A key driver of desktop 3D printing technology adoption over the last few years has been the proliferation of completely free 3D modelling tools that are, crucially, user-friendly and extremely high quality. Since these tools are such powerful enablers of 3D printing technology and, during meetings with customers, I often end up sharing my thoughts on the merits of various 3D modelling software tools anyway, I considered I should offer a short summary of tools I use personally and would recommend for use with any 3D printer.
Each tool listed here performs distinct tasks in the 3D modelling process so there’s no overlap of functions between them. The purpose of this list is purely to inform of the tools that I use personally, not to offer any kind of comparison. Some more advanced users may scoff at my 3D modelling arsenal, but I’d ask that they bear in mind my non-engineering background. Despite my novice experience and skills, I’ve found that the following tools work very well together to do pretty much anything I want to do – from designing high-precision mechanisms to personalising Xmas gifts. All of these software tools are free to use because, like most people, I don’t like spending money when I don’t have to.
1. 3D Builder
I use this tool from Microsoft all the time to edit 3D models as it has the cleanest, most user-friendly interface of any 3D modelling tool I’ve used. It looks and feels great, especially when I use it to demonstrate how easy it is to customise and personalise any one of the thousands of free 3D models available from online repositories such as Thingiverse or MyMiniFactory (the latter is integrated into Robox’s AutoMaker software). While 3D Builder is in its element when used to emboss text, logos and other images, it’s equally superb in other areas such as splitting and resizing large models into smaller parts.
2. 123D Design
This is another free tool that I use all the time, but for creating 3D models rather than editing them. 123D Design is made by Autodesk and, as a result, it’s clean, simple and easy to use with a range of features that satisfies virtually all of my modelling needs. While it lacks most of the advanced features found in 3D modelling software tools such as SolidWorks or Autodesk Inventor, it does boast a key feature not found in most expensive 3D modelling tools – the ability to save to the cloud.
I frequently recommend 123D Design since it’s completely free and offers versatile, powerful functionality with an interface suitable for novices and professionals alike. Its high quality is thanks to it being made by one of the best 3D software development companies in the world, which also happens to make the next 3D modelling tool on this list.
Meshmixer is my tool of choice for touching up 3D models. The thing I like most about Meshmixer is the way that models can be sculpted naturally by pulling and pushing on surfaces or cutting parts of a model away. Packed with a wide range of versatile, powerful features which perform extremely useful functions such as smoothing and distorting a surface or hollowing out a model, Autodesk’s Meshmixer is an essential tool in my box of freebies.
An important point to note is that Meshmixer is used to edit organic, rather than geometric, models. An organic model consists of natural, flowing curves and shapes whereas a geometric model is one that comprises perfect, uniform shapes that don’t often appear in nature. The model created in 123D Design above, for example, from geometric shapes such as rectangles, triangles and circles wouldn’t edit well in Meshmixer. However, models captured from 3D scans, such as the duck below, are perfect for editing with this tool, which brings me to yet another Autodesk product…
4. 123D Catch
The final free 3D modelling tool on this list is, without a doubt, the most accessible 3D scanning tool out there. Again, it’s completely free but, unlike the other software listed here, it’s designed to be used on a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet computer. 123D Catch is an extremely cost-effective (free!) and convenient alternative to dedicated handheld 3D scanning equipment, which starts at around £300 and typically looks like something airport security would get out if you set off a metal detector. I’ve used the app to scan people, objects, buildings, you name it. The app is easy to use and can produce good quality scans, which can be improved further and touched up using Meshmixer. The only drawback to this app is the length of time it takes for photos to be uploaded to Autodesk and processed. It can be a little frustrating – especially if you have poor mobile phone signal! – but I understand frustration to be a feature of all current handheld 3D scanning technologies to a greater or lesser extent.
I did consider adding a fifth 3D modelling tool to this list since 4 is an unusual number to end a list on, but since these four tools take up around 95% of my 3D modelling time I didn’t feel it was appropriate to add another. Tinkercad would most likely have been the fifth free tool , which you can see in action below:
The combined value of this small collection of tools is considerably more than the sum of its parts. When used together, these apps can transform any 3D printer from a novelty to magic. Although I’m currently experimenting with more heavy duty 3D modelling software such as SpaceClaim (I’ve received a free trial) and may end up adding more software to this list, for now I think I’ll be sticking with the free stuff.
Please note: CEL has no commercial ties with Autodesk. They just so happen to make a great suite of free 3D modelling tools.