Best 3D Modeling Software for 3D Printing

Looking for the best 3D modeling software for 3D printing? See the top recommendations for both beginners and experts.

The process of creating a part on a 3D printer can be divided in three stages:

  • Creating / finding a model
  • Cutting a model in a slicer
  • Printing on a 3D printer

Each stage has to be worked on in a different program.

3D models are created in special programs known as CAD (computer aided design) software. From there, the models are taken to the slicer, where they are “cut” into steps that the printer will execute sequentially. The resulting list of steps (commands) is either placed on a memory card and run from the printer itself, or sent to the printer via a wired/wireless connection. As a result of all these actions, we get a product.

Therefore, it is wrong to look for a “3D printer program”. What you need to be looking for is a modeling program and a slicer.

Best 3D Modeling Software

3D modeling programs can be divided into two large groups:

  • Artistic modeling software
  • Programs for creating engineering products (often CAD or CAD-Automated Design System)

Obviously, when creating a drawing, an engineer needs precise tools: a ruler, pencil, compasses, etc. But the artist needs more free tools: brushes, pastels, palette and others.

Programs are divided according to the same principle. For instance, engineering programs include all the tools that allow you to accurately specify the characteristics of each element of a part. On the other hand art programs include tools that give smoother shapes so that the model looks as natural as possible.

Of course, you can model technical products in art programs. However, this will be inconvenient, difficult and inaccurate. Therefore, it is very important to determine why you need a simulation program.

Tip: It is best to study one or two programs at a professional level, as this will allow you to create complex models. However, you should also know the basics in other programs, since a wide range of knowledge allows you to more flexibly choose the ideal approach to creating models.

Types of 3D Printing Files

Before you start creating 3D models to be printed, you need to know the types of files that can be printed.

First, create a model. You can save the model in the format of the program itself (for example, KOMPAS-3D files have the .m3d extension, and for 3DS Max, the file extension will be .MAX). Such files can only be opened in the programs in which they were created.

However,  we need a universal format – STL. All programs can save models in this format. In STL format, the polygons that create the model are maintained.

All files can be divided into 3 categories:

  • Files that store polygonal information (STL, OBJ, etc.). These files are analogs of a raster image. You can increase the quality of 3D models in this format by anti-aliasing. However, when you do so, small details will be lost and the file weight will greatly increase.
  • Files that store steps for creating a part (STEP, STP, etc.). Here, you can draw an analog with vector images. Each element is specified either using simple point connections (for example, as in a cube or pyramid), or using formulas (any curves, rounded objects). Models in this format can be scaled without loss of quality, while maintaining a relatively small file size.
  • Utility files that store steps for a 3D printer (GCODE, GCOD). These files store commands that the printer executes and, in some cases, comments (for example, with what settings the model was cut). Some slicers can simulate the movements of the printer, thereby rendering the model. However, it is impossible to convert a file from this format to a full-fledged model.

Be careful! If you are not sure that the GCODE file is intended for your printer, do not start printing it because the print area is different for each printer. On third-party firmware, there is no limitation on the maximum distance of movement. Some commands from third-party software may lead to incorrect operation of the control board. If the printer tries to push the print head out of the printable area many times, it can harm itself!

If the files are in one category, then they can be easily transferred from one format to another with almost no data loss. The formats indicated in brackets are a kind of “transits”. For example, Inventor has its own file format – itp, while Fusion 360 has its own – f3d. But if you save the file in Inventor in general STEP format, then it can be opened in any engineering program, and then saved in the format of that program.

Best Free 3D Modeling Software

Free programs are usually either limited in functionality or created by enthusiasts. This is why they may have unpolished interfaces and many errors.

However, their functionality is enough to create simple models. In some cases, such programs can completely replace paid software.

1. Tinkercad

Tinkercad is not even a program but a website. You do not need to install  it on a computer. The website opens from any device that has access to the Internet. Therefore, without access to the Internet, you cannot download any model because each project is initially saved in the cloud. Also, you need to register to use the site.

Initially, the site was created for children. Therefore, each tool is intuitive. The program is suitable for modeling simple products, such as gaskets, bushings, adapters, covers, boxes, etc.

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Pros

  • Easy to learn
  • No need to install on PC
  • Access to models from any device

Cons

  • Inability to work without the Internet
  • Each individual project needs to be downloaded
  • Limited number of tools

FreeCAD

FreeCAD is designed for creating technical products, such as fasteners, bushings, hinges and more. Since this is an open source project, it is distributed free of charge. The program has all the necessary functionality for opening and editing files with the .step extension, which is a universal format for all engineering programs.

FreeCAD also allows you to use add-ons. The add-ons allow you to perform any actions in a fully automatic mode. For example, there is an addon that makes it easy to create different gears.

You can use this free 3D modeling program to create complex products, such as mechanisms, gearboxes, hinges, etc.

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Pros

  • Relatively easy to learn
  • Active community
  • Availability of addons
  • Multiple language support

Cons:

  • Buggy
  • Outdated interface
  • No add-on available for working with .STL files

OpenSCAD

OpenSCAD is closer to programming languages ​​than to modeling. With the program, each object or any action is specified in the form of a code. This allows you to create versatile models.

For example, let’s say you want to create a coin sorter. You can write a “model code” once and then create a huge number of variants of the model for different countries by changing just a few parameters.

This program is an open source project. Therefore, it is regularly updated.

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Pros

  • Works on weak PCs
  • Easy to create universal models
  • Easy to learn if you have programming experience

Cons:

  • Is a programming language
  • Difficulty in creating curved geometry

Meshmixer

Meshmixer is an entry-level art program for 3D modeling. This is one of the simplest tools for processing STL files and functions for recovering “broken” files.

With Meshmixer, you can conveniently cut the model into several parts, since it is possible to set the size of the printable area of ​​your printer. The software also has “tree supports” tool setting, which is also found in many slicers. But in Meshmixer, the setting can be flexibly configured and installed manually.

Despite the many functional tools available, this software is rather auxiliary, as there are more suitable programs for creating a model from scratch.

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Pros

  • A large number of tools for preparing a 3D model for printing
  • Complete autonomy
  • Support for many file formats

Cons

  • Limited functionality for creating 3D models
  • Some operations require a powerful PC

Blender

Blender is a completely free program with huge capabilities not only for creating models, but also for animation, rendering, simulations and much more. The software is mainly used by multipliers, but due to the large number of extensions, this program covers a huge range of tasks.

At first glance, Blender may seem overly complicated. However, the basic functionality can be mastered by anyone. New updates that improve performance and add new tools to the program are regularly released.

There is a large community of people using Blender to solve many problems.

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Commercial 3D Modeling Software

This category contains both programs for professionals and enterprises, as well as their simplified versions for home use. Many companies release their programs at a low price for home use. However, the software were originally intended only for businesses and were priced accordingly.

The common advantage of commercial 3D modeling programs is great functionality and ongoing support. For example, Autodesk Inventor was first released back in 1999 and is updated annually.

Here are the most popular commercial 3D modeling software.

Fusion 360

This product from Autodesk tried to combine several tasks at once: modeling, simulation and rendering. In many ways, it took over the functionality of the previously mentioned Inventor, but supplemented it with a simple interface.

Many tools in Fusion360 are similar to those found in Tinkercad. The software also allows you to edit STL files, but with a limited set of tools.

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The main feature of this program is cloud processing of data, such as simulations and renders. However, almost all functions can be performed offline on a PC. To process tasks in the cloud, you need to buy tokens, but when creating models, they are not needed.

While Fusion 360 has its own file format (f3d), all files are initially saved on Autodesk servers before they are finally saved to your computer.

There is a Fusion 360 version for schools and universities. However, to get the such a license, it is necessary for an educational institution to register and issue you a personal license.

Pros

  • Huge functionality
  • Works on weak PCs
  • There is a student version

Cons:

  • Part of the functionality is limited by the need for the Internet
  • High price

Price: from $60/m or $495/y

Netfabb

Netfabb is designed to prepare the model before slicing. It is similar in many ways to Meshmixer, but it lacks tools to create a model from scratch.

The distinguishing features are the ability to combine several models in STL format and the “repair” tool of the models. You need this program, even if you have another model editor or model repair tool built into the slicer.

In Netfabb, it is also very convenient to cut the model into several parts for printing separately.

At the moment, Netfabb functionality is built into Fusion 360 and is not officially supplied separately. However, the program can be found on third-party resources as a separate program.

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Pros

  • Large functionality of model repair
  • Convenient cutting into pieces
  • Easy to learn all the tools you need

Cons:

  • Expensive

Price: from $4,635/year (inclusive of Fusion 360)

KOMPAS-3D

Kompas-3D is professional 3D modeling software created by Russian developers for Russian enterprises. The progra has a huge functionality. There is a description for each function and explanatory animations for the main tools. There is also a huge base of standards and GOSTs built in.

The program is free for all students and does not require proof of documents. There is also a paid version of KOMPAS-3D HOME, which, although intended only for home use, has all the functionality of the “professional” version.

Because of this, and also because of the low price, this CAD system is the best choice as the first professional program for creating complex 3D models.

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Pros:

  • A large number of tools
  • Free student version available
  • Very low price

Minuses:

  • Need a relatively powerful PC
  • Difficult to master at a professional level

Price: from $1,490 for 1 year

SolidWorks

SolidWorks is one of the oldest programs on the market that has become the standard. If you learn how to work in SolidWorks, then you can work in any CAD system.

The program has a relatively simple interface and an average number of tools that will be enough even for professionals. However, since the program is designed for production, many functions will only interfere with work.

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Pros:

  • Easy to learn
  • Large community of people using SolidWorks
  • Large online communities for support

Minuses:

  • No version for private use
  • Cluttered interface

Price: Varies depending on license

Inventor

Inventors is the main program used in many enterprises. However, the software has a simple interface, which makes it is easy to learn. In many ways, the program is similar to SolidWorks both in functionality and in purpose.

The main distinguishing feature of this program is a large number of high-quality video tutorials and text courses. This software is taught at many universities around the world.

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Pros:

  • Large support communities available
  • A large number of training materials
  • Intuitive interface
  • Availability of a student version

Minuses:

  • No home version
  • Requires a powerful PC

Price: from $275/m or $2,190/y

SelfCAD

SelfCAD is one of the simplest program for technical modeling. The software is easy to learn as Tinkercad, but not for kids, but for professional 3D printing.

This program is not a CAD. Therefore, there is no editing history, which allows, for example, to modify sketches without entering the edit mode.

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You can download this program for free, but this version will have limited functionality. There are also paid versions with monthly payment or one-time purchase forever. Only the paid versions have the simplest slicer, but its functionality is extremely limited.

Pros:

  • Easy to learn
  • Intuitive interface
  • Availability of official training videos and articles

Minuses:

  • Small functionality
  • High cost

Price: From $ 14.99/m or $140/y

3DS Max

3DS Max is designed to create 3D models and render images. The program has a lot of functionality, but it is extremely difficult to master due to its complex interface.

Initially, 3DS Max was developed for 3D animation and video game studios. The software was initially designed for creating simple and free analogues. Therefore, it is not suitable for creating 3D models for printing on a 3D printer. However, nothing prevents you from doing this.

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Pros:

  • Huge functionality
  • The ability to create renders

Minuses:

  • A powerful PC is needed (a lot of RAM is especially important)
  • High price
  • Difficult to learn

Price: from $215/m or $1700/y

Conclusion

After considering all the popular programs, we can single out the obvious favorites:

For beginners in 3D printing, Tinkercad can be safely called the best 3D modeling program. This software combines simplicity and the necessary functionality.

The best professional grade 3D modeling programs are Fusion 360 and Blende. These programs have a huge number of tools and a large community that makes it easy to find tutorials and guides.

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