3D printers are essentially Star Trek technologies brought to life. Being able to create an object on the screen and have it in your hands after a few hours is nothing short of a miracle, but the main thing is to find the software that allows your printer to embody your vision in plastic.
There are tons of options online for both free and paid 3D design software, but we’ve rounded up the best free options in an easy-to-scan list to help you find exactly what you need. You’ve already spent several hundred dollars on a 3D printer – no more spending on software.
Best Beginner Program: Tinkercad ( Website )
Tinkercad is an educational CAD tool that is ideal for both experienced designers and people creating their first models. There are many tutorials and videos on the software’s website that show you how to use Tinkercad.
When you are finished developing your project and are ready to print it, Tinkercad will automatically save the file as an STL file that 3D printers can read.
Another big advantage of Tinkercad is that it’s completely cloud-based, so you don’t have to worry about whether your hardware can handle software or not. You don’t need to download anything. Just register and log in to start designing your 3D model.
Best program for accuracy: FreeCAD ( Web )
If you are going to use a 3D printer to make replacement parts for something like a sewing machine, appliance, or tool, then you know the value of accurate measurements.
FreeCAD lets you create designs with enough precision so you can print replacements for small toys. You may not be able to create complex models with it, but FreeCAD is a great tool for repairing small parts or creating scale models.
The software can be downloaded for Windows, Apple and Linux. This is widely used software, but keep in mind that it is still in beta testing – according to the programmers, it is not ready for production use. Despite this warning, thousands of people use FreeCAD without any problems.
Best Polygon Modeling Program: Blender
Polygon modeling may sound daunting, but it is not as difficult as the name suggests. Polygon modeling is what most people think of when it comes to 3D modeling: creating shapes and objects in a 3D context. Blender is one of the most advanced tools for this kind of work. Blender handles all aspects of the creation process, from modeling to rendering.
Best of all, Blender is completely free and has a robust, active community that can answer any questions you might have. Blender is commonly used in universities as an educational tool, but designers and 3D artists use it to create massive, detailed worlds.
You can take the same depth level and apply it to 3D printer designs. This is perfect for those of you looking to make keychains or small figurines from video games or DND characters.
Best Architectural Modeling Program: SketchUp ( Web )
Most of the software on this list is for small standalone models, but SketchUp can be used to design much larger models. This is the software that many architects use to design house models. It is mostly manual work, which means it requires a higher level of skill to use than some of the other programs on this list.
The free version of SketchUp is completely cloud-based and will run on any operating system. However, more and more professional (and powerful) versions of the software are paid.
Try the free version and if you’re comfortable with it, consider replacing it with a version that gives you access to the tools you need, but even the free version of SketchUp is powerful enough to create complex incredible projects.
Find a 3D Printer
If you have a 3D printer, you can design and print whatever you want (if you spend enough time developing it!). However, this is a pretty good investment, even if you buy a beginner 3D printer The best 3D printers can cost several thousand dollars.
If you don’t have the money (or space) for a 3D printer, fear not. Just check your local library or workplace. You can often purchase a makerspaces membership and have access to all the equipment there.
Libraries and workplaces usually charge no more than a few dollars per print to use a 3D printer. And if your interest is not limited to wanting to see how a 3D printer works, here are some websites where you can find designs for free that you can grab and print on your local printer:
3D printing technology is really cool and it only gets better over time. In fact, some healthcare providers have started 3D printing limb prostheses. If you are interested in participating, just try one of the programs on this list and let your imagination guide you.