How to Find the Perfect CAD Software for Your 3D Printer

You’ve finally gotten the 3D printer of your dreams. Yay! Now here comes the hard part: figuring out what software makes it do exactly what you want it to.

There are a lot of options out there, but don’t get overwhelmed. After you figure out the answers to a few basic questions, you’ll find what’s right for you and be printing that sweet action figure or prosthetic leg in no time.

First, a mini crash course in CAD: computer-aided drafting. This is the type of software you’ll need to design what you want to print. It can be either vector-based, which uses traditional drafting shapes, or raster-shape based, which uses pixels on a dot matrix data structure to show a picture.

Confused? Basically, with CAD, you can either draw using shapes or draw using pixels. Which type you use depends on your personal preference and also a little bit on the projects you’re doing.

3D modelling in CAD comes in various levels of design nuance and manipulation. 3D wireframe software means you manually draw individual through lines to create a 3D picture from a 2D shape. The drawings don’t have any mass properties associated with them, and you can’t directly add any features to it; they have to be constructed as part of the through lines.

3D “dumb” solids start as basic 3D shapes such as cubes and spheres. You can manipulate them by adding or subtracting solid volumes. But you can’t see much (or any) motion between the components.

3D solid modelling has two variations that expand beyond the capabilities of “dumb” solids. Parametric modelling lets you manipulate parts of your design while keeping the geometric and functional relationships of the parts to each other and the whole. But keep in mind you have to change the parameters of the design for this instead of directly manipulating the shapes themselves.

That’s where direct or explicit modelling comes in. This variation lets you modify your design by directly interacting with the model’s geometry. It’s the closest you can get to moulding your design out of clay with your hands. Combine this with freeform surface modelling within your software, and you’ve got the whole package covered.

Getting Started with 3D Printing – Steps for Learning How to 3D Print

At this point, you’re either nodding along or pulling up Wikipedia. We’ve come to the first real step in your 3D software buying journey:

  • Be honest about your drafting skill level. It’s super important for you to know what you know before you choose what you want. The best part of 3D printing is how accessible it’s gotten for everybody who wants to join in. But that also means it’s easy to get in over your head. To keep your printer from becoming your most expensive paperweight, take into account how familiar you already are with CAD and how much you are willing to learn. There is software all along the spectrum of assistance, from basic models that are already made that let you choose your own finishing details, to completely blank slates that assume you do this for a living. Choose wisely, and you’ll be right in that sweet spot between being able to do what you want and continuously learning something new.

Once you figure out what skill level you need your software to be at, it’s time for another step of self-reflection: price.

  • Be honest about your budget. Another cool result of 3D printing becoming mainstream is the wide variety of 3D modeling CAD software prices out there. The rise in maker space culture has spawned free programs whose quality start at adequate and go to excellent. But as with all software, “free” doesn’t necessarily mean “perfect.” You may find that if you have the money for it, shelling out for a more professional version is worth it. Be careful as well to not equate price with assistance. If you’ve figured out that your skill level is lower than what you need for what you want to do, pricier programs may be tempting. Pay more, get more, right? While usually true, you can easily overwhelm yourself by getting something that has way too many features and a customer base assumed to have too much previous knowledge for its instructions to be useful to you.

Now it’s time to expand your planning beyond yourself:

  • Consider your whole user base. This is easy if you’re getting 3D software for your own amusement. No other users mean you get to decide everything based on your own parameters. But 3D printing has become ubiquitous as a way for the public to get in touch with their own DYI side. Plus it’s more fun! Collaboration means combining brain strength and producing stuff that you wouldn’t be able to on your own. So embrace it. If you are a part of the maker space movement, you’ll need to go through steps 1 and 2 above for all the potential users you may have. That doesn’t mean you have to figure out everybody’s individual 3D modeling or CAD credentials and income, but it does mean you need to consider the lower ranges of need in both areas and how to compromise those so the higher end folks won’t get bored.
  • This is especially applicable if you’re in charge of a 3D printing operation within a public institution like a school or a public library. Will the CAD software be used as a teaching tool, or for more freeform experimental access? Will it be for general use, as in anybody who is curious can experiment with it? Or will it be for groups that are already selected for interest and knowledge of it, such as a high school robotics club or a library engineering program? This will also determine practical details such as how many user licenses doe you need, how long do you need the software to stay relevant before you can upgrade, what other hardware (if any) you may need for optimum performance, how teachable is the software to multiple people at once, and what is the troubleshooting process for the person in charge (which, if you’re in charge of ordering the software, will more than likely be you). Any other factors you know about the population who will be using the CAD will be extremely helpful with pointing you in the right direction.

Once you’ve figured out what you need, check out the list below of our ten best CAD software packages for 3D printing. They’re labeled by price point, experience level, and user needs so you can hone in on exactly which one works best for you. Click the links and explore!

Tinkercad

  • Price: Free
  • Experience Level: Beginner

User Needs: This works well for anyone who needs a thorough introduction to 3D printing simple shapes. The software is network-based, so no installation or user licenses are necessary, making it a great option for those who need group access but don’t have the money for multiple software copies.

Its website provides real-time support as well as templates for those who want to use them. However, its interface does not stay intuitive when adding complexity to shapes, so if you will be printing complicated stuff on the regular, you should probably find something more robust.

Google Sketchup

  • Price: Free for basic/$119 annually for Shop/$695 flat fee (no renewal fee) for Pro
  • Experience Level: Intermediate

User Needs: Another program you can start using for free, Sketchup is great for users who already know a little bit of 3D modeling theory and want a program that will grow with their skills.

It hides some of its best features in plug-ins, and the premium-price updates, natch, but if you have a grasp on the basics you can go straight to the Shop version and upgrade whenever you feel ready. We definitely recommend getting the Warehouse plug-in, which lets you access designs of other users and is a great place for inspiration.

AutoCAD

  • Price: $1,575 annually
  • Experience Level: Beginning – Professional

User Needs: This is the universal design software across professional engineering and architectural projects. You don’t have to be a pro to grasp its intuitive controls, but it might help to justify the cost and computer power necessary for this program. If you want to make 3D printing part of your job – or already do – AutoCAD will have your back.

See some comparisons here:

Blender

  • Price: free
  • Experience Level: Beginner – Professional

User Needs: Great for those leaning more towards the creative side of 3D design and printing. This is not just a CAD software on its own but a suite of 3D modeling programs that work together to realize bigger projects such as game animation.

Of course it 3D prints your models, too, and you have license to use it for profit or not, free and clear. That makes it perfect for an area like a public makerspace, where anyone who wants can design something and put it to use whether that’s printing a bracelet or designing a movie monster. It does depend on donations, so if you use it and like it throw a few bucks at the creators to keep this software going strong.

SolidWorks

  • Price: $3,995 unlimited license/additional $1295 per year for subscription tech support and upgrades
  • Experience Level: Beginner – Intermediate

User Needs: Anyone who appreciates intuitive design will love SolidWorks’ interface. Its commands are straightforward and out in the open, which is great for those who are learning and gaining confidence in 3D CAD.

Although its renderings are not quite as detailed as other programs with its capability levels and it lacks advanced design testing capabilities that makes it impractical for certain professional purposes, its CAD and 3D printing functions are top notch.

See some SolidWorks comparisons:

Onshape

  • Price: free for non-commercial use/$125 per month per user for professional version
  • Experience Level: Intermediate – Professional

User Needs: Sharing is caring with Onshape, at least with the free version – your designs on that level become public property, so be careful if you are looking for a commercial use package.

But the controls are easy to grasp, and the program is cloud-based and so you can run it on any computer you can get to. Just make sure you have a good internet speed, and, if you’re paranoid, another backup saving method for any network hiccups that may come along.

See some Onshape comparisons here:

Fusion 360

  • Price: Intermediate
  • Experience Level: $60 monthly/$495 annually/$990 for two years

User Needs: Another CAD software with its head in the cloud, Fusion 360 is also specifically designed to work well on both Macs and Windows machines, which definitely justifies its price. (Especially since it’s a bargain in the first place.)

Although it may still be expensive for those who are small budgets or have to justify any price at all, it’s perfect for private consulting and personal use when you do not have to worry about external regulations on your designs.

See some comparisons here:

Inventor

  • Price: $55 per month for Inventor LT Suite/$465 per month for Inventor HSM Pro/$7,500 one-time fee for Inventor HSM
  • Experience Level: Advanced – Professional

User Needs: Perfect for users who know every detail of their design and want to tinker with each one. The amount of tinkering Inventor lets you do is exactly what certain levels of 3D modeling and printing need – however, the same amount that is great for experienced designers can overwhelm first-time users, so this software is best for professionals or soon-to-bes, whether on their own time or in an office that lets you control every aspect of your design.

See some comparisons here:

3DS Max

  • Price: $190 a month/$1,505 annually/$2,859.50 for two years/$4,063.50 for three years
  • Experience Level: Advanced

User Needs: Previous knowledge of 3D modeling is key to getting the most out of this software. It rewards experience designers with a vast array of features that allow you to build your model to exacting specifications and look good doing it.

It also has stellar animation capabilities if that’s up your alley, and it interfaces seamlessly with other design programs to take your drawings into whatever other realm you need them.

Whether you’re setting up a station for beginners or wanting to let your own professional imagination go wild, this list of 3D computer-aided drafting software can get you started on your own 3D printing journey. Enjoy!

Further read, The Best 3D Printing Software

Sculpteo vs Shapeways: Which 3D Printing Service is Right for You?

3D printing services are companies that will professionally print your 3D models for you. The companies use professional grade 3D printers to create multiple smaller objects for various customers at the same time.

These companies give you the power of professional 3D printers without the up-front costs. You can choose from many different materials, colors, and finishes for your part. You can easily upload the object you want printed through over 40 different file types. Also, you will never have to worry about the quality of the final product as it is hand inspected by a professional before shipping.

Another great aspect of using a 3D printing service is the companies help improve and optimize your design. This ensures your designs are fool-proof for a 3D printer. They will analyze your prints by measuring thickness, overhangs, and various other features, the services make sure your object will come out exactly the way you want it to look.

I am going to compare two of the more popular 3D printing service companies, Sculpteo and Shapeways. While they are very similar, they also differ just enough that you may prefer one over the other.

Besides printing your models, both Sculpteo and Shapeways allow you to manage a virtual store. Here, customers from around the world can browse your 3D models, purchase them from you, for a price you set, and have the company print them out.

This also means if you don’t have a 3D model you want printed, you can easily search through the stores and marketplaces until you find one you like. If you can’t find exactly what you want, chose one you like and quickly customize it to make it your very own.

You may be asking, how does a 3D printing service work? It’s a fairly straight forward process. First, you create an object using the program of your choice and upload that object through the website of the 3Dpritning service. Next, your 3D file is analyzed to verify structural design, format, and size. You will get notified of any errors or sections of a model that will cause a 3D printer trouble.

Once you have resolved the issues and submitted an updated file, the model will be sent to a queue for the next available batch at the 3D printer it needs. Then, your object is printed, removed, and inspected. Now, any secondary processes will take place such as plating, painting, coating etc. Finally, the object will be shipped to the address of your choice. Pretty simple, right?

Now let’s dive into the specifics of Sculpteo and Shapeways.

Core Features of Sculpteo

Sculpteo is headquartered in France and has manufacturing in Paris and San Francisco. The company has been in business since 2009. Their 3D printing services are based on quick-turn processing. You can receive your part the next day after you place your order if you wish. Sculpteo ships worldwide, which is great for their customer base and your customer base if you choose to setup a virtual store.

Capabilities:

Instant quotes: The website offers an instant quote function, which gives you actual pricing as soon as your model is uploaded. The pricing will update as you modify your model. Pricing will vary from model to model. It is typical based around three parameters, total volume (material used), object size, and bounding box.

Expedited orders: Sculpteo is built for turning out your objects as quickly as you need them. You are able to get your object printed and shipped to you in typically 2 – 3 days after your order. As I previously mentioned, this can be expedited to a 1-day turnaround for a fee.

Of course, this service isn’t available for all prints. Only one of their plastic materials, white, unpolished Nylon PA12, is capable of the quickest turnaround time. However, you can add secondary processes to this material which will only add 1-2 extra days before you will receive the product. No matter what material and finish you choose, Sculpteo tries to get it finished as soon as possible. They are still very fast with their other materials, just not 1 day fast.

Automated mesh integrity: Not all 3D models are printable models. The 3D printer must be able to read and understand your 3D model in order to create it. Sculpteo makes this process a breeze with their automated analysis of your models.

Their program quickly analyzes the model for you once it is uploaded. Then it will show you where your model needs repairs. For repairs, you get three options: automatic, semi-automatic, or manual fixes. This enables all users, no matter experience, to prepare their models like a professional.

Materials and Finishes:

Sculpteo offers just about every material or finish you could want for a 3D object. You can choose from over 75 different combinations of the materials and finishes. As well, you can easily compare the pros and cons of the different materials Sculpteo offers on their website.

The materials include:

  • Plastics: nylons, flexibles, aluminium, glass, carbon
  • Resins: polyjet, acrylate, polyurethane, flexibles
  • Multi-color/Full color: composite multi-color
  • Metal: aluminum, titanium, stainless steel
  • Wax: brass, sterling silver, steel, bronze

The type of material will determine how your object is printed, which includes:

  • Selective Laser Sintering (SLS),
  • Selective Laser Melting (SLM)
  • Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)
  • Binder Jetting
  • Casting

Core Features of Shapeways

Based out of New York with offices around the world, Shapeways aims to give the best quality objects for the lowest prices for their customers. This is accomplished with industrial printers and the best materials. Shapeways also ships worldwide. Shapeways has been in business since 2007. They aim to build a strong community to continue the growth of the 3D printing industry.

Capabilities

Instant quotes: Shapeways offers instant quoting just like Sculpteo. You will receive pricing as soon as your model is uploaded into the system. As well, the pricing will update as you make changes to your model. Price is determined by the type and amount of material used. You will not be charged for more intricate or highly detailed parts.

Auto and manual check mesh integrity: The auto check provides instant feedback to the designers on what they can do better next time they create a model. Once the model is approved by the auto check, it then gets passed to an engineer for a manual check.

The engineer will look at bounding box size, wall thickness, holes, interlocking parts, and fine details. This process ensures all models will be printed to exact specifications of the user.

A better looking, higher quality object will be the end result. While the two-check system is a slower process, Shapeways stands by it as they want to ensure the best quality for the end user.

Resources: Shapeways is full of great resources to assist users of all experience levels. They offer pre-print checklist to ensure your model will be ready to go and help push it through the integrity checks.

They have guides to show you how to convert your 3D model files to types that will upload into their systems. Also, they will give you tips on how to design to save money.

They show you how to design differently so that in the end you use less total material. Shapeways is trying to make it easier for everyone to get involved with 3D printing.

Materials

Shapeways lets you pick from over 60 materials and finishes to bring your 3D models to life. Hope on their website to see the full list. As well, you can see pricing, estimated shipping and suggestions of which materials to use depending on your models.

The materials include:

  • Plastics: strong, flexibles, nylons, frosted-detail, metallic, elastic
  • Metals: steel, silver, aluminum, gold platinum, brass, bronze
  • Plating: various plated metals
  • Ceramics: porcelain
  • Sandstone
  • Wax

As well you can choose from a variety of printing types:

  • SLS
  • Binder Jet Steel
  • Wax Casting

Sculpteo vs. Shapeways

Now that we have gotten through the details of each, you’re probably wondering which is a better 3D printing service. Both Sculpteo and Shapeways offer great 3D printing solutions for those of us who can’t afford or don’t want to invest in our own 3D printer.

Their online marketplaces are useful and effective. Thousands of people frequent them every day. There are thousands of different models you can choose from or browse through for inspiration on the virtual stores.

Sculpteo offers a few more printing types than Shapeways. However, Shapeways has some more exotic material than Sculpteo. You will get pricing instantly from both. As well, they each ship all around the world.

What I think it boils down to is what you are looking for in your 3D printing service. Are you looking for a super-fast service that will give you finished products in just a matter of days? Or is time not a factor for you and you don’t mind waiting a little longer before you get your parts?

Also, you need to factor in the pricing. For the exact same model, made from the same material, Sculpteo comes back near double what Shapeways quotes. This is typically a major factor in someone’s decision.

Can you afford the price for a 3 day turnaround? The nice thing is, you can always compare the two websites with your model and see where the pricing is for each. Once you have pricing, then you can decide on how quickly you need to receive the parts.

In the end, it’s tough to pick one or the other. Each service excels in some areas and lacks, to say the least, in others. No matter which one you choose, Sculpteo and Shapeways will provide quality 3D printed objects right to your door. Let your imagination run wild and start creating.

Recommended Reads

The Markforged Mark Two 3D Printer Review That You’ll Love

3D printing has been around for a long time. A lot longer than most people realize. The idea was first introduced back in the 90s, but, it is only just recently popped into the mainstream. It’s quite the mystery why this technology took so long to catch on. I believe a major factor in its slow growth was the lacking ability to 3D print more than just plastics. Just like the rest of the 3D industry, this lacking ability is quickly disappearing.

Markforged is a company changing the game when it comes to printing stronger, more durable parts. The founders come from the auto-sport industry where they saw a need to be able to create working prototypes and production parts quickly and cheaply.

They bring their high-precision background to the world of 3D printing. Markforged didn’t want to create just another desktop printer though. They wanted to create something that could be brought manufacturing businesses and be used by some of the top engineers and designers in the world.

Markforged knew their market from the beginning. Their plan was to create an attractive, top-of-the-line, compact 3D printer that can produce metallic prototypes and production parts. The Mark One created quite the stir in the industry a few years ago.

It was the first carbon fiber 3D printer in the world. This time they give us an even better printer. With more precision, power, and functionality, the Mark Two is sure to catch the eye of engineers and designers.

What is Composite Material 3D Printing?

Before we get into the specs and features of the Mark Two, we must first understand it’s technology. Let me give you a brief, high-level explanation of what it means to print with composite material.

Never heard of a composite material? No worries, it’s fairly simple to understand. They are two or more independent materials that have different characteristics, either physical or chemical. But when these materials are combined they form a new material with new characteristics.

Some of the common benefits of composite materials are the strength and weight compared to other materials. As well, they are significantly cheaper to produce to reach these levels of strength and weight.

The Mark Two combines both the nylon filament with the composite material filament to construction your 3D prints. By using the nylon as a base layer, which is known as the inlay. From here, you apply the composite material to the inlay of nylon. The composite material is then smooshed, or almost ironed, onto your print. This creates a stronger and more durable model.

Now that we know how the Mark Two works, I’ll fill you in on all the other aspects and features of this great machine.

Cores Features of Mark Two

Dual extruders: I previously mentioned that the Mark Two utilizes two extruders. One for the Onyx nylon (Markforged specialty nylon), and the other nozzle for the fiber filament. The dual extruder setup is a crucial aspect of the Mark Two as it enables the entire process to work.

Both nozzles are made of stainless steel. This ensures the durability and longevity of the nozzles, especially when using abrasive fiber filaments. The stainless steel lasts much longer than traditional brass nozzles would last

Design and functionality: Overall looks, the Mark Two takes home the gold every time. It is an absolute piece of eye-candy when speaking in terms of 3D printers. Markforged took a minimalist approach to creating the Mark Two.

The minimalism is a proven hit in the tech world, think Apple, and Markforged hit the nail on the head with this machine. The Mark Two will be front and center in your shop or office for all to see. The minimalism is carried into the software of the machine as well.

Markforged offers the user just enough ability to tweak the printer settings. The majority of the heavy-lifting of optimizing each print is done by the software and the machine itself.

But the users still have just enough control to customize the prints and make sure each comes out to their exact specifications. Each customization is done within the simplistic cloud-based software, Eiger, or from the easy-to-use touch-screen display.

Eiger software: Markforged’s very own software is a great piece of software. It is cloud-based and runs on Chrome. I just mentioned the preset standards that will assist in optimizing your print to increase strength and functionality.

Eiger allows you to pause the print at certain layers. The benefit of this feature is the ability to add parts to your print and resume printing around the new parts. Think fasteners, inserts, bearings, etc.

The fact that its cloud-based means multiple users can load multiple prints from anywhere. Your team and operations will become more streamlined and efficient using the Eiger software.

Continuous Fiber: This is where Markforged sets themselves apart from other fiber 3D printers in the industry. Previous technology only allowed for very short, scattered fibers to pass through the nozzle and hot end. Markforged developed a method to print layers of continuous fiber strands.

Ultimately this greatly increases the strength of the printed parts. The mechanical properties of continuous fiber parts can match those of traditional manufacturing methods.

Key Specifications

Here are the key specs of the Anet A6 3D printer:

Build Area  12.6” x 5.2” x 6.1” 
Print Speed  100 mm/s 
Filament Types  Nylon + Carbon Fiber, Fiberglass, Kevlar, HSHT Fiberglass (High-strength, High-temperature Fiberglass) 
Layer Resolution  100 microns 
Extruders  2 
Nozzle Diameter  0.4 mm 
Open/Closed System  Closed 
Warranty  N/A 
Our Score  9.2/10 
Price  $13,499.00 

Pros of the Mark Two

Here are a few of the best parts of the Mark two.

Build volume: A large build area makes this 3D printer ideal for creating your fully functional prototypes. As well, if your parts are the right size and you organize them correctly you’ll be able to maximize the use of the build area. Using the Eiger software, you can have the Mark two produce multiple parts at the same.

Bed leveling system: The build plate is a solid piece of aluminum with a special coating. The coating allows for better coordination with the machine. This is important as the machine uses a three-point magnetic location sensor to hold the plate in position throughout the printing process. You will use a couple of small thumb screws to level the bed. However, the magnetic system makes removing the plate and builds a breeze.

Pelican Case: The Mark Two will come with a Pelican case, which is your Plastic Dry Box. This will hold your Onyx nylon filament and protect it from the elements. The nylon filament is prone to humid conditions as it tends to absorb moisture from the air.

This will change how the filament reacts to heat and ultimately lead to more clogs and broken prints. Luckily, the Pelican case will protect it and ensure it lasts much longer than it would without the case.

Value: To the hobbyist printer the price tag will probably be far out of your reach. But we must remember, the Mark Two is not meant for a hobbyist but rather for business, manufacturers, and machine shops.

This is meant to be a tool, a piece of equipment that improves someone’s product and processes. The ability to create high strength, long last, and fully functional parts at a fraction of the cost makes this machine well worth the asking price.

Cons of the Mark Two

Can there really be anything wrong with this 3D printer?

Closed Source – I know this isn’t much of a “con” as it is a business decision, but to the rest of the industry and those fanatics of 3D printing it sure doesn’t help us. Given the company was originally based on the open-source 3D printer you would think some aspects of this machine would be available to the public.

Just imagine how quickly the industry would advance if others could borrow the science behind this. But for now, we will just have to hold out and wait for someone else to figure this out.

Besides the system being closed-source, there isn’t anything negative I have to say about this machine. Like it, love it, go get your business one and start creating.

Final Take – Mark Two for the Win!

This is an aesthetically pleasing, higher performing machine. It is an investment, but it is a very wise investment as the cost-savings it provides will quickly make up for the price. Also, when compared to other composite 3D printers on the market, there are none like this. To get anything relatively comparable you will be needing to spend at least two to three times as much as the Mark Two.

The revolutionary continuous fiber technology, the large build area, and Eiger software all combine to make this 3D printer one of the best machines available. It produces high-quality parts relatively quickly. The software is user-friendly and improves your designs.

This is truly one of the finest 3D printers available. If you are looking for a new tool or you have some extra cash to splurge, I highly recommend looking into the Mark two from Markforged.