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3D printing; which free 3D modelling program to use

If you are looking for a 3D program to make or edit models for 3D printing, there are quite a few options available. In fact there are lots and lots of options, many with enthusiastic communities of users. So how do you go about choosing which one to use?

The first thing to say about this is; it depends what you want to do with you 3D program. Do you want to model organic shapes, like people, or animals or plants? Alternatively, are your designs more geometric in nature, with scale and precision involved? I have listed my top 3 choices below, with a short explanation of why on each program. To qualify for inclusion in this list, the software had to be free, truly cross platform (so available at least for Mac and PC), and have a sustainable future, with the resources to update and develop into the future.

 

i.Materialise, the online 3D printing service, has a survey of the top 25 programs here which is really helpful, produced using a range of criteria including social media popularity and search engine rankings. Interestingly, the two programs that top the list are both free, and are then followed by a pack of fairly high end professional 3d modelling programs used almost entirely by professionals due to their cost.

BlenderBlender1

There is no doubt that this hugely popular program is a great choice if your models are going to be organic shapes. Just take a look at some of the online communities dedicated to Blender and you can get some idea of its impressive capabilities. However, it has to be said that there is a bit of a steep learning curve ahead of you before you can use this software with ease, so be prepared for a significant time investment.

SketchUp

This program, which inside a decade has become the tool of choice for thousands of architects and designers worldwide, was viewed with some initial scepticism in the 3D printing world due to the fact that it can, if used incorrectly for this purpose, produce models with lots of errors when printed. However, it has rapidly become the second most popular 3D printing software out there. The fact that it is so user friendly has something to do with this, plus the huge established user base, and the largest library of free 3D models available anywhere. However, don't expect to easily model organic shapes with this program; its really good at buildings, furniture etc.

123D Designcool-robot-123d-design-small

This is a purpose made 3D modeller produced by AutoDesk, the publisher of AutoCAD, and to some extent combines some of the virtues of the previous 2 programs. In fact its part of a stable of programs from AutoDesk, including 123 Catch which produces 3D models from photos, which look to have a very promising future. If your models are not too complex and combine organic and precise shapes, then this is a pretty good bet.