How to REALLY export your color SOLIDWORKS files for printing

An updated tutorial, showing you the BEST way to export your color SOLIDWORKS files for 3D printing, using the new '3MF' format!

  1. Step 1: Overview of the problem

    Over two years ago, I wrote a series of color printing tutorials, mainly because of the difficulty in getting color textures out of SOLIDWORKS files:

    Decals didn't come out, face textures didn't come out, all you got out of SOLIDWORKS were overall body colors.

    To get around this, we used to have to use a bunch of 3rd party programs, like Photoshop, to apply textures for color printing:

    And if things got REALLY complex (multi-bodies, transparencies), I used to use Rhino:

    But I'm happy to say that with the recent release of GrabCAD Print 1.40, there's now a much simpler and more direct path to get textured files out of SOLIDWORKS, the 3MF format:

    So let's see how to do it.

  2. Step 2: The EASY method- Whole Face Appearances

    First, you have to start with a great model.

    Thanks to GrabCAD Community member Brandon Norris for his awesome handheld GPS device found here, which I'm borrowing for this tutorial:

    Bringing that into SOLIDWORKS, I split the model into separate BODIES using the Split command, since the more bodies you have, the more options you have to easily color files later in GrabCAD Print:

    After that, it's simple to apply body colors, until you're here:

    Now we're going to apply that GPS direction .jpg (taken from my phone) onto the wide face of our electronics 'display':

    The way to do that in SOLIDWORKS is to use Advanced Face 'Appearances':

    And then browsing to your appearance:

    Now, when you first bring in your image, it will ALWAYS be at the wrong size and orientation:

    SOLIDWORKS doesn't have the best UV mapping or adjustment tools for images, but on rectangular flat faces, after a few minutes work, you can usually get to something that looks right:

    And then "Save As" a 3MF file, and you should see the body colors and face appearance in GrabCAD Print:

    If you can't see a 3MF import choice in your GrabCAD Print, check in your 'File... Preferences... Labs' and see if you've turned on the checkbox to allow it:

    And remember, to get 3MF export to work, we used only Appearances, not the 'Decals' that some of you might have used in the past:

    The only other caveat is that 3MF files from SOLIDWORKS don't transfer transparency information, so if you have lots of transparency but no images, direct CAD import might still be for you:

    (UPDATE 9-8-2020: Recent versions of GrabCAD Print (1.45+) actually DO allow transparency AND textures to transfer over with native CAD import, and have removed the previous 50 body limit, so try that first, if you're making VERY complex parts. Here's a 100 body textured galaxy print inside a clear block, which transfers over from SOLIDWORKS as a pure CAD file perfectly well:

    Future updates may remove the differences between 3MF and native SOLIDWORKS import even more, so try both of those first!

    END UPDATE 9-8-2020.)

    But in general, if you want to print logos and textures on simple faces of your model, exporting a 3MF from SOLIDWORKS is one of the simplest and most modern ways to get the information into GrabCAD Print.

    That was a simple example, but let's make it more complex.

  3. Step 3: The ADVANCED method- Split Line Appearances

    So what if you have a logo or texture you want only on a SECTION of a face, not the whole face?

    Then you have to use the Split Line command in SOLIDWORKS, and carve the faces up to your liking!

    But first, you have to start with a great model. Here's a nice organic cast from GrabCAD Community user Juan Esteban Paz (JEPaz):

    Starting off in SOLIDWORKS, our model looks like this:

    (Thanks for the mannequin model, JEPaz, it really gives perspective to things!)

    We don't really have any flat faces to work with here. If we wanted to put our company logo on just a SECTION of this cast, I need to make a sketch on one of our planes and project that sketch onto an organic face, cutting it out:

    The command to make that projection is Split Line. You choose your sketch, choose your surface you want to project onto, and the result is an infinitely thin cut, like you used the world's sharpest surgical knife to score your model:

    More information about Split Lines here.

    After you have that new split face, you can go through the normal Face Appearance dialog we covered in the last step, until you get this:

    Honestly, the hardest part on these organic shapes was trying to find something to line up my logo with. My mapping is at 208 degrees or something- without a right angle, you have to eyeball the numbers!

    But we can get even cooler.

    On all the OTHER faces, lets put a wraparound texture to make this cast really stand out.

    I like to use camouflage textures for this, since having a random, repeating pattern hides a lot of small UV mapping defects that would normally show up if you tried to map one big image over a lot of tangent, touching faces.

    Here's what I ended up with:

    Notice I had to click on 53 different faces to make this wrap all around the outside of my model.

    (SOLIDWORKS users will complain about having to click on 53 different faces, while Zbrush users color 1 million triangles at once. It's a philosophy difference, between mechanical engineers and industrial artists, but the point of 3MF is now us Engineers can easily start doing a FEW of the things that artists have done for so long!)

    Here's how it turned out in the end for me:

    Pretty easy, huh?

    In general, 3MF is:

    • A much more modern format than STLs or VRMLs
    • A smaller file size than an equivalent resolution STL (since 3MFs are zipped internally)
    • Have all their texture images INTERNAL, so you can't lose them
    • And they can finally do what we've all been looking for since getting our first color printer: send a fully textured file to our color printer, in ONE easy step!

    There's more to unpack about the new 3MF format, so if you have any questions, feel free to contact me at

    And if you want any information about the full-color, office-friendly printers you can use to MAKE any of the models above, check out information about our new, affordable J55 printer here! 

    So export those 3MF's from SOLIDWORKS, and happy printing!