Monday, 19 June 2017

Getting Started with 3D Modeling and Printing for Kids - My Tool Chain

I've been working with 3D modeling and children for a few years and recently the tools have really come together to give a fantastic tool-chain for beginners to go from an idea to a 3D printed model. There are lots of tools out there, but I've now got a core tool-chain and workflow that I use with kids for most projects.

There are lots of other awesome tools out there that I use for specific tasks, but the ones in this post are my go to tools.


BlocksCAD is a browser-based tool that allows you to code 3D models using blocks. Coding? Isn't that harder than a graphical modeling tool where you work with geometric shapes? In my experience coding 3D models works really well with kids who have learned a block based language such as Scratch.

It's easier to be precise when working with code and it's really easy to change models and even create parameterised models. 

I should also mention BeetleBlocks which is another block-based tool for 3D coding which has some great features. I also use BeetleBlocks for some projects. It has more capability and is more suited to some projects. 

But for straight-up 3D modelling projects for 3D printing, BlocksCAD is a great place to start.

BlocksCAD can export .STL files which are used for 3D printing. 

Here are a few projects that I've made with BlocksCAD:

Microsoft 3D Builder

Microsoft 3D Builder is a 3D modelling tool that's included with Windows 10. If you want to do graphical modelling with drag and drop 3D shapes then it's a pretty good place to start. It offers an alternative way of creating 3D models without coding which is useful for some projects.

It also has some features that are useful when working with BlocksCAD. 3D Builder can import .STL files, fix issues and send them to selected 3D printers. 

3D Builder does a great job of automatically fixing up 3D models from BlocksCAD so that they are ready to send to a printer. (We've had mixed results from getting the tool for our 3D printer to do this.)

Microsoft 3D Builder has support for printing directly to specific 3D printers including several from XYZ Printing, the printrbot Simple, Play and Plus, the Cube 3D and the Dremel 3D Idea Builder.

When you use one of these printers you can just click print from 3D Builder and print in a similar way to printing to a regular printer. You don't have to open the software that comes with your 3D printer.

XYZ Printing da Vinci Mini 3D Printer

For working with children and young people I use the XYZ Printing da Vinci Mini 3D Printer. It's not the best 3D printer you can buy but it is one of the cheapest and easiest to use. 

It's a good place to start for young people as well as parents and educators. Supervision is necessary for children but they will be able to send models to print and watch what happens.

The da Vinci Mini can only use specific filaments from the manufacturer but this means that it gets reasonable results cheaply. The filament itself isn't too expensive. 

I wouldn't want to suggest that this is a perfect 3D printer, there are models that cost a lot more out there and lots of them are better. Expect some failed prints and some experimenting to get prints to stick to the bed well (avoid drafts and use a glue stick.) But for a cheap printer to get started and experience the end to end process it does the job pretty well. We've printed some really good quality prints with this printer including complex models with movement that print as one model. 

This isn't a fast 3D printer either. This means that it's important to set expectations on what can be printed. At least it keeps the costs down as you can't use too much filament too quickly!

I just use the tools for the printer for loading and unloading filament and calibrating the printer. The integration with 3D Builder is really useful.

What to Code and Print

My advice is to stick to small things to start with! 3D printing is a fairly slow process and kids want results quickly. I've been working on projects that can be printed in 15-20 minutes such as badges, key rings, pendants, clips, board game pieces and small toys. 

Avoid complex models that need support material to print. 

Having instructions to follow works well for learning how BlocksCAD works. In my experience some kids just 'get it' really quickly and are soon working on their own projects. Others need to spend more time working through example projects. 

At home with parents or in a club with mentors available you can help kids work on their own projects if their ideas are ahead of their current abilities.


I've talked about 3D coding and 3D printing for children at a few events recently and thought it would be useful to document the tools that I'm working with. 

I've been using BlocksCAD with with my Code Club who have already worked with Scratch and other block-based editors and are aged 9-11. They have found 3D coding hard but rewarding. You can see their theoretical maths knowledge coming to life and clicking into place. The children who have played Minecraft tend to instantly get the concepts of working in 3D space with x, y and z coordinates, others have to work a little harder. 

I love the discussions that we've had. They really get the idea of being able to make custom objects quickly and cheaply. They've recently been looking at how to create a 3D coded and printed fidget spinner. 

Each week I give out a 3D printed 'star coder' badge to the person who has impressed the club leaders the most. I designed the first badge but now the children and developing the skills to develop their own badges.

Do try this at home, and school!

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