Design guidelines for 3D printing – design tips to improve quality of print

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3D printing has opened up an entirely new avenue to physically visualise the extremes of imagination of a designer. It virtually allows building of utmost intricate designs, which even the most sophisticated lathe and milling machines are not capable of. The fact is vivid through the evolution of new concepts and products in 3D printing being unveiled every day. However, there is no doubt in hiding the occasional discrepancies between the design and actual built product. What you design is not always what is produced. A number of factors come into play in the thermo-mechanical process, which might alter the build, if not considered in the design stage. Here are few design guidelines for 3D printing.

Minimal structural size
The minimum wall thickness that can be built depends on the slice thickness used for the print. If the slice thickness is 0.25mm, then the wall thickness must be at least 0.50mm, i.e., twice the value. Optimal strength can be achieved when the wall thickness is at least four times of slice thickness (1mm). Especially when the walls are high in vertical direction, it is better to have a higher wall thickness.
Good quality parts can be printed by considering the height of parts in the z direction (vertical axis). It is always better to have the height as multiples of slice thickness. For example, if the slice thickness is 0.5mm, then the height can be 4.5mm or 5mm, but not 4.75mm. This case can be considered as analogous to constructing a brick wall. The height of the overall wall is always multiples of height of one brick and cement mixture used between the bricks. Any other intended height can be obtained by adjusting the volume of cement or breaking the bricks, which unfortunately is not possible in our 3D printing process.
Constructing holes and cylinders depends on part orientation and slice width. As a rule of thumb, it is recommended to maintain diameter greater than 2mm in order to maintain required shape. Very low hole and cylinder diameters lead to loss of contour accuracy.

Surface quality
Good surface quality can be achieved over horizontal plane and vertical axis, rather than inclined ones. An inclined surface is actually constructed as a series of steps, so the surface quality depends on the height of each step, as shown in the figure below. This phenomenon known as ‘staircase effect’ is the reason for production of rough curved and angular surfaces. So if you need a shiny glossy surface for your part, it is better to design and position it in the horizontal or vertical plane, or build with the least possible slice thickness (steps of the staircase).

Illustration of staircase effect for inclined surface

Commonly materials expand on heating and contract on cooling. So when the layers of polymer being printed cool down from high temperatures, they undergo shrinkage. Hence it is necessary to provide some amount of extra material to accommodate for this reduction in volume. This highly depends on the respective filament material being used, and latest 3D printing interface software automatically account for shrinkage when analysing the CAD file. It is also possible to manually have shrinkage under control by modifying the design accordingly. Having homogenous wall thicknesses and avoiding accumulation of material reduces shrinkage by facilitating uniform heat distribution.

Design modification to reduce shrinkage

Assembly and mounting
Sometimes we design and build two parts to mate with each other, but they never match. That is because of the lack of tolerances required for the assemblies. Generally the amount of tolerance required depends on the type of 3D printer being used. As a rule of thumb, in the z direction, a tolerance equal to slice thickness is to be provided. A value equal to extrusion width is generally required for tolerance in x and y directions.

Support structures
In contrast to conventional manufacturing processes, support structures are elements applicable exclusively to 3D printing. In order to prevent deviation and distortion, support structures have to be used for overhanging parts. Support structures are required for
• Horizontal surfaces
• Surfaces with angle with respect to horizontal less than 45° (depends on material)
• Drill holes in horizontal axis of diameter greater than 3mm (depends on material)
Many slicing software are capable of generating support structures based on the CAD design. However, based on the printing conditions, it is better to review the automatically generated supports before printing, in order to build distortion-free components. Support structures also help in dissipating heat, thereby reducing the formation of residual stresses. Residual stresses are generated when heat is concentrated in one particular section of a part with no passage to get dissipated. Presen+ce of residual stresses lead to layers not properly adhering with each other, called as delamination.

Part orientation is one of the most important factors to be considered when designing and positioning a part for 3D printing. The objectives of orientation are to minimise the overall build volume, reduced requirement of support structures and optimum surface quality. Following images show how design can be modified and oriented on the build plate to minimise support structures and obtain better quality.

Design modification to avoid support structure

Design modification/reorientation to avoid support structure

cube orientation
Reorientation for good contour

Hence by utilising these and other relevant factors in design, commonly occurring defects and iterations can be significantly avoided. It enables building products with refined quality and aesthetics. Utilise the freedom of design, incorporate intricate complexities and create your own masterpiece.

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  1. Travis says

    Great tips for 3D printing

  2. Johncee says

    Good tips. How soon do you expect there will be software that can analyze these factors and give us the ideal orientation to use with a given model? ? #3DPrinter #3dprinting (forgot tags before)

    1. Chola says

      Few industrial grade software like Materialise Magics have some of these functionalities, but they come at a heavy cost of course. Let the 3D printing software enthusiasts get set to work 🙂 At any case it is always better for the designer to know the facts and keep control of the process.

  3. ricardo gómez says

    #3dprinting good information!

  4. Plipskin says


  5. Gaming says

    nice article

  6. Jenny says

    Great information!

  7. brav65 says

    I am new to 3D printing and need all the information I can get! Thanks

  8. Mattias says

    Awesome information for getting good prints easier! #3dprinting

  9. TheodoraP1971 says

    #3dprinting great and informative article

  10. Mihai says

    Interesting information

  11. Dillon says

    very helpful

  12. visbeekgaby says

    #3dprinting #3dprinter Me parece muy interesante el artículo.

  13. Luis says

    Awesome information for getting good prints easier! #3dprinting #3dprinter

  14. Rajaa says

    Thank you! #3dprinting #3dprinter

  15. John says

    Very cool

  16. Josh says

    This article was very helpful, especially to someone new to #3dprinting and #3dprinter

  17. Stylianos says

    Also If anyone has a 2 printing head printer he can print with two materials one water dissolving (or something like that i heard there is a lime dissolving also) for support and one for the main object.So there is no that much of trouble to remove the support. Haven t try it thought i wonder if anyone has 🙂 would like to hear about it.

  18. ot says

    Great tips! #3dprinting #3dprinter

  19. shani says

    realy useful #3dprinting #3dprinter

    1. Daniel F says

      Right on! 🙂

  20. Wouter says

    Wish I found this earlier…. #3dprinter #3dprinting

    1. Daniel F says

      We also wish you did 🙂

  21. Ian says

    Some great tips for both 3d design and 3d printing!

  22. ricardo gómez says


  23. Ian says

    Useful information for the novice and casual user alike! #3dprinting

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