This guide covers the essential 3D printing software tools for new hobbyists and everything you need to know about integrating them into your workflow.
3D printing is an incredible technology that can bring nearly any idea to life. However, learning how to translate a design from a quick sketch to a tabletop figurine can be difficult for beginners. There are a few types of software that every 3D printing enthusiast should have. While not all the software types included in this article are critical for printing, becoming familiar with all of them can help jumpstart the development of your design and printing skills.
Slicers, or slicing software, comprise the foundation of all 3D printing. Slicers are used to convert digital 3D models, which are typically available as meshes, into instructions that can be read and carried out by your printer. These instructions take the form of G-code, which functions as directional operations along which your printer extrudes filament.
To generate G-code, models are “sliced” into horizontal layers for sequential extrusion. Slicers also aid makers in creating internal structures, support, and printing paths for models. Most 3D printers come with their own slicers, but many makers have preferred slicers depending on what features are lacking from their printer’s original software. The following slicers are community favorites:
- Cura: Cura is a one of the most well-loved, powerful, free, open-source slicers, published by 3D printer manufacturer Ultimaker. Its simplicity and ease of use serve as a great introduction to myriad design settings that allow for a highly customizable and unique printing experience.
- Slic3r: Slic3r is another popular and free slicing tool that was designed by Alessandro Ranellucci and Joseph Lenox. Published in the RepRap era, Slic3r remains open source, supported by a huge and highly active community.
- Simplify3D: Simplify3D is a commercial slicing software preferred by 3D printing experts and professionals. Although it is not the most beginner-friendly slicer, it comes with outstanding features that make it worth the price, including advanced G-code editing and viewing and multi-part printing and tweaking.
Most 3D printing hobbyists start out with purchasing or downloading free .STL files online. While this is a great way to start, it’s very likely that you will find yourself wanting to tweak or fully customize some models. As such, 3D modeling software is a necessary tool for any 3D print maker’s arsenal. The following top free and paid programs are supported with community creations and tutorials that can help makers of all modeling skill levels develop their modeling toolset further for a variety of projects.
- OpenSCAD: OpenSCAD, published by Marius Kintel, is a unique, script-based 3D modeling software. Unlike most conventional modeling suites, OpenSCAD allows users to write code that informs the design of the digital model, facilitating full design freedom. This approach is definitely not for everyone, but it can provide a ridiculous scope of creative freedom for the skilled as well as brave beginners.
- Tinkercad: Autodesk’s well-loved browser program Tinkercad is a top modeling choice for beginners. While it lacks some of the more sophisticated design elements and settings expected of standalone or paid programs, Tinkercad is highly recommended for complete novices who want to learn the essentials of modeling before choosing a more robust tool.
- SketchUp Free: SketchUp Free is an easy-to-use program that is a bit more complex than Tinkercad while still being beginner-friendly. This program is used by all kinds of makers, from 3D printing beginners to woodworkers, giving it a wide community reach for troubleshooting, design support, and tutorials.
- FreeCAD: FreeCAD is an open-source CAD tool developed by several community members for the general public. This program follows a parametric design framework, meaning that users can create models by specifying parameters that can be modified later in the process, thus yielding more freedom and control over the design process. FreeCAD is also outfitted with Finite Element Analysis tools for engineering simulations, making it useful for a variety of applications.
- Blender: Another community-based favorite, Blender is a free yet professional, open-source 3D modeling tool suited for complex designs. As a design and mesh editing tool, it ranks among the most robust and complex, allowing for a huge scope of design freedom. Blender is somewhat advanced for 3D printing beginners, but it is a highly recommended program for those who have mastered the basics and want to learn how to exert more control over their prints.
- AutoCAD: AutoCAD by Autodesk is a well-established professional tool suite used in various design and engineering applications. This program is outfitted with various specialized toolsets tailored for architectural and engineering projects with a robust and streamlined design process. This program may not be the first investment for beginners, but for those who are consistently working with their own models or who make money using their printer, joining the giant and 30+ year community of AutoCAD users might just be the right move.
- SolidWorks: SolidWorks, is another industry program suited for engineering and manufacturing. Designed by Dassault Systems, this program includes cutting-edge design and simulation tools for professional designers.
- Fusion 360: Another parametric design tool, Fusion 360 is another Autodesk creation that features professional CAD, CAM, and simulation tools for various engineering applications. Fusion stands out because it is free for students, hobbyists, and start-ups, making it a great entry point into the world of professional design.
- ZBrush: Pixologic’s ZBrush is a digital sculpting and rendering tool specifically designed for professional product, film, and video game artists and designers. This program has a unique toolset that gives users full creative freedom in model design as if they’re sculpting their model to life.
Mesh repair software
Although not often considered a necessity, it’s almost guaranteed that 3D print makers will come across a broken or poorly designed mesh that simply will not print well. While some 3D modeling programs come with mesh tools, not all of these tools are beginner-friendly or best suited for the average print hobbyists. We recommend familiarizing yourself with at a mesh repair tool for quick fixes so that you don’t have to tinker with a design for hours until you can get it just right.
- Meshmixer: Meshmixer, also by Autodesk, is a free-to-use repair tool that takes the burden off of users by automatically analyzing, repairing, and modifying meshes, while providing several simple tools for print orientation and optimization.
- MeshLab: MeshLab is a free, open-source program that allows users to modify meshes and point clouds, which is a crucial tool for photogrammetry and facilitates easy mesh repair.
- Netfabb: Netfabb, yet another program by Autodesk, is a professional tool specially designed for additive manufacturing applications. This program is outfitted with a suite of powerful tools intended to repair and prep 3D files for printing, including automatic part packing, print task automation, and print simulations.
Print management tools
The tools discussed above are suitable for print makers of all experience levels and fields. For those who often work on several prints at a time or dive into heavy projects, whether personal or for a small business, print management software can help lighten the load considerably by outsourcing the print control and organization steps to a dedicated program. These tools typically include built-in 3D printer control and monitoring, slicing, and print releasing to streamline multiple printing processes.
- OctoPrint: OctoPrint, a Gina Häußge creation, is among the most popular print management tools available. With its web-based interface that runs on a Raspberry Pi connected to your 3D printer, it facilitates detailed printer control, monitoring, slicing, and wireless printing. If the vanilla program doesn’t quite suit your needs, there are numerous plugins that can be applied to fit your specific printing processes.
- PrintRun: PrintRun, designed and maintained by Kliment Yancev and Guillaume “iXce” Sequin, is a powerful print management tool that also features 3D printer control, slicing, and print release. The robust features and highly detailed control parameters available on this program make it unsuitable for beginners, but it can be a great option for those who work with their printer professionally.