Computer-aided Design (CAD) Software to Use For 3D Printing

Post in News by Marketing Team on 20th July 2018

CAD software 3D printing

CAD Software to Use For 3D Printing

3D design is often one of the least talked about aspects of 3D printing, but is one of the most important. Before you can print out any object with a 3D printer, it first needs to be designed. Using computer-aided design (CAD) software, students can design any type of 3D object they want, and then create that object using the printer.

3D Design Program Categories

There are many 3D design programs out there, and each offers its own approach to the 3D design process. According to the MakerBot Educator’s Guidebook, these design programs generally fall into three major categories.

Solid Modeling

This type of program is used for creating 3D models with real-world applications, including making functional parts. Solid modeling gives users the ability to add and subtract different objects or assemble individual parts together to form entirely new objects and complex assemblies. Solid modeling is useful for creating mechanical structures with dimension that simulate real-world conditions. It also has the added benefit of saving parameters as you work. This allows users to alter certain dimensions of their model without having to start over.

Digital Sculpting

Digital sculpting gives users the ability to simulate classic sculpting. Digital sculpting programs provide a simulated ball of clay and virtual tools that mimic physical sculpting tools. Designers then use these tools to “sculpt” objects with complex details. This type of modeling will often require the use of specialized hardware, such as a drawing tablet. Models can be modified at any point in the design process, which allows the designer to carefully examine each shape to create a more successful design.

Polygon Modeling

Polygon modeling is an advanced approach to modeling objects by defining their characteristics using polygons. This type of modeling gives users the ability to control the mesh, faces, vertices, and edges of a model. A polygon is a shape with at least 3 vertices (or sides in a 3D space). When a polygon exists by itself, it is usually referred to as a face. When a group of polygons are connected via shared vertices, this is referred to as a mesh, and this is what polygon modeling software allows you to control. It also allows for the creation of highly detailed and intricate 3D models and has real-world applications in industries such as film, gaming, and animation.

Recommended (and free!) 3D Design Programs

If you’re just getting started with 3D design, we recommend starting out with solid modeling. Then, once you and your students are comfortable with the design process, you can move on to digital sculpting. With that in mind, below are our recommendations for free 3D design programs to get started with.

Tinkercad (Solid Modeling)

Tinkercad is a free, web-based, Chromebook-compatible 3D design tool where students can create and manipulate their own objects. With tools for beginners and experienced designers alike, your students can use their creativity to tackle design challenges. Tinkercad creates 3D objects by allowing users to insert shapes and adjust or combine those shapes to create 3D models. Tinkercad also features a variety of tools, such as a ruler, to input exact dimensions. This feature makes it an easy program to use even with no design experience.

3D Slash (Digital Sculpting)

Inspired by Minecraft, 3D Slash is one of the easiest creation tools and a great program for introducing students to the world of 3D design. 3D Slash has users start with a 3D cube (cuboid), and then use virtual tools with functions similar to physical tools (such as a hammer, chisel, and brush) to manipulate the cube into the 3D object they want to create.

Sculptris (Digital Sculpting)

Recommended for beginners because of its intuitive user interface, Sculptris provides a fun and engaging way to start off with digital sculpting. It provides an excellent opportunity to explore 3D design and is easy to learn, even for users with no design experience. Sculptris can be used to create complex models of animals, movie, or TV characters, as well as replicas of ancient artifacts. However, Sculptris does not allow users to define measurements or dimensions for objects, so anything designed in the software will need to be sized in another design program.

Sketchup (Solid Modeling)

SketchUp is 3D modeling software that’s easy to learn and incredibly fun to use. It’s a great program for those looking to design and print architecture models as it provides an easy way for users to create accurate, geometric forms. Sketchup allows users to virtually draw lines and shapes to create objects with specific dimensions in mind. It then allows you to push, pull, stretch, copy, rotate, and paint those objects to create any 3D object you want. SketchUp Free is the simplest, easiest-to-use 3D modeler around. Schools that utilize Google Classroom can also download Sketchup for Schools, which is the core SketchUp software now available in a web browser for any school signed up with G Suite for Education.

More 3D Printing Resources


We’ve mentioned Thingiverse before, but we can’t get enough of this great 3D printing resource! Created by MakerBot, Thingiverse is the largest 3D printing community in the world, with over a million 3D printable designs that have been created by the vast Thingiverse community. In addition, Thingiverse Education provides over 300 free lessons using 3D design and printing for a variety of grade levels and subjects.

Online Professional Development Courses in 3D Design

If you would like to learn more about 3D design, check out our online PD courses on teaching with Tinkercad and 3D Slash.

  • Teaching with Tinkercad: In this 45-minute interactive session, you will learn how to get students up and running with this 3D design application, and explore the built-in lessons available for educators.
  • CAD Software: 3D Slash: This 30-minute interactive session will provide an overview of what CAD software is, how it works, and get you started with 3D Slash for your classroom 3D printing.

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