Beginners guide to 3D printing software: Part One

Getting to grips with geometry.

So you've seen what 3D printers can do, heck you might even be lucky enough to get your hands on one. The next step is knowing how to create your awesome 3D models and get them off the screen and into your hands.

While there are a number of similarities that can be drawn between 2D and 3D printing, the two processes are very different. With an extra dimension comes extra variables to be set and considered.

Our basic guide to 3D printing software will get you up to speed on all the jargon and what it means for your 3D prints.

 

Part One: Printer Interfacing software.

These are the tools that ‘talk' to your 3D printer. When you print out a 2D image or text, you first create it in image or word processing software then hit ‘print'. The photo imaging, or word processing, software will use its built-in interfacing application (usually within a pop up window) to talk to the printer. For the more mature readers out there, you may remember having specific printing software for the early days of 2D laser printers.

For 3D printing, the process is a little different, in that there are 2 or 3 steps to get an object first made digitally and then printed physically with varying degrees of complexity.

We will be working in reverse order from how a 3D model is made, beginning with the simpler of the steps: Interfacing with your 3D printer. This is also a good place to start, as I'm sure many of your first 3D prints will be downloads from Thingiverse or somewhere similar and may not require steps 1 and 2.

For those interested in what we will be looking at in the rest of this series, here are the three main steps in the home 3D printing process.

 

1. Creation
This is where your 3D print begins. For many new to 3D printing and eager to start, you may well just download a model from a free resource like Thingiverse and you're good to go. For other more specific or custom objects, this is where you would design and build your 3D mesh model, in software such as Blender.
2. Preparation. (If required)
Before a model can be printed, it must be prepared for your 3D printer. More often than not, newer software are incorporating the model preparation step in their own software (for steps 1 and 3). However, this is still an important stage of the process, so we will be taking an in-depth look at model preparation.
3. Printing
Finally, we have our printer interfacing software. This is the software that ‘talks' to your printer and sends the prepared STL file to be printed. It's also where you can see a visual representation of your model on the print bed to help set its position and scale or even place multiple objects to be printed out in one go.

 

We will be going into each of these steps in greater detail, but for now let's focus our attention on step 3 and get you up and running by sending a downloaded model to your printer.

For those of you in need of something to print, you can download the 3DPrinterPrices.net logo STL file here.

 

Why do you need software just to send things to print?

Since 3D printing isn't currently as widely known and used as 2D printers, the supporting software isn't built into many 3D applications yet. Windows have announced they will be adding 3D printing capabilities to their Windows 8 operating system, but until built-in 3D printing software comes fully featured, many 3D printing enthusiasts or ‘makers' are choosing to have the extra control over the stages of the process by choosing their own software to use.

 

Importing and placing your model.

Personally, just for the ease of use and a nice simple interface, I prefer to use MakerWare for all my prints. At the bottom of this page you'll find a list of various interfacing wares for you to download and explore for free to see what works best for you.

Importing and placing a model in Makerware couldn't be easier. Once the software has opened you're greeted with a 3D view of your ‘virtual print bed'. At the top of the interface, right in the centre are 3 buttons. Simply click the ‘plus' icon above ‘Add' to then browse your computer for your STL model.

Importing a model for 3D printing

Once you've selected your model and hit ‘import' Makerware greets you with this helpful little window.

3d model positioning

Hitting ‘Move to Platform' ensures your imported STL sits perfectly centered and flat on the print bed floor. Having any space below your model and the print bed will cause unnecessary supports to be printed as your printer matches the raised position of your model.

Once your model is imported and sitting nicely on the virtual print bed, you may still want to make some adjustments to its position, rotation or even its scale. To do this, you can use the three tools on the left hand side of the interface as illustrated below.

Makerware scale rotation and position tools

These tools can be helpful if your model would be better printed on its side or upside down in order to reduce the amount of supports used in the printing process or if you plan to add more models to have them all print at the same time. Once you're happy with the scale and position of your model, simply hit the ‘Make” button at the top of the screen to send to your printer.

 

Free Interfacing software.

Currently there are a number of free 3D printer applications readily available online. Which software is compatible with your printer depends on your specific machine. Afinia, for example, ship their Print3D software specifically with their H-Series printer. But many printers do not ship with machine specific software and so you would use one of the following popular free downloads:

 

ReplicatorG – replicat.org

This is the software that will drive your MakerBot Replicator, Thing-O-Matic, CupCake CNC, RepRap machine, or generic CNC machine. You can give it a GCode or STL file to process and it takes the wheel from there. It is cross platform, easily installed, and is based on the familiar Arduino / Processing environments. ReplicatorG is used by thousands of MakerBot operators and has printed tens of thousands of 3D objects and counting.

 

MakerWare – www.makerbot.com/makerware

MakerBot MakerWare is a free and powerful tool that works in tandem with your favorite 3D design software. It ships with all MakerBot 3D printers but is also compatible with a number of other printers, including the FlashForge Creator, and is available for free download.

 

Pronterface – www.replicatorwarehouse.com/pronterface

Pronterface is a free 3D printer controller software for RepRap 3D printers developed by .

 

What's your favorite software to use for 3D printing? Let us know in the comments below and thanks for reading.