glossary, see the 3MF github site; to learn how 3MF compares to STL, OBJ, AMF, STEP and other formats, check out the consortium’s About Us page.

Exporting 3MF Files

Now, how about using all of this? Where to start? Many 3D CAD software packages now let you save solid models as 3MF files (check out your “Save As” drop-down menu to verify), but again, they can vary as to what information is being saved. For example, a SolidWorks 3MF file can generate data on color and material but does not yet support transparency.

Here are all the options that you see in SolidWorks when you click the arrow next to “Save As”:

Second step in SolidWorks for saving a file in 3MF format: check off “include materials” and “include appearance.” (Image courtesy PADT)

“Save As” window in SolidWorks 2019, where step number one is to select “.3mf” format. (Image courtesy PADT)

You can select “.3mf” but don’t Save yet. First, click on the “Options” button that shows up below the Save as File Type line, opening this window:

Second step in SolidWorks for saving a file in 3MF format: check off “include materials” and “include appearance.” (Image courtesy PADT)

You need to check the boxes for “Include Materials” and “Include Appearances” to ensure that all that great information you specified in the solid model gets written to the converted file. A good, short tutorial can be found here.

Another interesting aspect of 3MF files is that they are zipped internally, and therefore smaller than STL files. Look at the difference in file size between the two formats when this ASA Omega Clip part is saved both ways:

Comparison of file size for STL versus 3MF formats.

The 3MF-saved file size is just 13% the size of the standard STL file, which may be significant for file manipulation; for files with a lot of detail such as texture information, the difference won’t be as great, but you can still expect to save 30 to 50%.

Working with 3MF files in GrabCAD Print

Okay, so CAD programs export files in 3MF format. The other half of the story addresses the question: how does a 3D printer import and use a 3MF file? Developers of 3D printing systems follow these same consortium specifications to define how their software will set up a 3MF file to print. Some slicers and equipment already act upon some of the expanded build information, while others may accept the file but still treat it the same as an STL (no additional functions enabled so it ignores the extra data). What matters is whether the system is itself capable of printing with multiple materials or depositing material in a way that adds color, texture, transparency or a variation in internal geometry.

GrabCAD Print (GCP), the cloud-connected 3D Printer interface for today’s Stratasys printers – both FDM and PolyJet – has always supported STL and native CAD file import. However, in GCP v.1.40, released in March 2020, GrabCAD has added support for 3MF files. For files created by SolidWorks software, this adds the ability to specify face colors, body colors and textures and send all that data in one file to a PolyJet multi-material, multi-color 3D printer. (Stratasys FDM printers accept 3MF geometry and assembly structure information.)

For a great tutorial about setting up SolidWorks models with applied appearances and sending their 3MF files to GrabCAD Print, check out these step-by-step directions from Shuvom Ghose.

Example of setting up a textured part in SolidWorks, then saving the file in 3MF format and importing it into GrabCAD Print, for printing on a full-color Stratasys PolyJet printer. (Image courtesy GrabCAD)

Example of setting up a textured part in SolidWorks, then saving the file in 3MF format and importing it into GrabCAD Print, for printing on a full-color Stratasys PolyJet printer. (Image courtesy GrabCAD)

At PADT, we’re starting to learn the nuances of working with 3MF files and will be sharing more examples soon. In the meantime, we suggest you download your own free copy of GrabCAD Print to check out the new capabilities, then email or call us to learn more.

PADT Inc. is a globally recognized provider of Numerical Simulation, Product Development and 3D Printing products and services. For more information on Stratasys printers and materials, contact us at info@padtinc.com.

GrabCAD Print Software: Part One, an Introduction

Where are you on your New Year’s resolutions? They often include words such as “simplify,” “organize” and “streamline.” They can be timely reminders to rethink how you do things in both your personal and professional lives, so why not rethink the software you use in 3D Printing?

Preparing a CAD solid model or an STL file to print on a 3D printer requires using set-up software that is typically unique to each printer’s manufacturer. For Flashforge equipment, you use FlashPrint, for Makerbot systems you use MakerBot Print, for Formlabs printers you use PreForm, and so on.

GrabCAD Print software for setting up STL or CAD files to print on Stratasys 3D printers (main screen).
GrabCAD Print software for setting up STL or CAD files to print on Stratasys 3D printers (main screen). Image courtesy PADT.

For printers from industrial 3D printing company Stratasys, the go-to software is GrabCAD Print (along with GrabCAD Print Mobile), developed for setting up both fused deposition modeling (FDM) and PolyJet technologies in new and efficient ways. Often just called GrabCAD, this versatile software package lets you organize and control prints assigned to one of more than 30 printer models, so the steps you learn for one printer transfer directly over to working with other models.

If you’ve previously used Stratasys Catalyst (on Dimension and uPrint printers), you’ll find similarities with GrabCAD, as well as some enhanced functionality. If you’re accustomed to the fine details of Stratasys Insight, you’ll see that GrabCAD provides similar capabilities in a streamlined interface, plus powerful new features made possible only by the direct import of native CAD files.  Additionally, you can access Insight within GrabCAD, combining the best of both traditional and next-generation possibilities.

Simple by Default, Powerful by Choice

GrabCAD lets users select simplified default settings throughout, with more sophisticated options available at every turn. Here are the general steps for print-file preparation, done on your desktop, laptop or mobile device:

1 – Add Models: Click-and-drag files or open them from File Explorer. All standard CAD formats are supported, including SolidWorks, Autodesk, Siemens and PTC, as well as STL. You can also bring in assemblies of parts and multi-body models, choosing whether to print them assembled or not. (Later we’ll also talk about what you can do with a CAD file that you can’t do with an STL.)

2 – Select Printer: Choose from a drop-down menu to find whatever printer(s) is networked to your computer. You can also experiment using templates for printers you don’t yet own, in order to compare build volumes and print times.

3 – Orient/Rotate/Scale Model: Icons along the right panel guide you through placing your model or models on the build platform, letting you rotate them around each axis, choose a face to orient as desired, and scale the part up or down. You can also right-click to copy and paste multiple models, then edit each one separately, move them around, and delete them as desired.

4 – Tray Settings: This icon leads to the menu with choices such as available materials, slice height options, build style (normal or draft), and more; always targeted to the selected printer. These choices apply to all the parts on the tray or build sheet.

5 – Model Settings: Here’s where you choose infill style, infill density (via slider bar), infill angle, and body thickness (also known as shell thickness) per part. Each part can have different choices.

6 – Support Settings: These all have defaults, so you don’t even have to consider them if you don’t have special needs (but it’s where, for example, you would change the self-supporting angle).

7 – Show Slice Preview: Clicking this icon slices the model and gives you the choice to view layers/tool paths individually, watch a video animation, or even set a Z-height pause if you plan on changing filament color or adding embedded hardware.

8 – Print: You’re ready to hit the Print button, sending the prepared file to the printer’s queue.

Scheduling Your Print, and Tracking Print Progress

A clock-like icon on the left-side GrabCAD panel (the second one down, or third if you’ve activated Advanced FDM features) switches the view to the Scheduler. In this mode, you can see a day/time tracking bar for every printer on the network. All prints are queued in the order sent, and the visuals make it easy to see when one will finish and another start (assuming human intervention for machine set-up and part removal, of course).

Scheduling panel in GrabCAD Print, showing status of files printing on multiple 3D printers.
Scheduling panel in GrabCAD Print, showing status of files printing on multiple 3D printers. Image courtesy PADT.

If you click on the bar representing a part being built, a new panel slides in from the right with detailed information about material type, support type, start time, expected finish time and total material used (cubic inches or grams). For printers with an on-board camera, you can even get an updated snapshot of the part as it’s building in the chamber.

Below the Scheduler icon is the History button. This is a great tool for creating weekly, monthly or yearly reports of printer run-time and material consumption, again for each printer on the network. Within a given build, you’ll even see the files names of the individual parts within that job.

Separately, if you’re not operating the software offline (an option that some companies require), you can enable GrabCAD Print Reports. This function generates detailed graphs and summaries covering printer utilization and overall material use across multiple printers and time periods – very powerful information for groups that need to track efficiencies and expenditures.

And That’s Just the Beginning

Once you decide to experiment with these settings, you begin to see the power of GrabCAD Print for FDM systems. We haven’t even touched on the automated repairs for STL files, PolyJet’s possibilities for colors, transparency and blended materials, or the options for setting up a CAD model so that sub-sections print with different properties.

For example, you’ll see how planning ahead allows you to bring in a multi-body CAD model and have GrabCAD identify and reinforce some areas at full density, while changing the infill pattern, layout, and density in other regions. GrabCAD recognizes actual CAD bodies and faces, letting you make build-modifications that previously would have required layer-by-layer slice editing, or couldn’t have been done at all.

Stay tuned for our next blog post, GrabCAD Print Software, Part Two: Simplify Set-ups, Save Time, and Do Cool Stuff You Hadn’t Even Considered, and reach out to us to learn more about downloading and using GrabCAD Print.

PADT Inc. is a globally recognized provider of Numerical Simulation, Product Development and 3D Printing products and services. For more information on Stratasys printers and materials, contact us at info@padtinc.com.

All Things ANSYS 041: Simulating Additive Manufacturing in ANSYS 2019 R2


Published on: July 15th, 2019
With: Eric Miller & Doug Oatis

In this episode your host and Co-Founder of PADT, Eric Miller is joined by PADT’s Lead Mechanical Engineer Doug Oatis, to discuss the tools that make up the ANSYS Additive family of products (Additive Suite, Additive Print, & Additive Prep), and how those tools help to make 3D printing more effective and easier to navigate.

If you would like to learn more about what’s available in this latest release check out PADT’s webinar on Additive Manufacturing Updates Updates in ANSYS 2019 R2 here: https://bit.ly/2JHWYxn

If you have any questions, comments, or would like to suggest a topic for the next episode, shoot us an email at podcast@padtinc.com we would love to hear from you!



Color 3D Printing ANSYS ANSYS Mechanical and Mechanical APDL Results

[updated on 6/18/14 with images of an optimized bracket]

When we announced that Stratasys had released a color 3D Printer, I promised that I would figure out a way to get an ANSYS Mechanical or Mechanical APDL solution printed in 3D as soon as possible. Here it is:
Pretty cool.  I posted this picture on our social media and it got more retweets-shares-comments-likes-social media at’a boys than anything we have ever posted.  So there is definitely some interest in this. Now that the initial “WOW!” factor is gone, it is time to talk technical details and share how to get a plot made.

Stratasys Objet500 Connex3

There have been some machine around for some time that can print colors. Unfortunately they used a process that deposited a binding agent (fancy name for glue) into a bed of powder. The glue could be died different colors, allowing you to mix three base colors to get a color part. The problem with that technology is that the parts were faded and very fragile. On top of that the machines were messy and hard to run.  

With the Objet500 Connex3 from Stratasys, we now have a machine that makes robust and usable prototypes, that can be printed in color. The device uses inkjet print heads to deposit a photopolymer (a resin that hardens when you shine ultraviolet light on it) one layer at a time. This machine has four print heads: one for support, one for a base material, and two for colored material.   The base material can be black, white, or clear.  Then you can mix two colors in to get a 46 color pallet on a given run.  Download the brochure here for more details on the device, or shoot us an email.

As an example of how to use this technology, we took the results from a modal analysis on a simple low-pressure turbine blade (from a jet engine) and plotted out the deflection results for the 1st, 3rd, and 7th mode. The 7th mode also includes the exaggerated deflected shape.


[Added 6/18/14]  

We recently combined ANSYS and Stratasys products for an optimization test case for a customer. We used Toplogoical optimization to remove chunks of material from an aerospace mounting bracket.  Then we 3D plotted the results to share with the international team looking at using this process to design parts that are lighter because they are not constrained by traditional manufacturing requirements. Here is what the first pass on the part looked like:

Getting a Printable File 

Almost every Additive Manufacturing machine, from 3D Printers to Manufacturing Systems, use an STL file as the way to define a part to be made.  The file contains triangular facets (a mesh) on the surface. The problem is that this file does not have a standard for defining colors.  The way that we get around this is you make an STL file for each color you want, sort of an STL assembly. Then when you load the files into the machine, you assign colors to each STL object.  That is great if you are printing an assembly and each solid object in you Model is a different color, but gets a bit dicey for a results contour.

So, we need a way to get an STL file for each color contour in your plot.  Right now non of the ANSYS products output an STL file.  Needless to say we have been talking with development about this and we hope there will be a built in solution at the next release.  In the interim, we have developed two methods.

Method 0: Have PADT Print your Part

Before we go over the two methods, we should mention that we offer almost every RP technology as a service to customers, including the new Objet500 Connex3. We have written a tool that converts ANSYS MAPDL models into STL’s that represent color bands.  It comes in two parts, a macro that you run to get the data, and a program we have that turns the data into STL files.

  So the easiest way to get a Color 3D Plot of your results is to:

  1. Download the macro ans2vtk.mac and run it. Instructions are in the header.
  2. Upload the resulting *.vtk file to PADT. Find instructions here.
  3. Email rp@padtinc.com and let us know the name of the file, that you want a Color 3D Print, and what units your part is and scale factor, if any, to apply to your part.  
  4. We will generate a quote.  
  5. You give us a PO or a credit card
  6. We pre-process the part and show you the resulting contours, making sure it is what you want
  7. We print it, then ship it to you.

This is a screen shot of the model in our internal tool:


Method 0.5: Use the PADT Script

If you own a Connex3 and are not a service provider, we would be happy to share the internal script that we use with you.  You would follow the same process as above, but would run the script yourself to make the STL files. You will need to install some opensource tools as well. Email me to discuss.

Method 1: RST to CFD-Post to Magics 

This is how we did the first sample models, because it works out of the box and required no coding.  To use it you need to have a licence of  ANSYS CFD-Post and Magics from Materialise.  CFD Post outputs a color facet file in the VRML2 format, and Magics can convert that into a bunch of STL file.

NOTE: For this to work you need Magics and your contours need to be pretty simple. A complex part won’t work  because Magics won’t be able to figure out the STL volumes. 

We start by attaching a CFD Post object to our model:


Open up CFD Post and make a plot you like. If you don’t know ANSYS CFD Post, here is an article we did a while back on how to use it to post ANSYS Mechanical and Mechanical APDL results. 

Set the number of contours to a smaller number. You can have up to 46 colors, but that means you have to make 46 separate STL files by hand. I picked 7 contours, which gives me 6 colors:


Now simply go to File > Save Picture and select VRML as your format. Note, it will bury the plot way down in your project directories, so I like to change the path to save it at the top level of the directory:


The next step is to read the file in to Magics.

WRL File in Magics_Color Code

In Magics, you can select facets by color and write each one out as a separate STL file.

Once you have done that, go in to the Objet Studio Software that came with your printer and assign colors to each STL file. We just kind of eyeball the closest color to the original plot:

FEA Objet studio

You can see here that we actually printed 3 at a time, just made copies and we only had to define colors on the original.  Then Print.

Here is what it looks like in the printer when it finished. We ran some other parts next to the three valves:

You’ll notice it looks all yellow. That is the support material. It is water soluble and we just wash it off when the part is done. 

Method 2: Macro for Element Based Contours

That method kind of was a pain, so we decided it would be a good idea to write a little macro in APDL that does the following:

  1. Specify number of colors and value to plot.  (It uses the current selected nodes/elements.)
  2. Select elements by contour range
  3. Create surface elements on those elements
  4. Convert those surface elements in to an STL file for each contour.

The advantage of this approach is that ANSYS MAPDL directly creates the STL files and all you have to do is read that into Objet Studio and assign colors.  The disadvantage is that it is plotting element faces, so if a contour changes across a face, it doesn’t capture it. The way it works now is that the face color is represents the contour color for the lowest value on that face.  Not ideal, but I only had about 3 hours to write something from scratch and that is as far as I got.

This is what it looks like in Objet Studio:


Here is the macro: mkcolstl_mac.zip

Just run in in MAPDL or put it in ANSYS Mechanical as a post processing command snippet.


ANSYS & 3D Printing: Converting your ANSYS Mechanical or MAPDL Model into an STL File

image3D printing is all the rage these days.  PADT has been involved in what should be called Additive Manufacturing since our founding twenty years ago.  So people in the ANSYS world often come to us for advice on things 3D Printer’ish.  And last week we got an email asking if we had a way to convert a deformed mesh into a STL file that can be used to print that deformed geometry.  This email caused neurons to fire that had not fired in some time. I remembered writing something but it was a long time ago.

Fortunately I have Google Desktop on my computer so I searched for ans2stl, knowing that I always called my translators ans2nnn of some kind. There it was.  Last updated in 2001, written in maybe 1995. C.  I guess I shouldn’t complain, it could have been FORTRAN. The notes say that the program has been successfully tested on Windows NT. That was a long time ago.

So I dusted it off and present it here as a way to get results from your ANSYS Mechanical or ANSYS Mechanical APDL model as a deformed STL file.

UPDATE – 7/8/2014

Since this article was written, we have done some more work with STL files. This Macro works fine on a tetrahedral mesh, but if you have hex elements, it won’t work – it assumes triangles on the face.  It also requires a macro and some ‘C’ code, which is an extra pain. So we wrote a more generic macro that works with Hex or Tet meshes, and writes the file directly. It can be a bit slow but no annoyingly slow.  We recommend you use this method instead of the ones outlined below.

Here is the macro:  writstl.zip

The Process

An STL file is basically a faceted representation of geometry. Triangles on the surface of your model. So to get an STL file of an FEA model, you simply need to generate triangles on your mesh face, write them out to a file, and convert them to an STL format.  If you want deformed geometry, simply use the UPGEOM command to move your nodes to the deformed position.

The Program

Here is the source code for the windows version of the program:


 PADT--------------------------------------------------- Phoenix Analysis &
                                                        Design Technologies


       Package: ans2stl

          File: ans2stl.c
          Args: rootname
        Author: Eric Miller, PADT
		(480) 813-4884 

	Simple program that takes the nodes and elements from the
	surface of an ANSYS FE model and converts it to a binary
	STL file.

		Create and ANSYS surface mesh one of two ways:
			1: amesh the surface with triangles
			2: esurf an existing mesh with triangles
         	Write the triangle surface mesh out with nwrite/ewrite
		Run ans2stl with the rootname of the *.node and *.elem files
		   as the only argument
		This should create a binary STL file

		The ANSYS elements are 4 noded shells (MESH200 is suggested)
		in triangular format (nodes 3 and 4 the same)

		This code has been succesfully compiled and tested
		on WindowsNT

		NOTE: There is a known issue on UNIX with byte order
				Please contact me if you need a UNIX version

		gcc -o ans2stl_win ans2stl_win.c

       10/31/01:       Cleaned up for release to XANSYS and such
       1/13/2014:	Yikes, its been 12+ years. A little update 
       			and publish on The Focus blog
			Checked it to see if it works with Windows 7. 
			It still compiles with GCC just fine.

PADT, Inc. provides this software to the general public as a curtesy.
Neither the company or its employees are responsible for the use or
accuracy of this software.  In short, it is free, and you get what
you pay for.


! Build silly geometry
! Mesh surface with non-solved (MESH200) triangles
MSHAPE,1,2D   ! Use triangles for Areas
MSHKEY,0      ! Free mesh
! Write out nodes and elements
! Execute the ans2stl program
/sys,ans2stl_win.exe a2stest

======================================================= */


typedef struct vertStruct *vert;
typedef struct facetStruct *facets;
typedef struct facetListStruct *facetList;

        int     ie[8][999999];
        float   coord[3][999999];
        int	np[999999];

struct vertStruct {
  float	x,y,z;
  float	nx,ny,nz;
  int  ivrt;
  facetList	firstFacet;

struct facetListStruct {
  facets	facet;
  facetList	next;

struct facetStruct {
  float	xn,yn,zn;
  vert	v1,v2,v3;

facets	theFacets;
vert	theVerts;

char	stlInpFile[80];
float	xmin,xmax,ymin,ymax,zmin,zmax;
float   ftrAngle;
int	nf,nv;  

void swapit();
void readBin();
void getnorm();
long readnodes();
long readelems();

     int argc;
     char *argv[];
  char nfname[255];
  char efname[255];
  char sfname[255];
  char s4[4];
  FILE	*sfile;
  int	nnode,nelem,i,i1,i2,i3;
  float	xn,yn,zn;

  if(argc <= 1){
        puts("Usage:  ans2stl file_root");

  nnode = readnodes(nfname);
  nelem = readelems(efname);
  nf = nelem;

  sfile = fopen(sfname,"wb");
  fwrite("PADT STL File, Solid Binary",80,1,sfile);
  swapit(&nelem,s4);    fwrite(s4,4,1,sfile);

      i1 = np[ie[0][i]];
      i2 = np[ie[1][i]];
      i3 = np[ie[2][i]];

      swapit(&xn,s4);	fwrite(s4,4,1,sfile);
      swapit(&yn,s4);	fwrite(s4,4,1,sfile);
      swapit(&zn,s4);	fwrite(s4,4,1,sfile);

      swapit(&coord[0][i1],s4);	fwrite(s4,4,1,sfile);
      swapit(&coord[1][i1],s4);	fwrite(s4,4,1,sfile);
      swapit(&coord[2][i1],s4);	fwrite(s4,4,1,sfile);

      swapit(&coord[0][i2],s4);	fwrite(s4,4,1,sfile);
      swapit(&coord[1][i2],s4);	fwrite(s4,4,1,sfile);
      swapit(&coord[2][i2],s4);	fwrite(s4,4,1,sfile);

      swapit(&coord[0][i3],s4);	fwrite(s4,4,1,sfile);
      swapit(&coord[1][i3],s4);	fwrite(s4,4,1,sfile);
      swapit(&coord[2][i3],s4);	fwrite(s4,4,1,sfile);
    puts(" ");
  printf("  STL Data Written to %s.stl \n",argv[1]);
    puts("  Done!!!!!!!!!");

void  getnorm(xn,yn,zn,i1,i2,i3)
	float	*xn,*yn,*zn;
	int	i1,i2,i3;
	float	v1[3],v2[3];
	int	i;

	  v1[i] = coord[i][i3] - coord[i][i2];
	  v2[i] = coord[i][i1] - coord[i][i2];

	*xn = (v1[1]*v2[2]) - (v1[2]*v2[1]);
	*yn = (v1[2]*v2[0]) - (v1[0]*v2[2]);
	*zn = (v1[0]*v2[1]) - (v1[1]*v2[0]);
long readelems(fname)
        char    *fname;
        long num,i;
        FILE *nfile;
        char    string[256],s1[7];

        num = 0;
        nfile = fopen(fname,"r");
			puts(" error on element file open, bye!");
            s1[6] = '\0';

        printf("Number of element read: %d\n",num);

long readnodes(fname)
        char	*fname;
        FILE    *nfile;
        long     num,typeflag,nval,ifoo;
        char    string[256];

        num = 0;
        nfile = fopen(fname,"r");
			puts(" error on node file open, bye!");

          sscanf(string,"%d ",&nval);
                typeflag = 1;
                typeflag = 0;
                np[nval] = num;
                        sscanf(string,"%d %g %g %g",
                        sscanf(string,"%d %g %g %g",

        printf("Number of nodes read %d\n",num);


/* A Little ditty to swap the byte order, STL files are for DOS */
void swapit(s1,s2)
     char s1[4],s2[4];
  s2[0] = s1[0];
  s2[1] = s1[1];
  s2[2] = s1[2];
  s2[3] = s1[3];


Creating the Nodes and Elements

I’ve created a little example macro that can be used to make an STL of deformed geometry.  If you do not want the deformed geometry, simply remove or comment out the UPGEOM command.  This macro is good for MAPDL or ANSYS Mechanical, just comment out the last line  to use it with MAPDL:




finish ! exit whatever preprocessor your in

! move the RST file to a temp file for the UPCOORD. Comment out if you want

! the original geometry


/prep7 ! Go in to PREP7

et,999,200,4 ! Create a dummy triangle element type, non-solved (200)

type,999 ! Make it the active type

esurf,all ! Surface mesh your model


! Update the geometry to the deformed shape

! The first argument is the scale factor, adjust to the appropriate level

! Comment this line out if you don’t want deformed geometry



esel,type,999 ! Select those new elements

nelem ! Select the nodes associated with them

nwrite,stl_temp,node ! write the node file

ewrite,stl_temp,elem ! Write the element file

! Run the program to convert

! This assumes your executable in in c:\temp. If not, change to the proper

! location

/sys,c:\temp\ans2stl_win.exe stl_temp

! If this is a ANSYS Mechanical code snippet, then copy the resulting STL file up to

! the root directory for the project

! For MAPDL, Comment this line out.


An Example

To prove this out using modern computing technology (remember, last time I used this was in 2001) I brought up my trusty valve body model and slammed 5000 lbs on one end, holding it on the top flange.  I then inserted the Commands object into the post processing branch:


When the model is solved, that command object will get executed after ANSYS is done doing all of its post processing, creating an STL of the deformed geometry. Here is what it looks like in the output file. You can see what it looks like when APDL executes the various commands:


TO FILE= stl_temp.rst

FILE file.rst COPIED TO stl_temp.rst



ANSYS Multiphysics

65420042 VERSION=WINDOWS x64 08:39:44 JAN 14, 2014 CP= 22.074

valve_stl–Static Structural (A5)

Note – This ANSYS version was linked by Licensee



KEYOPT( 1- 6)= 4 0 0 0 0 0

KEYOPT( 7-12)= 0 0 0 0 0 0

KEYOPT(13-18)= 0 0 0 0 0 0







USING FILE stl_temp.rst


USING FILE stl_temp.rst








6814 NODES WERE WRITTEN TO FILE= stl_temp.node



Using Format = 14(I6)

13648 ELEMENTS WERE WRITTEN TO FILE= stl_temp.elem


c:\temp\ans2stl_win.exe stl_temp

Number of nodes read 6814

Number of element read: 13648

STL Data Written to stl_temp.stl


/COPY FILE FROM FILE= stl_temp.stl

TO FILE= ..\..\stl_temp.stl

FILE stl_temp.stl COPIED TO ..\..\stl_temp.stl


The resulting STL file looks great:


I use MeshLab to view my STL files because… well it is free.  Do note that the mesh looks coarser.  This is because the ANSYS mesh uses TETS with midside nodes.  When those faces get converted to triangles those midside nodes are removed, so you do get a coarser looking model.

And after getting bumped from the queue a couple of times by “paying” jobs, our RP group printed up a nice FDM version for me on one of our Stratasys uPrint Plus machines:


It’s kind of hard to see, so I went out to the parking lot and recorded a short video of the part, twisting it around a bit:

Here is the ANSYS Mechanical project archive if you want to play with it yourself.

Other Things to Consider

Using FE Modeler

You can use FE Modeler in a couple of different ways with STL files. First off, you can read an STL file made using the method above. If you don’t have an STL preview tool, it is an easy way to check your distorted mesh.  Just chose STL as the input file format:


You get this:


If you look back up at the open dialog you will notice that it reads a bunch of mesh formats. So one thing you could do instead of using my little program, is use FE Modeler to make your STL.  Instead of executing the program with a /SYS command, simply use a CDWRITE,DB command and then read the resulting *.CDB file into FE Modeler.  To write out the STL, just set the “Target System” to STL and then click “Write Solver File”


You may know, or may have noticed in the image above, that FE Modeler can read other FEA meshes.  So if you are using some other FEA package, which you should not, then you can make an STL file in FE Modeler as well.

Color Contours

The next obvious question is how do I get my color contours on the plot. Right now we don’t have that type of printer here at PADT, but I believe that the dominant 3D Color printer out, the former Z-Corp and now 3D Systems machines, will read ANSYS results files. Stratasys JUST announced a new color 3D Printer that makes usable parts. Right now they don’t have a way to do contours, but as soon as they do we will publish something.

Another option is to use a /SHOW,vrml option and then convert that to STL with the color information.


Scaling is something you should think about. Not only the scaling on your deformed geometry, but the scaling on your model for printing.  Units can be tricky with STL files so make sure you check your model size before you print.

Smoother STL Surfaces

Your FEA mesh may be kind of coarse and the resulting STL file is even coarser because of the whole midside node thing.  Most of the smoothing tools out there will also get rid of sharp edges, so you don’t want those. Your best best is to refine your mesh or using a tool like Geomagic.

Making a CAD Model from my Deformed Mesh

Perhaps you stumbled on this posting not wanting to print your model. Maybe you want a CAD model of your deformed geometry.  You would use the same process, and then use Geomagic Studio.  It actually works very well and give you a usable CAD model when you are done.

STL File Tolerance: A Short Explanation of Faceting and Chord Height

When you are making a prototype of a CAD file, you send an STL file to the software that the machine uses to calculate how to build the part.  An STL file is made up of triangles, called facets, that cover the surface of your part.  Imagine having a a real part and a box full of small triangle. You have to paste the triangles all over the surfaces of the part till you have covered every part of the surfaces.

To illustrate what we are talking about lets start with a simple geometry: a block with a hole:


When we make an STL file the CAD package breaks the surfaces of the part up into triangles.  The result is something like this:


Notice how the surface is made up of triangles.  Triangles are flat so if you don’t have enough, if the triangles are too large, you end up with visibly flat surfaces.  This example shows the default for many CAD tools, and if we make a prototype of it we will see the flat triangle bits, and it will look bad.

To solve this you need to set your tolerance to a smaller number. Each CAD package has a different way of specifying this.  Most of them use some sort of Chord Height tolerance. 



The chord height is the maximum distance from the actual surface (orange) to the facet face (green).  The smaller the Chord Height, the smaller the facets and the more accurate the curvature of the surface is represented.

Here are some examples of our sample part with different tolerances (the hole has a 2” diameter):


0.1” Chord Height


0.01” Chord Height


0.001” Chord Height


0.0001” Chord Height

That last example may be a bit extreme. 

Why not just set your tolerance very small and be done with it?  The problem with that approach is that you force the program to make a ton of triangles, and your STL file gets huge.  So you need to find a nice compromise.  0.001” seems to work well for us and is a good place to start.

if you want to view your STL files, you can usually do so in the software you use to send your parts to your RP machine. If you are using a service provider, you may want to download a tool like Meshlab or MiniMagics.