3D design is often one of the least discussed aspects of 3D printing, but one of the most important. Before you can print an object with a 3D printer, it must first be designed. Using CAD software, students can design any type of 3D object like a 3D configurator they need, and then create that object with the printer.

Computer-Aided Design software

Types of 3D design software.

There are many 3D design programs, each with its own approach to the 3D design process. According to the MakeBot Educator’s Guidebook, these design programs typically fall into three main categories.

Solid modeling.

This type of program is used to create 3D models with real applications, including the manufacture of functional parts. Solid Modeling gives the user the ability to add and subtract different objects or assemble individual parts into completely new objects and complex assemblies. Solid modeling is useful for creating mechanical structures with dimensions that simulate real-world conditions. It also has the added advantage that the parameters can be saved during work. In this way, users can change certain dimensions of their model without having to start over.

Digital Sculpting.

Digital Sculpting gives the user the possibility to simulate the classic Digital Sculpting. Digital Sculpting programs offer a simulated Ball of Clay and virtual tools that mimic physical Digital Sculpting tools. These tools allow designers to “sculpt” objects with complex details. This type of modeling often requires the use of special hardware, such as a tablet for drawing. Models can be changed at any point in the design process, allowing the designer to carefully examine each shape to create a more successful design.

Polygon modeling.

Polygon modeling is an advanced approach to modeling objects by defining their properties using polygons. This type of modeling gives users the ability to control the mesh, surfaces, corners, and edges of a model. A polygon is a shape with at least 3 nodes (or sides in a 3D space). If a polygon exists in itself, it is usually referred to as a face. When a group of polygons is connected by common nodes, it is called a mesh, and this is what the polygon modeling software allows you to control. It also allows the creation of highly detailed and complicated 3D models and has real applications in industries such as film, gaming and animation.

Recommended and free 3D design programs.

If you are just starting with 3D design, we recommend you start with solid modeling. Once you and your students are familiar with the design process, you can move on to Digital Sculpting. With this in mind, below are our recommendations for free 3D design programs to start with.

Tinkercad (Solid Modeling).

Tinkercad is a free, web-based, Chromebook-compatible 3D design tool that allows students to create and edit their own objects. With tools for beginners and experienced designers, students can use their creativity to overcome design challenges. Tinkercad creates 3D objects by allowing users to insert shapes and customize or combine them to create 3D models. Tinkercad also has a variety of tools, such as a ruler, to enter exact dimensions. This feature makes it an easy to use program, even without design experience.

3D Slash (Digital Sculpting).

Inspired by Minecraft, 3D Slash is one of the easiest tools to create and a great program to introduce students to the world of 3D design. 3D Slash lets users start with a 3D cube (ashlar) and then use virtual tools (such as hammer, chisel, and brush) to manipulate the cube into the 3D object they want to create.

Sculptris (Digital Sculpting).

Sculptris is recommended for beginners because of its intuitive user interface and offers an entertaining and appealing way to get started with Digital Sculpting. It offers an excellent way to explore 3D design and is easy to learn, even for users with no design experience. Sculptris can be used to create complex models of animals, movies or television characters, as well as replicas of all artifacts. However, Sculptris does not allow you to define measurements or deviations for objects, so everything designed in the software must be measured in another design program.

SketchUp (Solid Modeling).

SketchUp is 3D modeling software that is easy to learn and incredibly easy to use. It’s a great program for those who want to design and print architectural models because it provides an easy way for users to create accurate geometric shapes. SketchUp allows users to draw lines and shapes virtually to create objects with specific dimensions. You can then move, drag, stretch, copy, and paint these objects to create any 3D object. SketchUp Free is the easiest and easiest to use 3D modeler on the market. Schools using Google Classroom can also download SketchUp for Schools, which is the core SketchUp software now available in a web browser for any school registered with G Suite for Education.

More 3D software programs.


We’ve already mentioned Thingiverse, but we can’t get enough of this great 3D printing resource. Thingiverse was developed by MakerBot and is the largest 3D printing community in the world with over a million printable 3D designs created by the large Thingiverse community. In addition, Thingiverse Education offers over 300 free lessons of 3D design and printing for a variety of class levels and topics.

We hope we were able to give you a first brief overview of various software solutions in 3D printing. If you have any suggestions or questions, please feel free to contact our experts in our forum.

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