Despite many people understanding the concept of 3D printing, few know the 3D design and printing process well enough to try it out for themselves and take the step towards creating physical objects from scratch — be it a personal design or a replacement part for an appliance. But there are plenty of free resources for experimenting with before taking the deep dive.
This is a guest post by 3D Hubs.
To help get you started, here's a breakdown of some of the most fundamental resources to consider when starting out with 3D printing — no experience or spending required. By using the tools outlined here once or twice, you will have a better understanding of 3D printing terminology, how 3D designs are created, and where to get your 3D prints made.
Don't Know What to Print? Browse a 3D Model Library
Although creating your own models with 3D modelling or CAD design tools is the best way to create designs suited for your particular needs, it is not at all necessary to get started with 3D printing today. The easiest way to get started with 3D printing is to search through the thousands of available existing designs online. Here are some of the top websites that offer 3D printable models to get you started:
- Thingiverse: With nearly a half-million 3D models available to print for free, Thingiverse is the biggest online repository for 3D printable content (free).
- YouMagine: Although it's not as big as Thingiverse, the YouMagine community more than makes up for their smaller size with a steady stream of high-quality 3D printable content (free).
- Cults3D: While the Thingiverse and YouMagine platforms allow anybody to upload their designs, the team at Cults3D prefers to curate collections consisting of the best uploaded models — many of which are created by professional designers (free + paid).
3D Design Tools to Create Your Own Models
Of course, the magic thing about 3D printing is that you can create something from scratch that's never existed before. While 3D design tools have a reputation for being difficult to learn and expensive, there are also plenty of free or low-cost offerings that are surprisingly powerful and easy to get started with. Below are some of the most powerful programs for beginning on the path of 3D modelling.
3D Model Creation for Beginners
These tools are very easy and intuitive to use, but are actually incredibly powerful when you learn how to take advantage of all their features.
- Autodesk 123D Suite: A collection of 3D modelling tools designed for new users to create, explore, and manufacture their 3D models (Windows/Mac/iOS | Free)
- TinkerCAD: Easy to use online app to get started with the basics of 3D modelling (Online | Free)
- SketchUp: A simple tool with a focus on drawing applications including those for architectural, interior design and engineering purposes. (Windows/Mac | Free)
- Sculptris: A digital sculpting application designed to help beginners learn the fundamentals of working with "virtual clay." (Windows/Mac | Free)
3D Model Creation for Advanced Users
Naturally, those who learn the fundamentals of 3D modelling usually end up looking for more flexible options that give them more control of their craft. Although there are a vast amount of tools available for advanced 3D modelling, the ones listed below are favoured by advanced users and have been chosen for their balance of ease-of-use, price, and relevancy in the professional fields of design, engineering, and digital sculpting.
- Autodesk Fusion 360: A powerful design tool that combines vector-based CAD with freeform modelling via the Cloud. (Online | Free)
- Blender: A free and open source 3D creation suite that supports the entirety of the 3D pipeline including animation. (Online | Free)
- OnShape: A collaborative Cloud-based parametric CAD tool similar to industry-standard engineering CAD software. (Online | Free)
While every 3D design tool serves a different purpose for different types of users, it might be worth looking at a few of these and trying each one out for a few days to see if one clicks or not. Additional 3D modelling tools include Maya and 3ds Max (geared more towards animation), MODO, openSCAD, and Rhinoceros.
While professional quality 3D scanner models exist, most are used for industrial applications. Thanks to modern smartphone technologies, however, it's possible to achieve similar effects with just your mobile device and a steady hand. These apps extrapolate the shape of an object by analysing multiple photos, which means the resulting 3D model isn't necessarily high fidelity. But it's still a good method for capturing organic shapes or just getting the approximate shape of an object.
Here are some of the best-rated 3D scanning apps for 2016 that have produced remarkable results:
- 123D Catch: 123D Catch is a free app that lets you create 3D scans of virtually any object. (iOS/Android/Windows Phone | Free)
- Trnio: Trnio lets you convert existing photographs into 3D models directly on your iPhone. (iOS | Free)
Depending on what your intended use for 3D scanning is, it might be worth looking at some additional options that would better suit your needs. You wouldn't use photo capture methods to create a precise machine part, for example, but you could easily make a 3D model of a toy with just photographs.
So You Have Your 3D File and You Want to Print It. Now What?
There are a few more steps you'll likely encounter when you try to print a 3D model, depending on whether you do it all yourself or hand it off to a professional. If you downloaded a model from somewhere like Thingiverse, then these steps have probably already been taken care of.
The thing about 3D models, though, is that they're just numerical representations of an object made of polygons, like in a video game. Polygons have no thickness themselves (sort of like origami — but the paper is infinitely thin), so the 3D object only makes sense to the printers if the figure is completely closed, or "watertight", thus simulating a solid object. That's why you need to take some care to make sure your 3D model is something the printer will understand.
In order to prepare 3D models for printing, you sometimes need to "clean" them to prevent errors. MeshLab, MeshMixer, and netfabb are popular tools to use for editing, healing, inspecting, and simulating the 3D printing process before committing in-full. This process can vary widely depending on the project at hand, but essentially you just need to check your model for accidental errors, like holes and gaps. The aforementioned apps catch such errors before you head to the printer. And most CAD and scanner software applications have solutions built-in to automate this process.
Once a 3D model has been digitally cleaned and prepared for the 3D printing process, some printers require that they be converted into yet another type of data. For this step, a piece of software called a "slicer" is used to slice your 3D model into the layers. Slic3r, KISSlicer, and Cura are used reliably by both beginners and experts alike. If you're using a 3D printing service and not doing it yourself, the service provider will likely be able to take care of this for you.
Now Let's Get That 3D Print
Depending on where you live, you may even be able to use a 3D printer in your local public library or other public institution at a very low cost. Likewise, an increasing number of Makerspaces are popping up around the world with access to digital manufacturing tools with competitive prices. Some public libraries even have 3D printers. A quick Google search should bring up these facilities in your local area.
3D Hubs allows you to search for 3D printers in your neighbourhood and directly upload your file to that 3D printer from the website with the option to print in a number of different materials. It's an easy process with the additional benefit of being connected to a local 3D printing expert.
And if you want to be a little more hands-off, you can always order a 3D print online from a service like Shapeways. They also offer a wide variety of materials and use industrial-grade printers that produce higher resolution prints than smaller desktop 3D printers.
Where to Go From Here?
If this was your first time creating a 3D print, give yourself a pat on the back; you've just created an object that otherwise would have taken weeks of communication, unnecessary shipping costs, material waste, and other unavoidable byproducts of mass manufacturing.
Now that you know how to create a 3D file from scratch to 3D print, you'll never look at the world of objects around you the same. Don't be alarmed if you suddenly find yourself walking through stores saying, "I could print that!"
Simon Martin is a writer with 3D Hubs, the world's largest and fastest growing network of 3D printers. Learn more about 3D printing here.
Image via Getty.