Posted on Sep 18, 2013
3D Printers can create some amazing things but are pretty usless with out a .stl file to tell them what to print. Here we look at some of the free software options with which to create your designs and some of the considerations when deciding where to start.
Check the T's & C's !!
A good place to start are the terms and conditions of use and licencing. This 'small print' is especially important if you have any commercial hopes for your project.
As an example, a quick look at the Terms of Service for one of the free tools below shows that the providers reserve the right to make your designs public. This is bad if you have aspirations to protect your design with patents. Later on they go on to reserve the global rights to use your design (royalty free!) and also give other users access to your design via Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike license.
While this may not automatically exclude them from your list, as the old saying goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch !
Thanks to our client for highlighing the T&C issue.
Can you save high quality .stl files to your computer ?
It would be a bit frustrating to spend countless hours learning the software and designing your product only to find that you can't export the files you need to 3d print your design. Sadly this is not uncommon !
The key to avoiding this is to ensure your 3d design software exports to the common 3D Printing file format - .STL files. Even when you can export to .stl not all software will export high quality .stl files, and save them to your local machine.
For example, SketchUp is a very popular 3D Design tool and we 3D Print models created in the software. However users need to find and install a suitable plug in to enable .stl export.
The quality and resolution of .stl files can vary between design tools and this can depend on the geometry & complexity of your design. It's worth checking the .stl file you create using an .STL viewer such as Netfabb Free. We'll cover some of the things to look out for in a future post.
SketchUp - http://www.sketchup.com/
SketchUp .stl export extension - http://extensions.sketchup.com/en/content/sketchup-stl
Netfabb Free - http://www.netfabb.com/downloadcenter.php?basic=1
Browser or Installed?
Next, do you want an online, browser based design tool or a downloaded and installed software tool ? There are a number of browser based 3d design tools which need WebGL enabled in your browser. You'll probably need a more recent computer for this to work and we've noticed that our older machines do not support the WebGL system.
Browser based 3d design tools include:
3DTin - http://www.3dtin.com/
Tinkercad (Now part of the Autodesk 123d project) - https://tinkercad.com/
Downloaded & Installed 3d design tools include:
SketchUp - http://www.sketchup.com/
Autodesk 123d - http://www.123dapp.com/
And a low cost 3d design option is:
And our Current Favorite is . . . . .
Creo Elements is a fully featured 3D Cad software. The key limitations of the free version is a maximum of 60 unique parts per assembly and the need to have an internet connection. There is also a student edition of the software for $200.
We gave it to a 3d design newby in the office and they managed to create and 3d print their first design in short order. The design was very simple, but it worked and the software seemed reasonable intuative.
3DTin would our second choice as a 'get you going right now' but check the Creative Comms licencing.
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