Design Guide

1. Key Ingredients to Creating a Hot Design

1.1 Create something fun or useful

The most popular designs are from two categories: Toys + Games and Home Living. Why? Toys and games are fun, and items like vases and pen holders are practical. Your design should be one or the other if you want it to be a hot seller. Additionally, look for well-known products you might be able to piggy-back off of to connect with passionate owners. Products like cell phones, camera and quadcopters all have dedicated followings and owners looking for cool accessories for their new favorites gadgets. If you can create something unique and useful, you’ll be in great shape!

1.2 Know Your Audience

Just as with any product or service, you need to make sure your offering matches the demographics you are most likely to reach. The products that tend to currently be most successful on digital 3D printing marketplaces are catered toward young (20-35), tech-savvy males, with a healthy dose of pop culture references. Additionally, the market for educational prints that can be used by students and teachers alike is growing rapidly. While there are certainly exceptions to this, these target demographics are the most prevalent at this point in the hobbyist 3D printing world.

1.3 Easy to print

Makers are more likely to download your print if they already know the settings for an optimal print. That means you’re more likely to sell the design if you’ve actually printed it yourself and publish the settings you use. You should also create your design with optimal printing ease in mind. See our chapter on design principles for 3D printing for more detail on this point. Everyone wants to have successful prints with minimal failures, so be sure to pay attention to this and your followers will grow quickly!

1.4 Make it Unique

Once you start designing, you’ll want to come up with your own unique style that will set you apart from everyone else. Keep in mind, just because something is unique doesn’t mean it needs to be complicated. 3DKitbash does a great job of creating simple yet eye catching and unique designs.


2. Choose the Best 3D Modeling Software

Once you’ve figured out what you want to design, you’ll need to decide which CAD (Computer Aided Design) modeling software you will use. Instead of asking “what is the best 3d modeling software”, a better question is “what specifically do I want to make and what is the best modeling software for that?” When you understand that, you’ll be able to choose a program that enables you to design with the best efficiency. Many designers end up using a workflow that involves multiple programs because each software package excels at certain areas of design and print prep, so we’ll cover a number of options.

2.1 Solid vs. Mesh Models

A solid model’s volume defines its form.Think of creating an object by adding and subtracting chunks of clay to create a volume. When working with solid models, you’ll generally be merging together individual solid forms to create your final design.

A mesh model, however, is hollow with a skin of polygons, or flat surfaces. It contains data about the structure of the model and the vertices of the object. You can use both solid and mesh modeling to build your design, but each one is more appropriate for different kinds of modeling.

2.2 Free CAD Software

To get you started in 3D design, there is a lot of incredible free design software that you can start using today. Here are a few of our favorites:

2.2.1 123D Design

Works with: Windows, iPad, & OS X (Mac)

Type of Model: Solid

Rendering: This software doesn’t give a realistic image render. You can not apply colours or textures.

Great For: This CAD software is great for industrial designers because it creates parts that are dimensionally correct. It’s also great for prototype modeling or creating an accurate representation of a manufactured object. The user interface is simple and user friendly. Designs start off as basic shapes and get more complex as the designer adds more shapes or cuts away parts of the model. There is also a collection of free objects to use to get started. 123D Design’s tools and process are similar to more advanced programs like Solidworks so it makes transitioning easier.

2.2.2 123D Sculpt+

Works with: iPad, Android Tablet

Type of Model: Mesh + colours/textures

Rendering: This program creates realistic looking renders that include texture and colour. If you’re creating an owl with ruffled feathers, you can add those features here. 123D Sculpt+ also allows you to add images to your object, like a logo, for example.

Great For: Creating character animations or creatures. The user experience is very intuitive which makes it great for beginners or children learning design. This is the software to use if you want to recreate characters from your favourite movie. One drawback for 3D design is that the file format is .obj files so file conversion to .stl is necessary and needs to be done with another program.

2.2.3 Blender

Works with: PC (Windows, Linux, FreeBSD), Mac

Type of Model: Mesh

Rendering: Blender lets you recreate picture quality images and is the best free rendering software. While Blender has the tools to create a realistic model, it takes a lot of time and effort on the designers’ end to create the renders.

Great For: Design work that is complex and detailed. This could be anything from animation of characters to intricate scenes. It is not as intuitive as the other programs mentioned so far and will require some time to explore. There are many tutorials that are available online which will speed up this process. It is also a good introduction to software like Maya or 3DS Max which are great for top end renders.

2.2.4 Endless Forms

Works with: internet browser

Type of Model: Mesh

Rendering: No rendering abilities.

Great For: This software explores the evolution of a design. Instead of creating an exact model, it allows you to build abstract shapes or images and creates incremental changes in your design, like evolution. You can then choose from a variety of different models created and 3D print the one you like the best!

2.2.5 FreeCAD

Works with: Windows, Linux, OS X

Type of Model: Solid modelling, parametric — aka. it also allows you to record all the changes and actions you make and updates the whole model as you edit.

Rendering: You can add on outside rendering applications which give the program elementary rendering capabilities.

Great For: This software works well for engineers. It’s ability to keep track of changes and apply updates makes it a great for modeling parts and products. The parametric characteristics allow designers to change details from the very start of the design process. This program may also take time to familiarize yourself with but offers a diverse toolset. This is comparable to programs like Solidworks which would be the next level up if you are getting into industrial design.

2.2.6 Onshape

Works with: Any internet browser

Type of Model: Solid

Rendering: You can add outside rendering applications

Great For: Engineering designs or any projects that require collaboration from more than one person. Onshape is the first fully cloud 3D CAD software that allows teams to simultaneously collaborate on a file through their internet browser.

2.2.7 OpenSCAD

Works with: Windows, Linux, OS X

Type of Model: Solid

Rendering: No rendering abilities

Great For: This software creates models from source code, much like code that websites are built from. Instead of building an object from shapes, you create it through typed commands. This is a great tool for those who do not have a traditional design background and think like a programmer. One disadvantage of this method is that it is more challenging to create complicated models and is not the ideal modeling software for those without any previous coding knowledge.

2.2.8 Sculptris

Works with: Windows, OS X

Type of Model: Mesh with colours and texture capabilities

Rendering: Although you can use this software to create models with colour and different surface texture, you can’t export the model as a high-res image. You can, however, download additional software that will let you do this.

Great For: Similar to 123D Sculpt, this is a great program for creating animations and imaginative characters. Instead of being limited to using the software on a tablet, this is computer friendly! This is an introductory software that’s great for beginners because it’s intuitive without investing a ton of time into learning. The next level up from this software is ZBrush which gives you more advanced tools to play around with. This software also creates .obj files so you will need to convert them to .stl to 3D print them.

2.2.9 Sketchup Make

Works with: Windows, OS X

Type of Model: Mesh, and some basic solid capabilities

Rendering: This software has a number of plugin options and utensils that create both life-like images and graphically stylized images.

Great For: Formerly Google Sketchup, this is a well rounded software that includes instructionals to help you get the hang of it! There is a premium version that many engineers use to create illustrations to show their clients. The first version was released over 10 years ago and is often used by 3D design instructors for teaching. One of the greatest advantages of this software is the number of plug-in options. The plug-ins for stl file repair are especially important since Sketchup is a mesh modeler.

2.2.10 TinkerCAD

Works with: Most internet browsers

Type of Model: Solid

Rendering: Although it does let you give colour to different parts, it doesn’t create life-like images. The main purpose of this software is to create 3D designs.

Great For: This program creates 3D printing models in your browser without downloading any software on your computer. The user experience and tools are akin to to 123D Design which makes it a great program for beginners. You can also transfer existing 2D and 3D files that you created from other programs into TinkerCAD to get you started. The online community says TinkerCAD is faster to learn than comparable software but doesn’t have all the tools that 123D Design does.


3. Apply Design Principles for 3D Printing

3.1 Design to Avoid Supports

Supports are extra material that act as “scaffolding” to hold a design in place if there is nothing beneath it to build on. Depending on your design, supports may needed to prevent filament from drooping when it’s printed, but after the print is complete, the supports can be broken off and cleaned up to leave you with your final design. In most cases, the supports are automatically generated by the slicing software that converts your STL file into a format the 3D printer can read, called G-code. If you’d like to ensure a specific support structure is created, you can design it into your model directly, but in most cases, the auto-generated support structures do the trick.

Although supports are sometimes necessary, there are a lot of benefits to designing in a way that avoids them altogether. Here’s a few reasons why you should care about reducing supports:

Saves time and money: Designs that require a lot of supports waste material, since they are removed and likely thrown away once the print is complete. Additionally, adding supports means the product will take longer to print (more material = more time), and we’ve seen supports increase print time by up to 100% in extreme cases. When you add in the time required to clean up the supports post-print, the difference in time to completion can be significant.

Lowers probability of printing errors: Supports add more complexity to the design which raises the probability of errors when printing. For people that regularly use 3D printers, it’s common place for longer, more complex prints to fail much more frequently than short, simple prints. Keep it simple to raise your chances of success!

Creates smoother surface finish: Using supports typically creates a rougher surface and again, creates more work during post processing to smooth it out. In some cases, the surface may be damaged beyond reasonable repair when using supports.

This is a good way to remember what shapes are safe to design without supports and which to avoid. Thanks to one of our top designers who wrote a more detailed article on Supports and the YHT Rule. The basic rule goes as follows:

  1. Anything in a “Y” shape is safe to print without support because it’s a gradual slope which still has enough material beneath it to keep it from drooping. This is another way to think of the 45 Degree Rule, which states that in general, overhangs with a slope greater than 45 degrees will require supports. The more gradual the angle, the better. This is why cone shapes are generally safe.
  2. Designs that take the form of an “H”, where the middle overhang connects to either side is called bridging. Typically, bridges shorter than 36 mm long print with drooping of 0-0.5 mm, bridges 36 to 60 mm long print with drooping of 0.5-2 mm, and bridges longer than 60 mm long print with significant drooping of 2-5 mm. These rules aren’t set in stone, however, since it depends on your material and print settings.
  3. Anything with a “T” shaped overhang will not have any support and will almost certainly create errors in your print. There just plain isn’t enough to hold the material up in this configuration.


3.2 Split the model into multiple parts

Another way to avoid supports is to split up your model into multiple parts so they can print flat. After you print the parts, you can bond them with an adhesive like cyanoacrylate (super glue) or a solvent. This can be especially useful for complex designs and larger prints. Alternatively, you can design connectors and sockets that allow assembly without adhesive.

3.3 Orient your model properly

Sometimes, supports can be reduced simply by rotating your design into the appropriate orientation for printing. For example, in the case of the ‘T’ print above, the need for supports can be completely removed by laying it flat on its back. You don’t always need to make changes to your model to improve results.

3.4 Anchor your print

Anchor parts of your design that would go beyond 45 degrees and attach them to a different part of the model to avoid overhang. For example, in the first picture below, the arms are detached from the body with nothing underneath to build on. These models will require supports. In the second picture, the has her arms attached to her body and the baseball bat which is also anchored to other parts of the print. This is a good method to avoid overhang and allows you to print the design as a whole whereas the model on the left has the staff sticking out which will create some problems.

3.5 Design for the Right Level of Detail

There are boundaries on how much detail a 3D printer can successfully reproduce, which means you need to take these physical limits into account when creating intricate designs.

These are some suggested guidelines on detailing for desktop FDM printer:

  • Most FDM printers claim to print a minimum layer resolution of about .05mm but realistically most designs work best with .1mm per layer.
  • The recommended smallest text size for FDM printers on the top of your design is 16 bolded and 10 bolded if the text is on a side wall.
  • A safe starting point for wall thickness is 1mm but it really depends on what the design is used for and on the filament layer thickness. If you are printing something for durability, a thicker wall may be more appropriate.
  • The least possible spacing between adjoining parts is .4mm on most FDM printers, but more distance between the parts makes it less likely to fail.

3.6 Design to Prevent Overheating & Warping

Prints with narrow parts can often get overheated and warp the design. To prevent overheating in one place, you need to disperse the heat and allow the hot end of the extruder to move away from your object to give it time to “cool off”. You can do this by creating a thin object away from your 3D print that is the same height so that as you’re printing your design, the hot tip moves away to print the other object away from your design. This will create an extra tower whose only purpose is to divert the hot end of the extruder while printing to prevent overheating.

3.7 Design for your Material

Depending on the intended use of your printed piece, your choice of material can affect certain aspects of your design, and needs to be taken into account for the best results.

For example, for parts that are meant for mechanical purposes, you need to consider the material strength and flexibility to ensure your design meets your requirements. Additionally, if your parts are meant to fit together with other items or other printed parts, you’ll need to take into account how much your material will shrink and warp after cooling.


4. Prepare Your File for 3D Printing

Once you are finished creating your masterpiece, you need to make sure it will successfully 3D print. We’ll cover what you need to know to go from picture perfect design, to ready-to-print masterpiece.

4.1 3D Design Export File Types

Once you’ve completed your design, you’ll need to export it in a format that 3D printers and various types of repair and slicing software can work with. While you may work with source design files in various format, including .STEP or .IGES, when it comes time to print, you’ll want to use one of the follow formats.

4.1.1 .STL Files

STereoLithography (.STL) files are the most common file type used in 3D printable designs. This file format is widely supported by a variety of software packages, including design and slicing programs specific for 3D printing. This file type is quite basic in that it is made up of a series of triangles that represent the surface of the original 3D design, without common CAD attributes such as color, or texture. In most cases, you’ll want to export or convert your design to .STL format before printing. One downside to this format is that it’s not as easy to modify, so you’re best bet is to finishing modelling your design before converting to .STL.

4.1.2 .OBJ Files

Object files (.OBJ) are another common format for 3D models. Unlike .STL, however, .OBJs can be used in conjunction with texture maps to relate dimension information (size and shape) as well as aesthetic information (color and texture). OBJ files are also typically easier to modify in design software than .STL, but aren’t supported as well

4.2 File Checking & Repair Software

To make sure your design file prints without mistakes, you should run your model through file checking software. Most 3D printer software will let you know when your file has an error by highlighting the area in red or removing it from the display altogether (see below for picture examples). If your print continues to fail and you can’t figure out why, there are file checking programs that can help check errors in your file and repair them. To be on the safe side, it’s a good idea to spend a few minutes with these tools before you head to the printer.








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