3d modelling software

How to start out with 3d printing

In the first of the Personal Factory 3d printing tutorial series we’re looking at popular software packages you can use to create your designs. Not all 3d software is created alike – some is intended for creating vast landscapes, others specialise in rendering and visualisation. We’re interested in software focused on both organic & primitive geometry modeling with support for stereo-lithography (.STL) files.

Thanks to years of 3d software development there are now many methods to build a 3d models, below are some of the means you may come across…

Polygon – The most common modellers available, however many include support for other types of modelling including NURBS, splines, sculpting & SubD.
Polygons run efficiently though a computer’s CPU, even older computers should be able to create reasonably detailed models.

NURBS – Not as common as polygon modellers, NURBS allow a mathematical level of accuracy over polygons, so are very useful for 3d printing. NURBS are similar to, although not to be confused with 2d vector lines. You’ll want a fairly powerful graphics card if you’re modelling detailed models as NURBS are intensive on the CPU.

Sculptural – The most well known is zBrush, although they are also found in many plug-ins or features within other packages. You can think of these modellers as using the metaphor of clay for shaping forms. Well suited to very organic shapes.

Solid/Parametric – Generally expensive and for engineering based projects. Some packages include tools to analyse and display centre of gravity, structural strength, etc. These packages are usually written for manufacturing purposes, so are well suited to CNC machining and will export to 3d print files.

Software Packages

Blender – Windows, Mac, Linux (Open Source & Free)Blender Frog by cacysunlee

Blender is powerful software, even more so that it is offered free! Blender contains a large feature set that rivals functionality provided by expensive and established 3d software. It is a good sign of how vibrant & healthy the open source community is. Blender, however does have a steep learning curve and some counter-intuitive default settings. Right click, for instance is select object. (This is easy to change in the preferences.)

As it is open source there is a thriving community of support and plenty of learning resources. If your on Linux, or unable to afford one of the more expensive packages and have some patience – this is an excellent choice.

Blender is primarily a polygon modeller, although it has support for NURBS. It also can import and export from many different 3d file types, so can be invaluable in the pipeline – if you have software that doesn’t export to stereo-lithography (.STL) file type.

Ponoko provides a guide to help export your files to print with Blender.

Frog by cacysunlee available at Blend Swap

Sketchup – Windows & Mac (Free, Pro – $USD495)

SketchUp, Empire State Building

Developed by Google, Sketchup has perhaps the most shallow learning curve of the software featured here. Useful for architectural models, it is very difficult to craft organic forms in. Can be a good starting point to export files for further organic modelling. Often used in architectural practises for speed of modelling and conveying visualisation. For someone completely new to 3d, this might be a better introduction than Blender.

Ponoko provides a guide to help you export your files to print.

Model by Bruce Garner, Google Warehouse

Rhinocerous 3D – Windows (USD$995)
Rhino Interface
Rhino is a fairly intuitive modelling package with plenty of plug-ins available, the learning curve isn’t terrible and I find modelling fairly complex organic forms isn’t too demanding on the software.

Although still only running in 32-bit at version 4.0. Version 5 is currently in development and supports 64-bit for both Windows and Mac. No release date has yet been announced.

I recommend this as an excellent well rounded modeling package. There is plenty of plug-ins and support available, T-Splines for highly organic modeling is a notable one. If you sell though Ponoko or Etsy – VRay‘s rendering engine plug-in might come in handy for creating photo realistic renderings. It is often my commonly selected program when it comes to modeling. MoI (Windows USD$295) is a good alternative to Rhino, although it lacks the large feature set.

modo – Windows & Mac (USD$995)
Modo U-Boat
Luxology has produced a very intuitive polygon modeller. Mac users who don’t want to use Bootcamp, Blender or cannot afford one of the more expensive packages will find this to be an excellent choice. The documentation and support Luxology provides is excellent and includes a video tutorial on 3d printing. There is also a Rhino import plug-in available.

Considering the feature set, intuitive interface and ease of modelling, I think modo is reasonably priced.

3Ds Max (Windows (USD$3495)3Ds Max Interface

This is one of the long established polygon modellers. It is fairly popular on Windows. With a large feature set it is more of an industry standard than modo. It contains a very powerful modelling set in Graphite which includes freeform sculpting tools similar to features found in zBrush. I personally find the interface not quite as intuitive as modo, (I know others will disagree with me on this point). As with many polygon modellers many of 3Ds Max’s features point to its strengths in animation and rendering. These can come in useful if you’re a seller or shop owner and want to present your designs in a photo-realistic setting. Its not cheap, but a good option if you want to learn texturing, animation & rendering – in addition to modelling.

Alternatives to modo and 3DS Max include: Lightwave (Windows & Mac (USD$895) and Cinema4D (Windows & Mac (USD$2771.25).

Interface image from Autodesk

Ponoko provides a guide on how to export to 3d print files from Autodesk 3Ds Max.

zBrush – Windows & Mac (USD$699)
zBrush Watch

As a sculptural modeller, this is by far the easiest to create highly organic forms in. I personally haven’t explored zBrush much, although I plan on learning it this year. The interface is a departure from the 3D standard – it features 2d, 2.5d and 3d environments. Some will find this takes some getting used to. Artists, may find the clay metaphor more fluid to work with, than the strict geometry of polygons and NURBS.

Alternatives to zBrush include Freeform (Windows ($POA) and meshmixer (Windows & Mac (Free).

Note: zBrush doesn’t export directly to STL , the file type that is required for 3d printing, a workaround however is to export to a Wavefront (.OBJ) and then import into another 3d app, such as Rhino or Blender, where you can then export the mesh as an STL.

Watch model from zBrush’s getting started guide available free from Pixologic.

ALibre – (Windows (USD$94 – $4000)Alibre Assembly Interface

As a parametric modeller, this is well suited to mechanical parts modelling.  The basic Personal Edition is excellent value for money, it plays well with other parametric software too so don’t let the low price deter you from trying this out. Alibre is compatible with industry standard files from SolidWorks, Pro/E, Inventor, Catia, Parasolid, and SolidEdge. The expert edition provides motion analysis that can help you animate moving mechanical components with relationships to one another. If you’re into engineering or using mechanical parts in your designs I would recommend this as a good entry level package.

Ponoko provides a guide to help you export your files from ALibre.

Alibre assembly interface from www.alibre.com

Solidworks (Windows ($POA)Solidworks

One of the leading CAD/CAM packages and used professionally by engineers around the world. I don’t have a great deal of experience with Solidworks, but I have seen a couple of excellent features demonstrated – Animating mechanical parts in relation to one another is invaluable – especially when creating something such as this table lamp. Solidworks also brings to the users’ attention when there are solids intersecting.

However on the downside – It has a steeper learning curve than many other packages. Its a very nice package to have, but the high price point may prevent non-engineers from adoption. Alternative solid modellers to Alibre and Solidworks include; Shark FX (Windows & Mac (USD$1795), AutoCad (Windows & Mac (USD$3995 – $4425), Tinkercad featured here last week by Guy (Windows, Mac & Linux (Beta, Free) and OpenSCAD (Windows, Mac & Linux (Open Source & Free).

Ponoko provides a guide to help you export your files from Solidworks.

Solidsworks interface from www.solidworks.com

Insert your favourite package ‘x’
Finally, every package has its own particular strengths and weaknesses. Most 3d software publishers provide a trial, demo and/or educational versions, try them all out and you’ll quickly find out the one you feel most comfortable with. This is by no means a comprehensive list, just some good examples to get you started. Anything you can export to a stereo-lithographic (.STL) file should be fine. Please post in the comments if you have a favourite modelling package we haven’t covered here.

Hope to see some of your 3d print designs come to life on Ponoko!

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For converting you can use Deep Exploration.

for modeling – don’t forget Hexagon
and maybe Groboto if you like weird UI and strange shapes.


How could you forget it?

Quite useful for:
* converting (a wide number of formats),
* simplifying (do you have a 10.000.000 triangle mesh and you want a smaller yet accurate model? no problem),
* cleaning (remeshing? yes hole filling yes),
*checking (do you want to know if your mesh has holes, it is watertight, small connected components around? Just ask),
*measuring (volume, surface, genus, difference with another model? whatever do you want…)
*and inspecting triangulated models.

Moreover is free and available for any platform (win32/64 mac, linux…)

Thanks Mark, I’ll check those out this week. I’ve updated this page with a few couple other examples too.

Hi ALoopingIcon, You’re right meshlab is a great piece of software, but I was specifically looking at software aimed at 3d modelling.
Forgive me for my ignorance – as I haven’t explored meshlab much yet, but I consider meshlab to be a 3d utility app. – One that does mesh decimation, helps fix 3d meshes and deals with point clouds.
I’m definately going to cover meshlab in a future article. I also skipped over 3d scanning and generative modelling apps as I feel they require they’re own dedicated article and aren’t exactly 3D modellers in their own right.

and lets not forget Wings3D.
probably the simplest of all the 3D modelers to actually use and make something useful and interesting. (YMMV vs. Sketchup)

Wings3D came out of Nendo – which came out of Mirai – which came out of Symbolics SGD (the Lisp machine and “The only 2D and 3D computer graphics system you will ever need” (most popular 3D system in Europe in 1990 but overtaken in market by Softimage and then collapsed and died 🙁 now all that remains is the oldest domain name registered on the web))

It uses the winged edge topological model (and a subdivision surface design) – which Modo also adopted – and is fantastic at maintaining topology when doing operations like collapse and delete – very important for manifoldness, keep playing with the model, and to simplify rendering…

Now only Wings3D survives – but it is OpenSource and still being developed….

Hi Mark,
Good call on Wings3D. And thanks for the background history on it.

Great article. I wish I could make the time to investigate and learn more of these low cost packages.

Just a comment on Solidworks, while it often appears to be the defacto standard (whether true or not), its hideous per-seat price and maintenance costs put it out of contention.

As a sole-trading mechanical engineer, I priced Solidworks and was horrified (>A$10k). My clients (especially Elance clients) will not pay a premium in my rates for me to purchase exotic software.

So I keep it simple, Google Sketchup Pro for quick and dirty concepts and Alibre for engineering drawings.

Hi Matt,
Thanks for the feedback. I simply included Solidworks as some people might have access to it at their design school or workplace. Its certainly worth learning. But I absolutely agree, in the end it sadly comes down to value for money…

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