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7 Best 3D Printing Software and How To Use It

Updated on June 3, 2014

3D Printing: Choosing 3d Modeling Software

The brilliant thing about having a 3D printer is that you can create pretty much anything you want with it. Always dreamed of creating your own toys? You can print them. Need a replacement knob for a chest of drawers? Print one. Before you can print anything, though, you'll need a printable model to work from.

Being able to model in 3D used to require years of study and practise, but over the last few years, lots of simple, easy-to-use modelling programs have been created, and they're pretty affordable too. Here's a guide to some of the most popular programs. Choose whichever one you think will best suit your needs...

1. Autodesk 123D Design

Autodesk has been around since the 1980s,creating software for design professionals. As 3D printing became more accessible and affordable for consumers, though, it launched a suite of consumer software that took years of design expertise and translated it into easy-to-use, cheap apps.

123DDesign is one of the 123D family of apps. It's available as an app for Windows or iOS devices and can also be used in a browser window. For a free app, it's pretty impressive, and the learning curve is virtually nonexistent. There's even a library of downloadable models provided to get you started, and upgrading to a Pro account for a year gets you free stuff and a voucher off a MakerBot printer.

2. Blender

Blender is one of the most popular 3D modelling programs around. It's free, works with Windows, Macs, and Linux, and it has a large, friendly community built up around it. It's also an open-source project, so it's constantly being developed by the thousands of people devoted to using and improving it. If you're a beginner, it might take a bit of effort to find your way around, especially when it comes to making sure your models are actually printable, but there are plenty of tutorials available for free, and plenty of forums where people will help you out if you're really stuck.

3. Tinkercad

Tinkercad is the original browser-based 3D design program. It was created in 2011 and bought out in 2013 by Autodesk, so it now forms part of the 123D suite. The interface is fairly straight forward and intuitive: to get started, you select, manipulate and group solid shapes to create the object you want. It will also let you create new shapes or import 2D images and extrude them into 3D shapes. And it'll export into any number of different formats. It's not free, and pricing is subscription based, so if you want to use Tinkercad on an ongoing basis, you'll need to cough up every month. but there's a free trial available so you can check it out.

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4. Solidworks

Positioned at the professional end of the market, Solidworks has a customer base of over two million engineers. It's been around since the early 90s, when 3D modelling and printing at home would've been almost unimaginable, but that history does mean the developer knows what it's doing. Again, there are plenty of tutorials available online to help you find your feet, but beginners may want to start out with a simpler program first. If you're really serious about design and 3D printing, though, Solidworks is pretty much the industry standard.

5. ZBrush

As the name implies, ZBrush is all about digital painting - or digital sculpting. It has 30 brushes available to begin with, and models are created by building 3D meshes and then using the brushes to add volume and texture. It might be easiest to think of it as putting clay or papier mache over a wire frame model.

ZBrush models can be incredibly detailed, but there are free plug-ins available to convert them into a resolution suitable for use with a consumer 3D printer. There are lots of learning resources available to help you get going with ZBrush, including official video tutorials and links to schools that host classes.

6. Rhino

Currently on its fifth incarnation, Rhino is a 3D modelling program commonly used by design professionals. It's good for architectural and industrial design, but it's got a fairly manageable learning curve, so it started to become popular with hobbyists as well as professionals. There are plenty of tutorials available online, and there are plenty of plug-ins available too, to add even more features to Rhino's already impressive capabilities.

7. Art Of Illusion

Another open-source 3D modelling program, Art of Illusion is Java-based and claims to be extremely easy to use. It's aimed more at artists than engineers, and it's capable of creating some beautiful things, including amazingly intricate photorealistic renderings of fantasy objects. You just have to be careful to make sure your designs can actually be turned into physical 3D objects!

It doesn't export to the kinds of files you'll need for your 3D printer natively, but there's a free plug-in you can install to add that functionality; as long as you know that, you shouldn't have any trouble. You'll either love or hate it, but since it's free, it's worth giving it a try to see.

How To Use Modelling Software

3d modelling software differs greatly between versions, but this should help you get

Starting to use 3D modelling software can be intimidating. Although the software is more accessible than ever before, it can still be a bit off-putting when you first try to use it. Well, unless your job involves daily use of a complex CAD program, because then, naturally, you'd be able to navigate the simpler 3D modelling software easily. But if you're new to the whole thing, you might find yourself overwhelmed with options. Out of the many 3D modelling programs available for your computing platform, there will be some that will look and feel better than others and which you'll be far more comfortable with using over another version. In many ways, it soon becomes a personal thing. Bear in mind, though, that it will be some time before you're able to create the likes of what you'll see advertised in the media, on the likes of Thingiverse and on the boxes of the 3D printers themselves.

As with most projects of this kind, it's often best to learn to crawl before you can walk, and gathering the tools necessary together first is an absolute must. Choose Your Weapon The old saying, 'there's a hammer for every job', is actually quite apt here. You'll need a little trial and error when choosing the right 3D modelling software, as all are not quite created equally.

You'll need to find one that's easy to learn and use, especially if you're a beginner. Also, it'll need to be capable of importing or loading pre-built models and allowing you to edit something that's already designed. This way you'll be able to work from something that is already conceived; there's little point in reinventing the wheel here. On top of that, you'll also need to find 3D modelling software that's capable of either communicating with your printer or, at the very least, capable of exporting your finished design into a format that your printer in particular is able to read and understand. Above all, though, it's best to find a modelling package that has plenty of support available for it, in terms of tutorials, and preferably an active community who can help answer any questions for you and from where you can get answers to pretty much anything you're likely to come across during your use of the product. In the end, though, the modelling package you use will be a personal choice.

Things To Look Out For

There are a couple of tools worth looking out for when choosing a 3D modelling program. If these tools aren't available, then it may be necessary to shop around for a package that contains most, if not all, of the below tools.


With the design you want loaded up and ready to be exported over to the printer, take a moment to consider the cost of the print. Hollowing out an object is an easy way to save on both material and time, which will ultimately mean an overall saving of money. Most 3D modelling programs already come with the tools necessary to allow you to hollow out an object; some even do this automatically for you, especially those with 3D printing in their design.

A hollowed out object isn't as strong as a solid object, mind you, and some may even need an elaborate raft designed into them before being able to print successfully, so try to find software that will allow you to take all this into consideration. Also, the hollowing out tool should also be able to reduce the number of internal polygons, because hollowing can increase the polygon count inside your model.


One of the biggest problems associated with modelling software (or rather the untrained user with their modelling software) is the creation of non-manifold geometry. This occurs when you have any edge that's shared by more than two faces. The result may look okay on paper or in the design, but it's non-manufacturable, which means it's impossible to actually make it or print it in real life.

Most 3D modelling packages are able to warn you of a non-manifold geometry issue and, as a result, most are able to fix the problem for you by cleaning up the polygons and vertices or, at the very least, highlighting theareas where non-manifold geometry has occurred and allowing you to resolve the issue.


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