When you first get a 3D printer, being unfamiliar with the printer, you're learning about the mechanics, the software, the filaments, and art of 3D printing itself. You end up tweaking your machine, or making modifications to it, and getting it dialed in. So you may as I and many other do, start by printing out others designs. Personally I printed out about 4-5 designs made by other people.

Such as Nautilus Gears.

And a filament sample fob  seen below.

Then you come to a point or at least I did, that you want to create and print out your own designs. For me this point came rather quickly. For me, that's the real reason I wanted a 3D Printer in the first place.

My go to 3D software is mostly Maxon's Cinema 4D. I truly enjoy it for many reasons. No, actually, I love it for many reasons.  That said, I've used many other 3D apps. Everything from Autodesk 3DSMax (which I love it's shell feature) to Blender 3D to Rhino to Houdini, ZBrush, Maya and many others. Many if not all will export .STL files for 3D printing. Many can be used for mechanical designing. Unfortunately, none of the ones I am familiar with, including Cinema 4D or Blender 3D, will run on my laptop. I mean really run, not just open.

So the search was on for a 3D design app. And I wanted to go with a CAD software since most of what I want to print or design is mechanical.  A style of 3D creation, though similar, I'm unfamiliar with.

The problem I find with finding good software is it's written by programmers and dev teams who's primary focus is on coding. Not usability. 99.9% of the time, they are not educated in the field nor have the experience in the field to which they are designing said software for. So you get software that when you go to use it, you end up scratching your head, going, "What the fuck were these programmers thinking?!"

And it doesn't matter whether it is free or paid for apps. It's insane at times trying to find truly functional software, that is designed around a given field by experts in the field.

I complained/pointed this out one time to the Blender 3D dev team once. My question was, "Why does it take 32 steps to do a simple task that takes C4D 4 steps?" I'm exaggerating but that's pretty close summation of the question. The task was to simply animate a texture or shader on a selected mesh.

A major factor of design creation is ease and usability of design tools. I don't know about you but I don't want to spend all year trying to figure out how to use the pen to draw a freaking circle or create a primitive object let alone how to rotate the view port. Call me spoiled but I've come to expect certain things from software design tools in this day an age.

Believe it or not, it's taken me 4 weeks of trying out different CAD software on my laptop to find two or three I even liked enough to keep on my drive. One is a paid software one is semi-free for the basic software but worth it. And the last but not least is open source and yes, 100% free.

I know some of you are saying "What about Autodesk 123D or MeshMixer?"
- "You're joking right?" would be my kindest response.

"What about SketchUp?" others might chime in.
- In response I will say many use Sketch Up. Personally, I've yet to install Sketchup on any computer I've owned, including the most recent version on my new laptop and had it run worth a dang. It takes forever to load, bogs down when models are imported. It's proven it's self not for me time and time again.

So what software then?

Lets start with the paid PRO Grade CAD Design software first.

IronCAD Design Suite 2016 - Full installed with library and it runs like a dream on my laptop. You can get a 30 day trial and normally I don't suggest it, but I'm going to suggest it this time.
Download the 30 trial software first before trying any other CAD software including the free apps. The reason why, is so you'll know and have used and can compare what Professional CAD software is to all others.

Is there a learning curve? Of course there is, some of the language is different, use of assemblies and parts is different than you'll find in 3D apps like Blender or Cinema 4D, etc, etc, This is after all, CAD software, not software for making or animating cartoons and special effects. But the learning curve is small if you are familiar with 3D software in general.

IronCAD's library of primitives and other common models is unbelievable. It's made up of extremely useful models, not just a repository of every model made on the planet. Which means you can find ones to use in your design quickly and easily.

Drag drop, set parameters and your done. Seriously it's that quick to model up a design or prototype. You can import and edit other model formats including STEP files and a slew of others. Keep in mind when exporting a .slt file from IronCAD as with other software you must prepare it properly prior to export. In IronCAD this in the part preferences.

Granted there are other Pro Grade CAD softwares out there. But this one caught my eye, and quite honestly I'd never heard of it or many other CAD apps before. Their video showing ease of use, primitive library, had me say... "I've got to give this app a try!"

So for the next 30 days you'll see what at least one Professional Grade 3D CAD Software is like. And one that actually will run on your laptop with out needing 16 gigs of ram and an Octo core processor.

Now lets look at a semi free CAD design tool. Semi free as they do have add-ons that come at additional cost.

DesignSpark Mechanical - Again - runs like a dream on my Win10 laptop. Very similar to IronCAD in many respects. Don't be put off by it's features, DesignSpark Mechanical is targeted towards people that have never used a 3D or CAD software before according to their site.

The DesignSpark library seems to be geared more for electronics but also includes many other mechanical models. It's very similar to IronCAD in many regards. Creating a sketch in 2D and converting it to 3D is easy as pie.

DesignSpark Mechanical is somewhat limited in what file types can import however. It can import Sketchup files and OBJ files. STEP files are locked so you can import them, but you can't edit them. If you are going to be designing your own models, hopefully that won't be too much of an issue.
In order to be able to modify a STEP file in DesignSpark, there is a somewhat long work around which in you convert the STEP file to a STL file to a SKP file for import into DesignSpark Mechanical. A step by step on how to is found HERE if interested or needed.

Next lets look at a 100% free CAD design tool.

FreeCAD - another CAD design app that runs great on my laptop. It's an open source parametric 3D modeler.

FreeCAD is multiplatform, reads and it's advantage over DesignSpark Mechanical is it writes many open file formats such as STEP, IGES, STL, SVG, DXF, OBJ, IFC, DAE and many others according to the FreeCAD site.

Personally, I've only tried FreeCAD for a very short bit as I'm still using IronCAD. But just navigating around with in FreeCAD it does show serious promise though in saying that, it's proven itself a little buggy/quirky. FreeCAD does have a vast library consisting of many sources. And you won't have any issues importing files from McMaster Carr. Which is an added plus for FreeCAD.

So there are three CAD apps for you to use to create models to print out on your 3D printer.
There are others. Many others, But not all are created equal. Some don't even come close.

As mentioned earlier in this post, when exporting to .stl file format for 3D printing from these or other softwares be sure to prepare them for export first.

Here's a usefull list of how to do just that hosted by Stratasysdirect called "How to prepare STL files" which includes many of the common design softwares.

Okay that's all for this post, my fingers are tired of typing, actually that's a misnomer, I'm tired of typing, and I want to get back to creating. And more importantly, I've discovered by every creative fault I have, I want/need to get something to eat... lol I'm freakin' starving! I'm suddenly very hungry!!

Before I go, one tip, get yourself a 3 button mouse to use with which ever software you choose to go with. Personally I went with an optical mouse for higher accuracy. Come to think of it, I haven't tested my Bamboo tablet with any of the above CAD software. I'll have to give it try when I get back. I'll let you know how it turned out in my next post which very well may be on some upgrades and/or mods I did to my Geeetech I3 Pro B 3D printer thus far, 'til then...

Keep thinking outside the box and being creative,

- chase -

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