All 3D printing relies on a Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) program to generate a 3D printable file. For anyone that wants to start designing and 3D modeling, there is a wide range of free and subscription CAD programs.
When looking at CD programs, consider what your design intent and purpose is before using it. Like any program, look at how it will work with your computer and the technical support at hand.
I’m looking at these CAD programs from the viewpoint of a teacher and drafter. I hold an advanced certificate in CAD, and I have used them all to produce 3D printable objects.
CAD programs have to be evaluated against their intended purpose and audience. For this blog I’ll look at the pros and cons of each program, as well as how well they work with 3D printing.
Audience: Students, beginning 3D modelers, makers, DIYers.
PROS: TinkerCAD is free and uses cloud-based storage to save file space on your computer. The tutorials when you first sign in are a great way to introduce you to the controls of the program. I had all my middle school aged computer programming students using TinkerCAD after a 1 hour orientation class.
TinkerCAD is great for making objects with simpler geometry. There is a free library of user-generated shapes (under the TinkerPlay menu) that my students loved to play with.
Exporting files for 3D printing is easy in TinkerCAD. TinkerCAD will export files in .stl, or .obj format for single color 3D prints.
For multi color prints you can export in .x3d or .vrml. Desktop laser cutters can export in .svg. For anyone who plays Minecraft, you can export your designs into your server.
TinkerCAD is unique in that it can also link your files directly to 3D printing services. TinkerCAD can quickly export your files to 3DHubs, i.materialise, Ponoko, Sculpteo, and Shapeways. With this access, you can 3D print your designs in plastic, ceramics, or metals. You can also directly upload your designs to Thingiverse.
CONS: TinkerCAD is easy to use because it lacks many of the features, shapes, and tools found in advanced CAD programs. It is difficult to put rounds and chamfers on a design without additional scripting in the program.
The shapes you can produce are simple, and combining them into more complex shapes can start testing your patience. With cloud-based storage, you may have problems with internet lag.
With TinkerCAD, you really have to plan your design around how to make it with solid shapes and holes inside of them. This spatial thinking is hard for students with no prior CAD experience. Aligning and centering the shapes inside each other can be clunky.
Overall TinkerCAD is good for students and beginning 3D modelers. The simple shapes within it will give you a good start to 3D modeling and 3D printing. If you just want to make some simple items quickly, TinkerCAD is a good way to hash out your ideas.
Audience: Professional drafters, engineers, architects.
PROS: AutoCAD is a heavy-duty professional CAD program. An experienced user can draft complex 2D drawings for engineering or city planning.
For 3D printing, the drafter can take a 2D drawing and turn them into a 3D printable object. AutoCAD does a decent job of inspecting your file for water tightness before exporting.
The interface and user controls are Windows based, so you can quickly understand where all the features are. Like Window, AutoCAD is feature rich to meet the widest range of professional needs.
College students can get a free 3 year license as part of a professional class. After that it cost $1,680.00 for a 1 year subscription
CONS: AutoCAD has a steep learning curve to get to the point of 3D modeling. The controls within the 3D mode are clunky and finicky to use. There are a lot of features in AutoCAD, most of which you will never use, much less be able to find.
The help and support within the program is not always what you need. AutoCAD has problems working with complex shapes in 3D mode. It does not tell you what errors there may be in your design, which can show up later when you 3D print. Rounds and chamfers are also problematic on compound curves with AutoCAD.
Exporting files for 3D printing can be clunky. If there is a problem with your file, AutoCAD will not tell you what it is. If you have manifold issues, it will not show up in any error message. The errors will show up in your slicing program though.
Overall AutoCAD 2014 is better suited for 2D drafting than 3D modeling. While you can 3D model in AutoCAD, the operation becomes more difficult as you build. Other AutoCAD products may fit the bill better for 3D modeling, but AutoCAD 2014 is a good intro to professional CAD programs. At $1,680.00 for a 1 year subscription, it is definitely a program for professional drafters.
This is the creme-de-la-crem of engineering programs. Known worldwide as the go-to program for serous engineering, this program can design any complex item for 3D printing. SolidWorks is recognized around the world for its strength in engineering and technical fields.
PRO: You can design anything in SolidWorks, and build it with the real properties of the material you want. This ability can help when you work in plastics that like to expand like ABS. I did find the material profiles for ABS plastic, and SolidWorks will let you create profiles for any new 3D printing filaments. If you are a professional 3D printer, this properties will help you deal with the expansion of plastics with your mechanical designs.
In SolidWorks you can design multiple parts and assemblies, as well as produce animations for how to build the object. This is great for makers and teachers,
In SolidWorks you can test how things fit together and function, which will save you time in 3D printing complex items. You can quickly export a design to 3D print, and you can also control the final design by making it low-poly or high-poly.
CONS: SolidWorks has a steep learning curve and finicky controls. SolidWorks does require guided practice from tutorials or other professionals. As a professional program, it does eat a lot of computing power. To really use this program comfortably, you will need a 2 – 4 monitor set up with your computer.
SolidWorks is an advanced program for professional drafters and engineers. It may be more advanced than many of your 3D printing needs. It cost $150 for a 1 year student edition license, and the price varies from there.