Fusion 360 is a very popular modeling program used by engineers and professional designers, but with a little practice, it can be an excellent tool for hobbyists as well. This guide covers the basics to help you get started with 3D modeling.
Obtaining Fusion 360
Currently, Fusion 360 is free for hobbyists (those making less than 1,000 USD/year on designing and manufacturing work) for one year and for students for three years. If you are not eligible for either of these licenses but still want to learn the essentials before purchasing the full program, try out their free two-week trial.
Installation and setup is easy. Simply go to the Autodesk website, activate your account, and download the program. The installation wizard should only take a few minutes before the program is ready to use.
Once downloaded, launch Fusion 360 and log in to your Autodesk account. From here, you can begin familiarizing yourself with the interface and tools.
While Fusion 360 is outfitted with numerous tools geared toward professionals, the user interface is relatively simple. With a toolbar, browser, timeline, and navigation toolbox, it mirrors the layout of common photo manipulation programs that many people have used.
Fusion 360 is outfitted with six specialized workspaces, each of which includes tools that are optimized for different applications: design, render, animation, simulation, manufacture, and drawing.
The toolbar lays out the icons indicating the essential functions for generating and designing models. For each element, a drop-down arrow can be used to list all commands associated with that category. This toolbar is customizable, and commands can be rearranged and pinned.
The browser illustrates all image components, models, and planes within the work file. The browser tools allow you to easily rename items, open and rearrange folders, and toggle the visibility of models and plans using the light bulb.
The navigation toolbar includes tools for toggling display and movement settings, including panning, zooming, rotating, and switching to the grab tool to manipulate visibility by “hand” using the mouse.
The timeline is a key feature of this program, allowing you to visualize the process by which the current model has been developed.
In addition to these main menus, the program also has an application bar, similar to the menu bar in a word processor, which allows you to open, create, save, and access projects.
The complexity of the modeling process is definitely dependent on the complexity of your design, but the essential steps for generating a model remain mostly the same. For this guide, we are assuming that the model is relatively simple.
First, use the "Create Sketch" function to generate the outline of your design. This will open a 2D rendering page on which you can draw the basic shapes that comprise the model. In this 2D view, the sketch shapes can easily be altered by selecting "Sketch Dimensions," which allows for quick resizing to specific parameters. To exit sketch mode, simply click "Stop Sketch" on the toolbar.
To start bringing your model to life, you will have to generate a 3D object from the 2D sketch. The easiest way to do this is to press "Extrude" on the toolbar, which will open a menu showing multiple parameters for the extrusion, including the offset, direction, extent, distance, and angle.
The basic operation setting for generating new 3D objects is “New Body,” but other operations such as “Join” or “Intersect” can be used for more complex shapes. Playing around with these tools and using the program like a sketch pad is the best way to figure out which operations work best for the types of models you anticipate working with.
To generate more organic or smooth shapes, you can use the “Fillet” under the “Modify” menu command to add curves of a specified radius to blocky shapes. After the final touches have been incorporated, saving and exporting your model is very simple.
Like most programs, Ctrl/Cmd+s or the save function in the menu bar can be used to save models. Fusion 360 saves all models to a cloud, allowing for easy access from anywhere from their website. To ensure that your model can be used for 3D printing, save it using the “Save as STL” function. You can also select specific components to save individually as STL files if you are breaking up larger models into smaller prints.
Once you have the STL file, your designed model can function like any other STL file. Simply prepare it in your slicer or send it to your printer to run a test print.
Key 3D printing tools
Below, we go over some of the most useful tools for 3D print modeling.
The surface tools allow users to easily repair and modify models for 3D printing. Similar to the extrusion feature noted earlier, these tools can be applied to modify the 3D shape of the sketch and stitch together surfaces to ensure clean prints.
The form tools allow users to sculpt organic shapes in a specified workspace. If you have some design experience or are willing to learn, these tools are great for more complex and natural forms, such as human models or artistic prints.
The event simulation feature is a unique tool that allows users to view how the printed model will behave under different loads and stresses. This is a particularly useful tool for simulating tests on functional prints, such as clamps, clips, and hooks.
In the Design workspace, the “Make” function opens a menu that is geared toward 3D print design, allowing for quick and easy modifications and optimizations for 3D printing.
This menu includes “Preview Mesh,” which shows the model mesh and highlights changes that affect it, and “Refinement,” which changes the number of triangles used to generate the model, thus changing its resolution and structural characteristics.
Instead of exporting the model as an STL file, users can link their preferred 3D print utility, such as Meshmixer, to the program and export the model directly to the utility.
Modeling considerations for 3D printing
Fusion 360 makes it easy to get started with complex modeling with just a bit of practice. Still, there are several key elements of 3D print design to keep in mind when working on your first DIY models.
Whether you are designing models for SLA or FDM printing, you have to take care that your model parameters, including wall thickness and infill, are sufficiently high to provide structural integrity while balancing print time and material costs. It is always recommended to look into existing models printed using your printer type and intended materials to get a better idea of the limits you should be working within to avoid wasting time and energy on designing models that will not print.
Supports and overhangs
If you have modified models in a slicer or similar program before, you are likely familiar with the many ways in which overhangs and supports can be designed and added to prints. When designing models from scratch, it is important to consider how the model will print and whether it will require additional support. As you familiarize yourself with Fusion 360’s modeling tools, it may be a good idea to design a few simple models, export them, and play around with the models in your slicer to determine the optimal orientation and structures for various models. Once you are more comfortable with these elements, it will be easier to design models in the future that do not require significant external support or re-working prior to printing.
Warping and strength
All functional prints will be subject to some level of stress, as will many wearable prints. Depending on your intended use of the model, we recommend learning more about structural design features such as ribs or different infill patterns and incorporating these at the design stage rather than trying to modify models after the fact.