In this article we'll look at a selection of 3D modeling tools that are available. There's actually quite a lot of variety including browser based tools, tools for the iPad and text based tools. I've tried to include a good variety of ways to create a 3D model for printing, this certainly isn't an exhaustive list, but it includes my current favorites.
The software for most 3D printers works with a file format called STL and 3D modeling tools suitable for 3D printing will typically output this format.
Note that just because you can draw something and output it as an STL file that doesn't mean it's suitable for printing using an additive 3D printer which builds up objects in layers. You need to make sure that each part of the object will be well supported as it prints (there are ways to support overhanging parts of objects, but that's a more advanced topic.)
- TinkerCad is a browser based 3D modeling tool which is easy to learn. You use drag and drop to place objects on the screen and then edit them using techniques that you can learn through the included interactive tutorials.
It looked like TinkerCad would disappear for a while but it's now back and owned by AutoDesk.
Note that you need to sign up to create models (though you can access the tutorials) and children need to be 13 of over to have an account. TinkerCad are working towards a solution for younger kids.
Update: See our nametag keychain tutorial for Tinkercad.
- 3DTin is another online tool for 3D design. It's what we used to create our 3D printed ancient greek temple. It has lots of shapes to work with and an option to build using cubes.
You can try 3DTin out without logging in but will need to register to save models and this requires a Google, Twitter or Facebook account. Models created with the free version of 3DTin are placed in the public domain by default and are visible to others. I'd recommend that parents check the terms of the site and make sure they understand how it works.
- The PrintCraft MineCraft Server allows kids to create 3D models using cubes in the Minecraft game.
You need a copy of the Minecraft world creation game and then you connect to the Printcraft server and create your model there. You can download the STL file to print of have it printed by 3D print-on-demand service i.materialise.
This is a very cool way for kids to build 3D models. Of course you will be constrained to modeling with cubes so it doesn't work for everything, but its an excellent technique to have available.
- Pirate 3D's Smart Objects is another rather different tool. Smart Objects uses spline curves and rotational symmetry to create interesting 3D objects. If that sounds complicated, it really isn't. Imagine working with clay on a potters wheel.
There's a Smart Objects online demo where you can try the tool out and an android app is in beta testing.
Highly recommended. You can create some cool objects very quickly.
- Cubify Draw for iPad is a new app that allows you to draw 2D shapes and extrude them into 3D for printing.
It works with the 3DSystems Cube printer and is also able to email you an STL file to print on another printer.
This approach has major constraints but is a good way to get started and get a rapid result, especially for really young children and it works very well for some kids of object.
- Sketchup Make is a powerful 3D modeling tool which is a good next step for kids who have mastered the basics and are ready for something with more features.
Sketchup Make is free for non-commercial use and available to download for Windows and Mac.
Sketchup Make can be used for lots more than just modeling for 3D printing and is a good tool to learn.
- Open SCAD is a different style of 3D modeling tool, you create models programmatically using a textual language that allows you to create and position 3D objects. I think this makes a good introduction to text-based coding for kids. It visually shows you the output of your commands and is good for creating objects that can easily be defined mathematically but are fiddly to draw. If this sounds complicated, it's really not (though you can take it to advanced levels.)
- AutoDesk 123D Catch is an app that allows you to create a 3D model by taking photos of a physical object. This sounds easy, but actually it's quite advanced to turn a scanned object into a valid model that can be printed. But kids learn fast so definitely an interesting approach to try once they have mastered some of the other approaches.