Getting Started with 3D Design


For the past three summers, SPLAT members have roadtripped their way through the rural parts of Idaho (which means we have a lot of places to choose from), showing off innovative technology, and starting conversations about the future of libraries. We just finished our 2015 Roadtrip through Eastern Idaho, and it was a bunch of fun 🙂

SPLAT Roadtrips originally featured e-readers and mobile devices, but this year we have expanded the scope of our technology to include tools associated with Makerspaces. We’ve dubbed our new set of technology the Idea Lab, and one of the tools in this set is a Printrbot 3D Printer. One of the questions we often received during our roadtrip was, “How does the 3D Printer know what to print?”

Simply put, a 3D Printer extrudes plastic, layer upon layer, to manufacture a complete 3D model. It does this based on a 3D Design that was generated using Computer Aided Design (CAD) technology. This 3D Design is a digital file, similar to a .jpg or .png, but instead of containing information in two dimensions, it contains information in three dimensions. CAD models are often used in architecture and engineering, and powerful softwares that offer a plethora of features can cost thousands of dollars. But, luckily for us, there are entry level tools available for free online.

As you might expect, there are a bunch of CAD applications available for free online, but the one I like to use is called Tinkercad. Tinkercad was founded in 2011, and was the first browser-based 3D design platform. Acquired by Autodesk (one of those companies that makes the powerful thousands of dollars software kinda stuff) in 2013, Tinkercad is still going strong.

Two of the primary features that drew me to Tinkercad are the ridiculously simple user interface, and the consistency which the Tinkercad-generated 3D designs work on a 3D Printer. Most 3D design platforms have similar features and controls, but I find that the way Tinkercad has those elements assembled makes it much simpler to use and learn. They also have some great tutorials already put together for you. Starting on 3D design can be a little bit of a learning curve, as you have to interact with a three dimensional design on a two dimensional screen, but it is definitely possible, and a great skill to learn.

In addition to Tinkercad being simple to use, I’ve also had a lot of success in 3D Printing designs that I have created or edited inside of Tinkercad. Once a design is created in a 3D design program, it can be exported into one of a few file types, and then manufactured using a 3D Printer. A few free online programs that can accomplish this task are SketchUp, Blender, 123D, 3DTin, and obviously Tinkercad. Based on my own experience, and a few others I have talked to, Tinkercad designs work much more consistently than the other offerings.

But, those are just my takes on the subject. Makerspaces, 3D Printers, and the maker culture in general is all about trying new things, getting your hands dirty, and making discoveries. Have you had experience with another CAD program or 3D design platform that you just love? Have you had some experience with Tinkercad? Have you had succes 3D Printing with one of the other platforms? Let us know!