Model Sources & 3D Printer Software
Just as there is a wide variety of 3D printers, there is also a wide variety of software you can use to create and print your ideas. There are even libraries of free-to-use items ready for you to print.
Concept To Finished Item
There are 3 steps to take your idea from concept to finished item. For each step, there are free or open source options available.
The first step is creating or downloading an .stl file of the item to be printed. You can download a wide range of "pre-built" items from sites like Thingiverse. Or you can create your own items using simple (and not so simple) Computer Aided Design (CAD) programs or web sites. The goal is to end up with a "stereo lithography" – or .stl – file that describes the item(s) to be printed.
The next step is to convert the .stl file into commands (gCode) your 3D printer will understand. This conversion program is called a "slicer". It converts your design into a set of slices or layers and assembles the appropriate commands for your 3D printer. Your .stl file is converted into a .gcode file.
The last step is sending this set of gCode commands to the printer, either using a memory card or over a USB cable or WiFi from your computer. Sometimes steps 2 and 3 are combined into a single program.
Your 3D printer's manufacturer will usually have recommendations on which program(s) to use to convert an .stl model file into a completed print -- and will usually provide appropriate configuration files to make things easy.
How to make a 3D print
This video gives you a quick look at the steps needed to take an .slt file (downloaded in this case) and turn it into a printed object using Repetier-Host.
- YouTube URL
Don't want to create your own .stl files? Looking for project ideas or see how other people tackled things?
Thingiverse is the go-to place for printed objects. Includes ready-to-print .stl files, OpenSCAD programs, and tutorials.
Use their search option to locate ideas on just about any subject in your curriculum, from music to art to archeology to physics.
In addition to Thingiverse, there a wide variety of places on the Internet with .stl files ready-to-print.
Autodesk's Tinkercad makes a great classroom tool for 3D modeling. It's free to use, runs within your web browser (so there's nothing to install), and is beginner friendly, with easy to understand tutorials and lots of instructional videos. Models are stored on the web site servers, so students can work on their projects at home or wherever, and still easily share them in the classroom. One caveat, students will need to register under their own email address with Autodesk or share a classroom wide registration.
Check out the Gallery section to see what this "simple" 3D modeling software can really do. Highly recommend as a first-step into creating your own designs.
Fusion 360, also from Autodesk, is a great step for students who have outgrown programs like Tinkercad. Where Tinkercad is like drag-and-drop, Fusion 360 allows you to model serious components and even whole machines, showing how the parts work together. This is a great program when designing components for things like robots or advanced maker space projects.
Like Tinkercad, it's free to use for students, educators and hobbyists. Unlike Tinkercad, this is a much more serious software product that you'll need to install on your computer.
David Wieland has put together an easy-to-follow set of tutorials for Fusion 360, hosted on YouTube.
Geared to those creating 3D printable models, it allows you and your students to be productive much faster than than the official tutorial series from Autodesk.
While not the easiest program to understand out-of-the-box, OpenSCAD is our webmaster's preferred program for creating .stl files.
With a simple to use "programming" language and extensive examples, OpenSCAD allows to to create items, tweak their design, and know that the final product will be printable.
The software is free and wildly used in the 3D Printing community.
Our webmaster created this K12IRC paper clip / bookmark to be given out at education conferences.
It's a good introduction to what you can do using OpenSCAD. In this case, allowing you to easily re-purpose the paper clip or change it's dimensions. Just replace the text in the .png image file with your text or a simple logo, and create customized swag for students or adults.
SketchUp Make, originally created by Google, is a fun and free 3D drawing & modeling tool. While they also have a paid version, this free version will give your students plenty of power to design and create. Sits somewhere between Tinkercad and Fusion 360, with more of an emphases on drawing than modeling.
Includes a list of the most widely used tools for creating 3D item .stl files.
Once you have your .stl 3D model file, you need to convert it into a .gcode file that the 3D printer can understand.
Cura is a very popular slicer program that will do just that and can even be used to control your 3D printer directly. While maintained by Ultimaker, there are configuration files for just about any 3D printer out there. It's free to download and use and is the recommended slicer and control program for many printers.
While it looks a little intimidating, Repetier-Host takes you thru the process of slicing and printing your .stl file 3D creations step-by-step. And it gives you a nice computer control panel to operate your 3D printer. It's free, with versions for both PC and Mac.
While not as popular these days as Cura, this is the program we use when we need to externally control our 3D printers.
Check with your printer manufacturer to see which programs they recommend.
For your first prints, rather than trying to create your own design, download some .stl files and try printing them.
And don't be afraid to ask for help. Most 3D printing enthusiasts will be glad to help you out.