By Jason Vander Griendt

May 28, 2016 at 8:14 am

What is an STL File and What is it Used For?

What is an STL file? Here is an STL file next to the prototype created with 3D printing technology

For almost 3 decades, STL files have provided a bridge for the gap between 3D printers and 3D CAD designs. STLs are a standard file format in the 3D printing industry. 3D printers were designed to accept the way STL files are formatted and these files make it possible for them to slice up an object design into 2D layers ready for printing, and to calculate a machine path. Unfortunately, STL files are reaching the end of their lifeline. 3D printers of today are being created to have the capability of importing and using other file types that do not have the same formatting as STL files.

The History of STL Files

Did you know the STL file format was developed back in 1987 for 3D systems? For some people, it is a little mind-blowing to learn that 3D technology was being developed almost 30 years ago! The purpose of this file format was to make it possible for data to move between CAD software to stereolithography machines. The acronym STL actually stands for Surface Tessellation Language. Some will argue it stands for STereoLithography file or Standard Transform Language file.

A tessellation refers to a pattern that repeats without gaps and has figures across the surface that do not overlap. The STL file format utilizes a triangular shaped mesh.

STL File Format is Inefficient When Using High Resolution 3D Printers

While STL files are designed to hold onto the triangular mesh at any resolution, the mesh becomes big and unwieldy as the resolution grows. This makes it a less than ideal file format of choice for high resolution printers as you are not going to get high quality results when the print job is done.

Are STL Files On Their Way Out The Door?

For those who have been involved in the 3D printing industry since the beginning, it is hard to picture the industry without STL files. After all, they are an industry standard file format. As technology continues to progress however, 3D printers are able to utilize 3D CAD software to print without the need of STL files. For this reason, one would assume STL files on the way out the door. After all, where is the need for the file format if the printers can perform their tasks without them?

Even though it has been determined that STL files are becoming inefficient and incapable of keeping up with current trends in the 3D printing industry, they are still an industry standard. While it is very possible (and likely) that the STL file format will be phased out as the popular file format of choice, there is no reason to believe they will ever stop being used completely.

STL files for 3D Printing

As an industry standard, it is safe to assume there will always be companies and 3D printing professionals who utilize this file format. This is true even if it is nothing more than for nostalgia purposes as there are obviously better alternatives.

Do you have an STL file you need converted to another file format? Confused about what you need to start your next 3D printing project? Send through a quote request and we’ll happily answer any questions you might have and set you on the right track.


Jason Vander Griendt

Jason Vander Griendt is a Mechanical Engineering Technician with years of experience working at major companies such as SNC Lavalin Inc, Hatch Ltd. Siemens and Gerdau Ameristeel. He is the CEO of JCAD – Inc., a company he started in 2006 after seeing a gap in the market for businesses who could assist clients through the entire product design and manufacturing process.

Jason has been featured in Forbes, has had his businesses analyzed and discussed in multiple start-up books, was a previous winner of the Notable8 Digital Innovator of the year award, and is a regular guest on business panels and podcasts. Email Jason at or follow him on LinkedIn.

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