Tuesday, September 27, 2022
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Software Used in 3D Printing

Hello Machine Bros!
If you already have your 3D printer (FDM technology) or decided to buy your own, it is very likely that at this moment you are wondering what software is used in 3D printing by FDM technology.

The reality is that there are a lot of software and options, that, if we named them all, we would end up making a really long article, and surely you would end up with more doubts than answers, and you could even end up more confused without knowing which software to decide on.

At The Machine Bros we try to give you solutions, simplify your work, that’s why in this article we will do something very different from the rest of the web pages. We will not overwhelm you by naming all the software, we will tell you which are the most popular paid and free ones.

Why the most popular ones? Because it is necessary for a software to have a large active community, in this way collective intelligence can be applied. In forums you can find answers to your doubts, write any concerns you have and someone from the community who uses said software will surely be able to answer, in addition to this you will be able to find many tutorials on the internet on how to use these software. So, without further ado let’s get started.

3D Printing Workflow

To get started, you need to know what the workflow is for 3D printing. The first thing is to obtain a digital three-dimensional model. To do this, there are generally three options:

  • We create it ourselves
  • We obtain it from a third party (for example, downloading it from a website such as Thingiverse)
  • We obtain the model by scanning in 3D

If the 3D model obtained is not designed to be 3D printed, we will probably have to make minor modifications and repair it in other software.

Once the model is adapted for 3D printing, we proceed to configure the 3D print in a type of software known as Slicer (This is how the software used in 3D printing is called, see the section of phase 3 for more details ). Now, with the 3D model already configured, we can proceed to 3D print it. Depending on the connection options available to your 3D printer, you can send the configured file by Wi-Fi, by USB cable, or by a micro-SD or SD memory.

3D Printing Workflow
3D Printing Workflow

What is an STL?

STL is the file format most used by 3D printing software / slicer, which contains all the geometric information of the 3D model with which we are working.

When we have the 3D model ready and we want to print it, the software generates a Gcode file, which is the format used to tell the 3D printers what movements to execute to manufacture the model.

For “Phase 1”, “Phase 2” and “Phase 3” of the 3D printing workflow, certain software is required, and we are going to guide you in this article so that you can determine which one to use.

Phase 1: Software to Obtain the 3D model

In this phase we need to obtain a 3D model, you can obtain them from a third party (example by downloading it from a website like Thingiverse), you can scan in 3D (we will talk about this in another article), and design it in 3D.

The latter is that we will focus on, the software used to design 3D models and with which we obtain an STL file of the 3D model to be printed.

These software are also known as CAD software and we are going to catalog them into 3 types.

  • For graphic and artistic design.
  • For engineering design.
  • For the occasional design, for beginners and people who are not looking for specialized software.

CAD software for graphic and artistic design

Blender (Free Software)

Blender CAD Software
Blender CAD Software

Blender is quite a popular option for modeling, rendering, animation and rigging, video editing, VFX, compositing, texturing, and some types of simulations.

The Machine Bros Recommendation

If you are just starting out in the use of CAD software for graphic or artistic design, it may be difficult for you to adapt to Blender. The general opinion of users is that perhaps for beginners, Blender can be a bit overwhelming at first, but obviously, with practice, you will know more about how to use this software and its tools.

Blender is for you if you don’t want to spend money on paid software and if you want to have very powerful 3D design software, and you are willing to practice and take this seriously.

Blender has even made feature films like Plumíferos, it has been used in movies like Spider-Man 2 to preview scenes, and to create short films like Elephants Dream. So, as you can see, it is a powerful, complete, and professional tool.

Modeling a train in 3D with Blender
Modeling a train in 3D with Blender
Work modes in Blender
Work modes in Blender
Blender interface
Blender interface

Zbrush (Paid Software)

Zbrush

Zbrush is a CAD software focused on 3D modeling, sculpting, texturing, and digital painting.

The specialty of this software is digital sculpting, it does it in an amazing way, so much so that the professional film industry, video games, among others, have used this design software for their creations, for example, films like Underworld and The Lord of the Rings used Zbrush. The creators of this tool themselves define it as “an artistic tool, created by artists for artists”.

  • Cost: It has three possible subscription plans, $39.95 USD per month, $179.95 USD every 6 months, and finally $895 USD for an unlimited license.
  • Platforms: Windows, macOS
  • Language: Multilanguage
  • Website: http://pixologic.com/

The Machine Bros Recommendation

If you are willing to spend money on CAD software and plan to dedicate yourself to 3D design in a more professional way, purchasing this software is a very good option. It should be noted that this software, like all those that we will mention throughout this article, has a large active community, which allows you to ask questions in forums, and you will surely find the answers to your concerns.

In the following link, you can see the uses that have been given to this software in different industries (including 3D printing) Zbrush in various industries, and in these other two links, you can see models created with this tool Zbrush user gallery and 3D Turntables.

Zbrush interface
Zbrush interface
Mathilda created in Zbrush. Mathilda is a character from a novel named Mathilda and was written by Mary Shelley

Mathilda created in Zbrush. Mathilda is a character from a novel named Mathilda and was written by Mary Shelley
Model made by Oscar Perez in Zbrush
Model made by Oscar Perez in Zbrush

CAD Software for Engineering Design

Fusion 360 (Paid and Free Software)

Autodesk Fusion 360

This software is very complete for engineering design, it can perform simulations, parametric design, make assemblies and a wide range of useful tools for modeling at the engineering level.

There are 4 types of license for this software:

  1. Commercial license: This is the paid version of the software without limitations. This license offers 3 forms of payment. $60 USD per month, $ 95 USD per year (it would be equivalent to $42 USD per month) and finally $1,335 USD every 3 years (it would be equivalent to $38 USD per month).
  2. Startup License: This version of the software is free, and it is intended for companies that are a Startup. You must fill out a form that Autodesk (the company that offers Fusion 360) will evaluate to determine if you meet the requirements to acquire this license.
  3. Educational License: This version is also free. It is intended for students. You must also fill out a form that Autodesk will evaluate to determine if you meet the requirements to acquire this license.
  4. License for personal use: This license is free, you can download Fusion 360 with it without any inconvenience, the only thing about this license is that it has certain limitations which we will explain later.

Next, we will show you a table that compares the 4 types of license.

LicenseCommercialStartupPersonalEducational
Renovación1 year1 year1 year1 year
ConcessionPayingFormFreeForm
StorageUnlimitedUnlimited10 active documents you can edit, unlimited inactive documentsUnlimited
Generative DesignYesYesNoOnly if your email account is from an educational institution.
RenderUsing cloud credits or localUsing cloud credits or localOnly localFree up to a number of credits or local
Import of CAD formats (SolidWorks, Inventor, Catia, etc)YesYesNo, just STEP and IGESYes
Export of CAD formatsYesYesNo, just STEP and Inventor, DXF only from sketchYes
CAM ManufacturingYesYesMaximum 3 axis, no tool change, or rapid movesYes
2D DrawingYesYesOne sheet, no printing (you can use a PDF printer)Yes
SimulationsUsing Cloud Credits or localUsing Cloud Credits or localNoFree up to a limit of credits or local
Access to Paid Extensions (mainly CAM)YesYesNoYes
ElectronicsYesYes2 schematics sheets, 2 layers, max 80cm2 boardYes
Table found in norbertrovira.com

NOTE: Licenses are renewable, including the one for personal use, each year you can renew it by performing a certain procedure.

The Machine Bros Recommendation

Fusion 360 is a very good option for 3D design at the engineering level, it has a wide range of licenses, several of which are free. The license for personal use one of the disadvantages is that it is limited in certain things, including the use of simulations, in our case at The Machine Bros, we usually need to perform stress simulations when we are going to manufacture a 3D part that will be subjected to loads.

But Fusion 360 gives you the opportunity to start designing without paying anything, and as you progress and become more familiar with the software, you can decide whether it is worth it for you to pay for another type of license.

Although, as we already mentioned, there are other free licenses that have practically no limitations, but you need to fill out a form for the Autodesk team to evaluate it and determine if you really meet the requirements to opt for said licenses (Startup, and educational).

CAM setup in Fusion 360
CAM setup in Fusion 360
Fusion 360 interface
Fusion 360 interface

SolidWorks (Paid and Free Software)

Best software used in 3D printing

This is another great software for CAD design in engineering, a very powerful and comprehensive tool. SolidWorks also allows parameterized modeling, stress simulations, assemblies, thermal simulations, fluid simulations, it has a complement for the electrical area, and an extensive number of tools that will make possible the 3D design of your engineering projects.

  • Cost: To begin with, it is necessary to mention that SolidWorks does not publish the price list on its website, they request that you contact a sales agent to request a quote. For this reason, the prices that we will name below are subject to change and they are referential.

SolidWorks offers 3 types of packages in its commercial version with 3 types of licenses, a version for students, a version for educators, a version for Startups, and a version for incubators and accelerators.

  1. Commercial version:
    • SolidWorks Standard:
      • Perpetual license: $3,995 USD with an annual maintenance cost of $1,295 USD.
      • Temporary license: $810 USD every 3 months or $2,700 USD per year.

    • SolidWorks Professional:
      • Perpetual license: $5,490 USD with an annual maintenance cost of $1,495 USD.
      • Temporary license: $1,080 USD every 3 months or $4,600 USD per year.

    • SolidWorks Professional:
      • Perpetual license: $7,995 USD with an annual maintenance cost of $1,995 USD.
      • Temporary license: $1,450 USD every 3 months or $4,825 USD per year.

  2. Educational Version: $150 USD, the advantage of this version is that it is a full version of SolidWorks. The disadvantage is that the license is for one year, another disadvantage is that, if for example, you acquire SolidWorks for student 2020, this will be equivalent to SolidWorks the full version, but from 2019, that is, always the student version is the equivalent of the full version, but from a previous year.

    Another fact to consider regarding this version is that the designs you make in this SolidWorks will have a watermark so that you do not use them commercially (an obvious limitation due to the nature of this license).

  3. Version for educators: This is a version for teachers, usually this license is offered in bulk, for this reason, you must contact an authorized sales agent to find out the price.

  4. Startup version: This version of the CAD software is free, but you must qualify to obtain it. In the following link, you can further investigate its requirements: SolidWorks for Entrepreneurs.

  5. Version for incubators and accelerators: If you have an accelerator or incubator, you can participate in the following program SolidWorks Accelerator & Incubators program, and if you qualify you would receive a full version of SolidWorks.

NOTE: It is important that you know that the perpetual licenses do not necessarily require you to pay annual maintenance, this maintenance is used to obtain support and updates. You should also know that there is a third type of license, which is known as SolidWorks SNL (Perpetual Floating License), this is a type of perpetual license where multiple users can use it, but not at the same time.

Next, we will show you a table comparing the 3 types of packages.

StandardProfessionalPremium
3D part & assembly modellingIncludes everything in Standard PLUSIncluye todo de Professional más los siguientes PLUS:
2D drawings & detailingPhotoView 360 & Visualize StandardStructural part & assembly analysis
Large assembly designsToolboxMotion analysis
Advanced surface designDesign for cost & cost estimationOffloaded simulation
Sheetmetal designECAD/MCAD collaboration (CircuitWorks)Advanced surface flattening
ConfigurationsTask scheduler & batch processingRouting: (pipes/tubes/electrical/wiring)
InterfacesDesign checkerStress hot spots
Animations & visualizationPDM Standard3D Interconnect: CATIA
eDrawingseDrawings Professional
Software XpressTolerance stack-up analysis
FeatureWorksReverse Engineering (scan to 3D)
SolidWorks Utilities
Magnetic Mates & Mate Controller
3D Interconnect
3D printing
Treehouse
Information found at engineeringclicks.com

The Machine Bros Recommendation

SolidWorks is a more specialized CAD software focused on mechanical design. If you are willing to pay the price of the software and are interested in a powerful tool for mechanical design, this software would be good for you.

As you may have appreciated, SolidWorks does not really offer an easy-to-access “free” option like Fusion 360. One of the advantages of SolidWorks is that it can perform CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) analysis, which is useful for performing a dynamic analysis of fluids. In Fusion 360 you must use other CFD software to perform this type of analysis, while SolidWorks in its Premium package has this tool.

The general experience of users is that Fusion 360 is somewhat more intuitive than SolidWorks (but this also does not mean that SolidWorks is not intuitive as well).

In summary, if you are looking for a CAD software focused on mechanical design and you are willing to pay for the software costs (since we know that the commercial version is not so accessible), SolidWorks could become your best option, plus you will have very powerful tools for structural analysis and CFD analysis. Additionally, SolidWorks performs better in managing large-scale assemblies.

But if you are not looking for something so specialized and your budget is not very high, the truth is that with Fusion 360 you will be able to carry out your projects. Fusion 360 is also a very powerful CAD tool. Another point that you should take into consideration is that SolidWorks is only compatible with Windows, while Fusion 360 is compatible with Windows and macOS.

SolidWorks interface
SolidWorks interface
Static Analysis in SolidWorks
Static Analysis in SolidWorks

CAD Software for Non-Specialized Design

Tinkercad (Free Software)

Tinkercad

Tinkercad is an online CAD software, which seeks to provide the possibility of modeling in the simplest possible way.

This software bases its operation on using predefined and primitive figures to create more complex models. This design mode is known as “Constructive solid geometry” (CSG).

Explanatory image of the Constructive Solid Geometry (CSG)
Explanatory image of the Constructive Solid Geometry (CSG)

The Machine Bros Recommendation

If what you need is a CAD software that allows you to design in 3D in a simpler way, this online tool could be your best option.

Tinkercad is very intuitive, ideal for beginner users, or for users who do not want to specialize in artistic or engineering design. It is an online tool, which is excellent (unless you don’t have an internet connection) because you don’t have to download the application, and it is also available in different languages.

Another of the strengths of this CAD is that it is free. If you are a beginner, looking to design occasionally, or don’t want to specialize in artistic or engineering design, we highly recommend that you look at this excellent CAD software.

Tinkercad Interface
Tinkercad Interface
Tinkercad Workflow
Tinkercad Workflow
Model created in Tinkercad
Model created in Tinkercad

Phase 2: Software to Repair or Modify the 3D Model (Optional)

This phase is optional, if you design the 3D model optimized to be 3D printed, it is not necessary to resort to other software to repair or modify the model.

Generally, we will have to resort to this type of software when we download third-party models on the internet, if the model is not optimized to be 3D printed, we will have to repair or modify it.

For example, if a 3D model is very large with this type of software, we could cut it to print it in parts. These types of modifications could well be made in CAD software like Blender and Zbrush, but if you are a user who works with other types of CAD such as Fusion 360, SolidWorks or Tinkercad, it will be more difficult for you to modify the STL of the model (remember that STL is the file type commonly used in 3D printing).

Learning to handle software like Blender and Zbrush that are more specialized in artistic and graphic design will take time, and it doesn’t make much sense to learn to handle the specialized CAD software just to make these small modifications.

For this reason, for this type of simpler work focused on repairing, modifying, and optimizing a model to make it more “printable”, we recommend the Meshmixer software.

Meshmixer (Free Software)

Best software for 3D Printing

Meshmixer es considerado por muchos como la “navaja suiza para los modelos STL”, este software permite modificar, reparar, cortar, editar, combinar, limpiar, escalar, entre otra multitud de funciones tus modelos 3D.

Even Autodesk defines its software as “free software to do amazing things”. MeshMixer focuses on surface modeling, specifically on a triangular mesh.

The Machine Bros Recommendation

If you need to cut a 3D model, scale it, make small modifications to it Meshmixer is an excellent solution, this software is ideal for making those small adjustments that will make your 3D model more printable.

Even Meshmixer has a tool that automatically searches for possible flaws that your STL could have and then repairs them automatically.

Although you could do this in CAD software such as Zbrush and Blender, handling each software requires a little more practice, so if you are using CAD software such as SolidWorks, Fusion 360 or Tinkercad, you will find Meshmixer a great ally to repair and modify those models that you download on the internet.

If you want to know more about MeshMixer check out the article How to Fix 3D Models Using Meshmixer

Meshmixer Interface
Meshmixer Interface
Cutting a 3D model in Meshmixer to be able to print it easily, you can see how we print this model in the following link "3D Print - The Mask"
Cutting a 3D model in Meshmixer to be able to print it easily, you can see how we print this model in the following link “3D Print – The Mask

Phase 3: Software for 3D Printing Configuration (Slicer)

These software are known as Slicer, they are responsible for generating a file known as Gcode which tells the printer what actions to execute to print your digital model in 3D. That is, to this type of software we load a 3D model (generally in STL format), then in the Slicer, we configure the necessary parameters to 3D print our model, we can add supports (in this article we explain what are the supports What is 3D printing? ), You can scale the 3D model, rotate it and position it in the way you see fit, configure whether you will print it completely solid, or maybe to save material you can configure it so that internally the model is hollow with fill patterns.

In summary, in these programs what we do is configure how we will 3D print our model. Next, we will name you two of the most popular software that are used to execute this task, with both software you will be able to fully configure your 3D prints. They are very similar, so first, we will name them and then we will explain the difference between them.

Cura (Paid and free software)

Cura Slicer

This software is open-source, it is from the same creators of Ultimaker printers. It is a very complete software, with a very large community that supports it.

Despite being a software developed by Ultimaker, it is compatible with other 3D printers. Cura has two versions, one free (the most popular), and another paid called “Ultimaker Essentials”.

Next, we will present you with a table that compares both options, said table is provided by the same Cura website.

PropertiesFree Ultimaker SoftwareUltimaker Essentials
Pre-configured print profiles
Advanced settings (over 400)
Security assessed
Packaged for deployment
Increased stability
Manage multiple printers
Remote printing and queue management
Organization access management
Keep printer control within your organization
Access online and sync with account
Verified Plugins
Only install plugins through Ultimaker Marketplace
Knowledge base
Advanced IT knowledge base
Direct Support
Ultimaker 3D Printing Academy
Table found at Ultimaker Cura
  • Cost: It has a free and a paid version called “Ultimaker Essentials”. The paid version is subdivided into three other purchase options (Light, Standard, Advanced). Below, we show a table that compares these 3 options and their respective prices.
Ultimaker EssentialsLightStandardAdvanced
User access management
Remote printing
Security features
Verified plugins
Associate courses
Multiple users
Professional courses
Advanced IT knowledgebase
Direct support
Faster support response
24-hour support
Price per year (USD), excluding taxes$300$720$3.600
Table found at Ultimaker Cura
Cura Interface
Cura Interface
Gcode preview in Cura
Gcode preview in Cura

Simplify3D (Paid Software)

Simplify3D

Simplify3D is another very popular Slicer software, this slicer unlike Cura is paid, but the principle is the same as any other Slicer. For this reason, later we will show you the main differences between these two software, Simplify3D and Cura, so that in this way you can define for yourself which one you think suits you best.

What Slicer to choose? The Machine Bros Recommendation

The main difference between Simplify3D and Cura, is that Cura has a free version. Simplify3D initially had quite a few differences compared to Cura, but currently, the differences are minor. Simplify3D is better at placing custom media, and Simplify3D allows you to customize the settings for certain layers, allowing for better control.

Simplify3D processes models faster than Cura, another advantage that Simplify3D has is that the simulation is somewhat better than its competition.

 Cura allows you to install plug-ins and Simplify3D does not. Among the plug-ins that Cura has, you can add the option of “custom media” and “layered configuration”, but Simplify3D performs these operations a little better. Cura has more constant updates than Simplify3D.

Which one should you choose? If you are starting in this world and you do not want to spend money then choose Cura, this is free, try it, if later you feel that you need other options, you do not feel satisfied with Cura, or you want to try another interface and other software, try with Simplify3D, although you must be aware that this will represent an expense.

SlicerCuraSimplify3D
Better by placing custom supports(Requires plug-in)
Better by layering(Requires plug-in)
Best Gcode simulation
Faster Gcode generation 
Faster updates
Accepts plug-insDoes not support
CostFree$149USD

As you can see in the table above, these are the main differences between both Slicers. There are some things that Simplify3D executes a little better than Cura, there are others that in Cura do not come by default and you must resort to a plug-in.

Simplify3D costs $149U SD and Cura has a free version (which is the popular one, its paid version Ultimaker Essentials is not that popular). One of the main things that Cura does and Simplify3D cannot is its plug-in support.

Workflow in The Machine Bros

You are probably wondering what our workflow is and what software we use, as we are going to explain that to you. But before we start and explain what software we use, we want to clarify something for you, we did not make these choices precisely because one is better than the other, all the software that we name in this article are very complete, the software we choose was selected for a simple matter of preference, with these software we feel more comfortable working and they adapt better to our workflow.

In the following image, you can see what our workflow is from the moment we design something.

The Machine Bros
Software used in 3D Modeling
The Machine Bros logo 3D printed and painted; in the following image we show you the workflow used to arrive at this finished model
Workflow we normally apply at The Machine Bros when designing a new model
Workflow we normally apply at The Machine Bros when designing a new model

What would we do if we downloaded the model from the internet? Well, the workflow would be the same, only that we would not use SolidWorks, and if we needed to make any modifications to the STL we would use the Meshmixer for this purpose, and finally we use Simplify3D to configure the printing.

In the image that we present below, we show you an example of how our workflow would be when we download a model from the internet, in this example, we use a model of The Mask downloaded from malix3design.com.

In this example you will notice that we edit the model in Meshmixer to make it a little more printable, separating the hat from the bust. You can see the Time-lapse, the painting and the configuration that we use to print this model in the following link:

3D Print – The Mask

Software recommended in 3D printing
Workflow that we apply at The Machine Bros when we are downloading a model from the internet

Extra Software You Should Know

Octoprint

Software used in 3D printing

This software is commonly used to manage, monitor, and control several printers at the same time, it can also be used to work with a single printer.

They generally use Octoprint in conjunction with Raspberry Pi. This software allows you to remotely control your printers, it is also used a lot in conjunction with a plug-in called Octolapse, which is used to make time-lapse of your 3D prints.

  • Cost: Free
  • Platforms: Windows, macOS and Linux
  • Language: Multilanguage (Downloading language packs)
  • Website: https://octoprint.org/
Monitoring a 3D print with Octoprint
Monitoring a 3D print with Octoprint

Conclusions

As you may have observed, there are different software that you can choose. Which one is better? Well, all the ones that we show you in this article are very popular and complete, with respect to CAD software you should choose one based on the way you work, it depends on whether you plan to make artistic, engineering or less specialized designs.

As CAD software, we choose SolidWorks simply because there are engineers in our team, and this CAD software specializes in mechanical design, and we already handled this CAD since college.

As Slicer we chose Simplify3D because when we started in this world of 3D printing this software had more functions than Cura, currently both have very similar tools. There are things that even Simplify3D does a little better than Cura, and we are already specialized enough in Simplify3D to switch to Cura now.

Regarding Meshmixer, it is the best option to edit STL if you don’t handle CAD software of a more artistic and sculpting level such as Blender and Zbrush, if in your case you handle either of these two software it is likely that you don’t need to use Meshmixer, but it’s good to keep it under the radar.

Choosing between these software that we mention is an already very personal decision. Let’s take for example two people with cars, vehicles have their function, to take you from point “A” to point “B”, but there are people who like to drive faster than others, some feel more comfortable driving slower. Something similar happens with these software, it is a matter of choosing the one that best suits your needs, with which interface you feel comfortable, which meets your expectations, obviously, your disposition and ability to invest money in software will also greatly influence your final decision.

What we can guarantee you is that these software that we mention in this article are popular enough, so that they have a large community of users who can help you in forums and you will find all type of tutorials. So, we hope that with our article it can be easier for you to choose the software that you will use in your workflow.

Are there more software? Yes, but we do nothing overwhelming you with an article of 20,000 words naming all the existing software, you would have ended up more confused and indecisive than when you entered to read us. Our idea is to provide you with solutions, for that reason you can trust that these software that we mention are one of the most popular used in the world of 3D printing, they are powerful and complete tools, and one of the most important things about the software that we mentioned is that they have a large community, which allows you to make use of collective intelligence.

Cheers

See you soon Machine Bros!

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