So you’re interested in 3D printing but have no idea what it entails? Maybe you’ve looked into buying a 3D printer? Perhaps you have already purchased one and have no idea how to get started? Look no further than here as we cover the basics!
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What is 3d printing and how to get started?
You probably have a rough idea of what you intend on using a 3D printer for, but let’s get the obvious out of the way first. 3D printers are used to make solid 3D objects from design, originating from a digital file. This is achieved via what is called an additive process. Designs are created layer by layer using the chosen print material, and each of these layers is visible as a thin slice, horizontal, built up over some time until the object is complete. We’ll get to it a little later, but because of the way this process is performed, mistakes can be made, are going to be made, and will affect everyone that uses a 3D printer in the comfort of their own home or workshop. There are steps you can take to lessen the likelihood of this happening. There are also a few apps out there, all of which we shall cover later on.
Time to get designing
You start with the creation of your 3D model on your computer/mobile device. As an example, you might create a design using CAD and save it as a CAD file. You might use 3D modelling software or apps, and you might use a web app. You may even use a 3D scanner to replicate an object that already exists in the real world. Whichever way you choose has its positives and negatives, but it sufficed to say that the more equipment you need, the more expensive the process will be, as well as the quality of the print with some of the cheaper models.
This can all be a bit overwhelming when first starting, and if you’re a novice, you might want to start with a web-based app for your designs, something like Tinkercad would be ideal because of how user-friendly it is. We’ll cover some of the better apps that are out there later on.
I have my 3D model ready, what’s next?
When you have created your 3D model, it is time to prepare it to be made 3D printable.
The process is called slicing, which is essentially dividing a 3D model into hundreds or possibly even thousands of layers. Many programs out there online does this. Some of the apps we’ll go over later also cover this.
Once this has been completed, you will be ready to attempt a print. You’ll be able to transfer this to your printer depending on the options it has available, i.e. USB, SD or Wi-Fi. Once completed, the printer will perform the task layer by layer over some time.
What happens if it goes wrong?
Once your design is printed, you will either find that it has gone swimmingly, or you may find that if you haven’t ironed out all of the glitches, your print hasn’t strictly come out as prescribed. This can be frustrating, but it’s all part of the learning process.
If it has come out just as you wanted, you may need to sand it down with some fine grade sandpaper, and you may want to paint it, decorate it, you may want to keep it or sell it. Whatever the plan, patience and perseverance can undoubtedly reap the rewards in this ever-growing industry.
The Best Mobile Apps Out There For 3D printing
There are a few apps out there now for Android and iOS that allow you to view files, design and convert your designs from 2D to 3D files that are immediately printable. We live in a world that is frequently on the move, and so here are a few noteworthy apps that you may want to look into for all your 3D printing needs whilst on the go.
Top Android 3D Printing apps
The Thingiverse app is an excellent place to start on an Android device, especially if you require 3D printing inspiration or even if you want to upload something that you have recently created. You can also add it to your library and send it all to the MakerBot app for printing from your mobile device.
GCodeSimulator lets you view your 3D prints in a way that will give you accurate information about the way your 3D image will appear once complete, enabling you to iron out those small glitches that you might otherwise have missed. You can create a print simulation in real-time, which will develop over minutes or hours depending on how long the real print will take, or you can just fast forward this to observe the end product. GCodeInfo will even analyse your file and give you information regarding the number of layers and estimated print time.
OctoDroid can be used to monitor and manage all of your 3D printing tasks via a smartphone. It is designed to work in conjunction with OctoPrint, working on multiple 3D prints simultaneously.
ModelAN3DPro, if you’re after modelling 3D objects via your phone or tablet, ModelAN3DPro has a plethora of options, you can even import your own OBJ files. The app is compatible with most mobile devices and allows 3D native visualisation.
How much does 3D Printing cost?
If you are looking for an app that will calculate the length of your filament spool and the rough cost to print a project, then you’ll need something like The 3D Print Cost Calculator. Input the required data fields, e.g. Filament material, diameter, weight and length of the spool. Very handy if your printer does not do this for you via its software!
The cost of your 3D printer is a one off, altho be sure to consider if it needs any future repairs.
Top iOS 3D Printing Apps
eDrawing is a mobile 3D app viewer that has a few niche features included. The iOS version holds an advantage or two over its Android counterpart, including augmented reality. This allows you to view a 3D image placed in your surroundings via your mobile camera, and you could almost reach out and touch it!
123D Sculpt is an app by Autodesk, designed for iPad, and you can create/modify 3D projects, then upload them to Autodesk’s Cloud storage to print or share. There is also an Android version, but the iPad may be the way to go with this one.
MakerBot is an iOS app designed to be used with its make of 3D Printer. While this makes it less versatile than the other apps listed here, it may be the way to go if you have one of their printers. You can perform every stage of your print via your mobile device, and if you need to complete an image on the go, this app will do a poor job of this for you.
So, you’re a small business with multiple 3D printers. Bumblebee with BotQueue might be just what you need. You can print numerous jobs for various printers whenever and wherever you are. The drawback is that it does need to be installed on a computer before you can use the mobile features, and at present, your options are either Mac or Linex, with a Windows version reportedly not be too far away.
Modio is a 3D printing app for iOS, and it will allow you to create and also print action figures in 3D. However, this is pretty much where these apps begin and end. For this reason, the app does appear to be quite limited, but you can use this app to build things with moveable parts or parts that click together. This includes vehicles and all manner of robots, all poseable. Everything clicks together from the printed templates, and this allows you to customise as you go. Very handy if this is the sort of thing you are after.
Free 3D Printing Apps on Your Desktop
As you might already assume, free Windows 3D apps are few and far between. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a 3D printing app without dipping into your wallet. These days it isn’t even a one-off payment, thanks mainly to the subscription culture we have now for pretty much everything! There are, however, several web apps out there. They all pretty much focus on the modelling aspect, and they all have their very own unique advantages.
We’ve already covered Autodesk, 123D Design is a modelling web tool that enables you to put together projects from a series of shapes quickly. It supports most of the 3D printers out there, allowing you to design and then print. There’s a version available for iPad, Mac and PC.
3D Tin is a web app that also caters to the modellers out there. As it’s web-based, there is nothing to download, obviously excluding anything you create. It uses Chrome or Firefox to run, so you will need to use it via either one. Unfortunately, you do have to share what you have created in their Creative Commons, either that or pay for storage via the Cloud. It does, however, come with some good tutorials, so very good for a beginner to learn from regarding 3D design.
Parametric Parts is an open-source designing app, it gives you the ability to access other design parts, which you can use to build your very own design projects, so it’s one for the magpie out there.
Now for those with 2D sketches and no printer – Shapeways will allow you to upload your 2D sketch in black; you can then set the thickness on their website. They will print any design using whichever of their available materials you specify, ranging from metal, ceramics or sandstone.
So, that’s a few apps that are out there which you can give a try, but I think we should end with Tinkercad. Tinkercad is an online 3D design and printing app. Many designers and hobbyists already use them. It can be used to make anything from toys, home décor products, jewellery, design prototypes, and models.
You build from basic shapes/building blocks, or you can import your designs. Their app is so accessible that they claim that you do not even need any prior designing experience—one for everyone ranging from the novice to the pro, kids and grownups alike.