There’s a wide range of 3D modeling tools. How do you select which is best for your needs? There are a number of different factors at play, including:
- The skill of the designer;
- What’s being modeled or drafted;
- Your operating system;
- The output format you need; and
Free Beginner Tools
If you’re just starting out, there are a number of free beginner-level tools that can help you learn the ropes of designing for 3D printing. These are 123D Design, the free version of 3D Slash, SculptGL, and TinkerCAD. 3D Slash has a premium version you can pay for down the road. Some of these are browser-based, while others support Windows and Mac. A few offer iOS, Raspberry Pi, or Linux support.
Some intermediate tools like Meshmixer, FreeCAD, OpenSCAD, and Sculptris are still free. SketchUp has a free version and a very pricey pro version. Moment of Inspiration is a good 3D design tool that can output in a wide variety of formats
These tools require knowledge and experience working with 3D design in the past. Because they’re more expensive to produce, they tend to operate on fewer operating systems – usually just Windows and Mac. They’re more expensive, but they’re also the highest quality and offer a wide range of output formats.
At this level, the investment usually means that it’s a business expense. The one exception to this is Blender, which is a fantastic 3D modeling tool with good tutorials and a helpful user base online. If you don’t have much to spare, Blender is a good option. If you’re starting your own business or aiming for a production run, you may want to look at some other potential programs.
Rhino3D and 3ds Max are two of the best, with commercial and less expensive educational versions. They have the widest range of output formats and a great degree of flexibility, though 3ds Max only works on Windows.
AutoCAD, Zbrush, and OnShape are good options, too. Mudbox has a less expensive annual fee, but a very limited range of output formats.
You may also hear of CATIA, Fusion 360, Inventor, and Solidworks. These are very good industrial design tools that are also much more expensive and geared toward more specific tasks.
What we can’t hit in this primer is the best option for what you’re designing. That’s different for everybody, and these tools have very different strengths and focuses. We’re happy to consult and can even help with 3D design, 3D engineering, 3D scanning, or 3D printing processes. There’s a lot of tools out there and it really comes down to information here, so take it slowly.
Weigh your options and do your homework. Many people look at the bottom line and say I can do this and get a free software and are successful but more times than not the learning curve to design an advanced part frustrates them because the free software cannot do a particular function or the learning curve is so steep they just give up. Just take a step back have fun with your project and if you run into a situation just give us a call.