These guides are intended to give more information about what you can do with your MakerBot 3D Printer.
While MakerBot operators are more than happy to print the tens of thousands of incredible objects posted to Thingiverse, eventually many want to get started designing models of their own.
Your mission: to create a solid, manifold (watertight) STL-formatted file for importing into MakerWare or ReplicatorG. STL is the most widely used format for stereolithographic CAD files, so the design application options are vast.
ReplicatorG also offers experimental file import capability for OBJ and Collada, two other widely used formats, although the files are then converted to STL, and MakerWare supports OBJ as well as STL. You can also download 3D swiss army knife tools like MeshLab and netfabb Studio Basic, which can open dozens of different file formats and export them as binary or ASCII STL files, opening up even more models to ReplicatorG.
The 3D design field expands quickly, and a tremendous range of new tools and techniques are constantly being created for every platform, so we rely on MakerBot Operators to report back and let us know about their favorite new apps, scripts and plugins, and how they're using them to make the work they're doing with their Makerbots more successful and rewarding. Below are a few of the options we're familiar with.
To get started building a model, you'll need some good tools. There are lots of powerful, free, and open source design tools to choose from. Our favorites include 3dtin.com, Tinkercad.com, Sketchup, OpenSCAD, Wings3D, Scupltris, Autodesk 123D, and the outstanding, open source Blender project.
And not everyone uses traditional 3D modeling software -- some of the most sophisticated organic and procedural models on Thingiverse were created using scripts and plugins created for programming environments and other applications. Marius Watz’s ModelBuilder library and Guru’s CookieCutter-Editor are popular examples of the incredible diversity of tools developed for 3D printing using the programming language Processing. Kyle McDonald has been developing software and pipelines for rapid 3D scanning with an off-the-shelf Microsoft Kinect via KinectToSTL created in openFrameworks. Marty McGuire’s Inkscape-Openscad-Poly tool lets you use a 2D illustration tool -- in this case, the mature open source app Inkscape -- to lean on the parametric design tool OpenSCAD to create 3D models.
There are lots of commercial solid CAD, modeling, and sculpting apps: Rhino, LightWave, Cinema4D, Autocad, Inventor, Maya, 3DS Max, Mudbox, Creo, Modo, ZBrush, Mathematica, and SolidWorks are probably the biggest players in the field. The cost for licensing the pricier applications from this list tends to require that you build a business around a set suite of tools, but the trade-offs for optimized workflow, professional grade rendering and effects, and seamless pipeline from app-to-app are worth it to many users.
But there's no need to spend upwards of $1k on design software. Every month new and more affordable 3D CAD, modeling, scanning and sculpting applications emerge for every platform, including iOS and Android. Try the inexpensive Alibre Personal Edition, Cheetah3D (mac only), and bonzai3d, for starters. Mac users can apply for the popular Rhino beta for free (for a limited time), after which pricing is rumored to be very competitive.
Below is a handy five step exercise for brand new designers to get their feet wet with 3D modeling.
Grab an object in the real world you can drag over to your computer (a coffee mug works great). Launch a browser and go to 3dtin.com and build a model of your object, construct it out of simple building blocks(“voxels” -- the 3D version of pixels). We have a few tips and tricks for using 3DTin here and here on the MakerBot blog. When you're done with your model, export it as an STL file. And while you're at it, why not take advantage of the option to save it directly to Thingiverse?
You aren't done yet! Take your exported STL and open it in MakerWare or ReplicatorG. Slice and print it out, taking advantage of the simple STL manipulation tools in either program to scale the object and orient it on the platform so as to minimize overhangs. Make sure to use the Move > Put on Platform tool to make sure that your model is firmly seated on the surface of the platform.
Even if you think your model is terrible, go ahead and print it. It's hard to judge results by computer visualizations of models, and the printed results may well teach you different lessons than you expect. Anyway, you're not done with this model yet.
Download and install Wings3D, a powerful subdivision modeler, or the highly-capable Blender. Now you can import the STL you created in 3DTin and view it from all angles. Familiarize yourself with the process of selecting points, lines, faces or entire objects and experiment with the range of tools available, deforming elements of your original model. Both tools offer keyboard shortcut resources to help you speed up your process and settle into a more natural modeling workflow.
You may find yourself frustrated at first -- it can seem like every change you make is either too pronounced or almost nonexistent -- but as you get used to restricting motion to a single axis or type of selection adjustment and locate tools for adding additional vertices and edges to your model, you will gain more nuanced control.
After playing around with your original model for a while, export an STL of the new version with a different name. You can even log in to Thingiverse and add this second model as an STL to the 3DTin design you put up earlier.
And you know what to do with it now: print it!
Level Up: Level Three!
Now start a new empty file in Wings3D or Blender, and attempt to recreate the same model from scratch using whatever methods of manipulation work best for you. Don't be afraid to “brute-force it” with only a few transform tools at your disposal -- Grab/Move, Extrude, Cut, and Add Edge Loop, for example, will get you pretty far. Remember, it's better to wade into the design process right away than to wait until you've learned everything there is to know about the program.
Once you get comfortable manipulating your model, do a search for resources on “topology” and “edge flow” for your tool of choice. There are plenty of places where you can find excellent free resources; one we like is BlenderCookie. Typically, designers get more out of these higher-order resources after they've had a chance to experiment a little with the basics. It's intimidating to see professionals efficiently navigate dozens of complicated tools, and you might be tempted to buy phone book-sized textbooks and comprehensive tutorials for the programs you want to learn, but you'll build your list of at-hand tools more efficiently through experimentation than memorization.
Level Four: Parametric Bonus Round
Join the OpenSCAD parametric design revolution! MakerBot's own Marius Kintel now maintains OpenSCAD, and he's been hard at work extending and improving it. Have a look at MakerBlock's excellent OpenSCAD tutorials -- even if you don't plan to design with parametrics in mind, exposure to this tool via the tutorial series will teach you quite a bit about 3D modeling and the power of constructive solid geometry, which is applicable to any number of other programs.
You'll be able to export STLs during the tutorials. What do you do with them? Print them.
Level Five: Reflection Round
Now that you have a handful of models, let's take stock. What's working? What isn't? One of the real advantages to 3D printing with a MakerBot is that you can print each model over and over, cheaply and without much fuss. Take the information you have learned from your print back into your design work and continue to explore.
You've also had a chance to experiment with some different tools and to learn some basic techniques. Now you're ready to hunt for tutorials and blog posts to help you learn more complicated techniques, like managing “edge-flow,” setting up “mirroring,” and using smoothing and subdividing tools to generate the surfaces you have in mind.
Tell Us About Your Hammers (and Your Houses)
Have you been using other tools you’d like us to know about? Send screenshots, notes about your experiences, and links to Thingiverse things to firstname.lastname@example.org
And don’t forget to tag your Thingiverse objects with the software you used to create it - that will help people to learn more about your design process.