3D Modeling for 3D Printing: Understanding Modeling Software – Part 1

 In 30 days of education

So you’ve decided you’d like to tackle 3D modeling for 3D printing? That’s wonderful! Whether you’re planning on building your own designs or letting your students engineer their own creations, we’ve got a few suggestions for how to go about doing so and where to start.

This post explores different types of modeling. See part 2 for comparisons of FREE modeling software!

3D modeling is essentially digital sculpture, where the modeler is creating an object within the three-dimensional space of a computer program. Once the object is created, it can be converted into a file ready for a 3D printer and brought into the real world.

There are two main methods of creating these models, the sculptural approach (often referred to as triangular or subdivision modeling) and the mathematical approach (often referred to as procedural or parametric modeling.)Subdivision modeling is more free-form and is well-suited to artists. Modelers start with a basic geometric primitive, a cube, sphere, or cylinder, and push and pull portions of it much like a sculptor would with clay. Modelers have control over every aspect of the object and can create very organic objects. This makes it well-suited to replicating real-life biological objects like plants and animals as well as imagined things like characters. See figure 1. Subdivision modeling can create more mechanical objects as well, but these are less precise than with the mathematical approach.

Figure 1: Some animals from our Food Web Kit created using Blender, a subdivision modeling software

Parametric modeling, on the other hand, is based more on formulas, and is well-suited to engineers and mathematicians. Modelers often start with a two-dimensional drawing, which they convert into three dimensions by giving it depth and then combining it with other shapes or cutting out other shapes from it. Parametric modeling also encompasses completely code-driven objects, where the shape is determined by a series of mathematical parameters. This allows for the creation of very precise models, and makes it well-suited to mechanical parts. See figure 2.

Figure 2: One of the Mantis STEM carts, designed using procedural modeling.

Based on your foreseen uses and your personal inclinations, choose the type of software you will feel most comfortable with. In the spirit of full disclosure, I feel obliged to tell you that I am a subdivision modeler and prefer the more artistic techniques of subdivision modeling and find them much simpler. Therefore, take my Complexity rankings with a grain of salt. I have an undisputed bias. Nevertheless, I have tried to be as fair as possible in my analysis and rankings of various free 3D modeling applications. Outlined below you will find information about various software programs, where to find their tutorials, and if I have any other comments based on my use of them.


See Part 2 for a program by program comparison of various free 3D modeling softwares useful for 3D printing!

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