So I recently was allowed to play with a 3D printer for the first time (fashionably late to the party, I know), and I ran into a little bit of a problem, what modeling software should I use. I was going to do a once off design but for my employer so It needs to be free, actually free, not this "free until you try to print something" rubbish.


What I want to make is a small enclosure for a proof of concept product I created. I have no experience with big commercial CAD packages like Pro Engineer or Solid Works. My entire modeling experience is that I used Sketch up and blender for a while about 5 years ago.


A quick googling brought me to a list of 3D software, from there I grabbed 4 most likely candidates from the free list:



First ImpressionHaving used SketchUp before and loving it's simplicity and power I was excited to download it and get started, see what's changed over the few years since I looked at  it last.A browser based CAD is quite an eye opener, the powerful design computers of only a few years ago now replicated in a FireFox tab with no install. I was worried that our slow internet would cause trouble for something like this.Another browser based CAD this one purposefully created for use with 3D printers.This definitely looks like the most professional option. "Under heavy development" warning on the download page tells me that if I find a bug I should let them know.
getting startedOff to the down load page, "I plan to use SketchUp for" oh dear, as that statement suggests it is not really fully free. TKO you are out.With the tutorials all watched, I an ready to start building my box but it soon becomes apparent that: either the tutorials did not give me the tools to get up and running quickly, or the design philosophy does not match up with the way I think. Either way after about an hour of painfully placing blocks and still not getting that "oh that's how they want me to do it" feeling I decided to give the next option a try. Enter Tinker CAD, the tutorials are interactive so I had a feel for every majour function before starting. I quickly drew up my enclosure, in fact from opening the web page to copying it to the SD card took less time than the actual printing.It was a particularly bad internet day for us and so by the time this had finished it 228 mb download I was already very happy with the Tinker CAD progress I had made, so unfortunately free CAD was not given a fair trial.
The winnerAs far as small printed parts go I do not thing that you can beat this program, I was staggered by how easy it was to pick up and get every thing I needed done, including counter sinks for screws. The only problem I had was that there is only one option for text font, that is it, I was left wanting nothing else.
RetrospectI was really bleak that I could not use SketchUp, I know there is a free trial of the pro version but still not for me.I was very disappointed in 3D tin the geometry transformations in the tutorial look very powerful but it feels like they have focused too much on the complex functions and not enough on the simple ones, or maybe the tutorials just need a revamp.YES, I like it a lot, for larger projects (though these would probably be more complex that your average printer can handle) I am not sure how well it will scale, but I would definitely give it a fare shot at them.After the smoke cleared ( yes the post-coital cigarette of TinkerCAD) I installed and opened FreeCAD and was overwhelmed with the functionality. After a few deep breaths I dived in and it is really amazing incredibly powerful and well thought out. For this enclosure project I feel like it would have taken longer to get the model out but only because there is more to learn here. It is really like bringing a tank to a fist fight, sure its difficult to shoot the bugger as he runs around you, but you will do a great deal better than a skinhead in a tank war.


So there it is if you are new to modeling and you want to do some 3D printing TinkerCAD is hard too beat. If you are comfortable with big CAD packages or you want to learn to model something complex but you do not want to pay for it FreeCAD is a great place to start, there are active forums with helpful users to get you unstuck or show you quicker ways to get something done.


That all Folks.