As you tire of Thingiverse and or need to create a custom item such as a grill knob, model airplane part, or even try your hand at a fancy piece of art, you will need to learn how to use a 3D drawing program. I have tried all of the programs listed in this article. However, as these programs are packed full of features and my 3D drawing abilities are limited, I did not learn every feature or even the majority of features except in the program I thought was the easiest and most straight forward to learn. I did, however, draw somewhat complicated drawings in all of them to get a good feel for what I thought would be the most worthwhile program for my needs…which, I am a remote control model airplane/helicopter/anything that flies buff. That being said, my 3D drawing skills will be used to draw and print remote control model parts and such which can be complicated.
I’m a big fan of Open Source and free software as I guess most of you are. Who wants to spend hundreds of dollars on a software package to find out that you only utilize 25% of the program’s functions. So, within that context we will take a brief look at some of the free software available for home and hobby use…and yes the order of this list is a clue to the one I prefer most.
Let’s begin with Blender . This is a very powerful program. It will not only create your 3D design, but will let you create the background scenes to go with it. Blender has the ability to render animation sequences, has its own full game-engine creation engine, and mesh editing ability. Hence, it is a very complicated and much more than what a home 3D printing hobby-er would need. I mention it here because it’s so powerful, it’s free, and some of you out there in cyberland will want to learn to render 3D drawings and will be interested in animations, too! This link is a video rendered with animations made in blender…very cool for an open source software package.
Google’s Sketchup is no longer owned by Google, but has been purchased by Trimble Navigation. So…I guess now it’s just called Sketchup. The good news is that it’s still free and not supposed to change according to John Bacus, Sketchup Product Manager which is good for us!
I found Sketchup to be an easy program to learn and I really liked it as a free program. The dimensional features are the most user-friendly of these four programs. They snap to middle positions and various other expected points for determining lengths and diameters of your drawings and is very handy for scale drawings. This program works very well for 2D drawings and if you only want to draw in 2 dimensions I highly recommend it. Where I found the free version lacking was in the 3D realm. You can create basic 3D drawings; however, if you want to combine basic 3D shapes to create more complex designs you will have to purchase the full program for $590. So, bottom line is that I found the free version too limited to create the 3D designs I want to print.
Autodesk123D Design (123D) and Autodesk Fusion are related programs. Autodesk123D Design is the smaller version and is less complicated than its big brother, Fusion. If you are unfamiliar with 3D drawing programs I highly recommend beginning with 123D and then moving up to Fusion. Both can be used for free if used for personal or non-commercial use, but must be registered. Fusion allows you to have 30 free trial and then you must register again and agree to their non-commercial agreement. Which is a great deal for us hobbyist as it is a very powerful program!
123D comes in two versions. One is web-based and gives you cloud space to keep your drawings. You also have the ability to share your drawings with the Autodesk123D community. This is similar to Thingiverse and allows others to print your 3D object and make comments and suggestions, though, these features are optional. Autodesk123D Design also comes in a desktop version for various platforms. I personally prefer this program because it is much faster than the web-based version. One feature worth mentioning on the web-based version is that it includes a database of more complicated shapes that you can just drag and drop onto your drawing platform. These objects are not available to use within the desktop version.
As to be expected, every sword has two side…the desktop version is very buggy. If you are not ready to save your work frequently then you will be better off using the web-based version. The desktop version also gives you the option to save and share your drawings in their community, on the other hand, it gives you the option to save to your own computer, too. I have used 123D extensively and have created very complicated drawings and I’m very satisfied to say that this program can do everything I wanted it to do and do it fairly well.
Fusion is the more powerful big brother of Autodesk123D Design. The layouts are very similar and many of the controls are the same, though most will have added features. I have not utilized this program as much as 123D Design, though, I will transition to it for my next project because it has features which will make designing a bit easier. However, this does not mean that 123D could not complete the task.
One last note worth mentioning, Fusion is an amalgamation type program. It downloads and installs as a normal executable file, but runs as a standalone web-based program. Hence, it’s not as fast as a desktop program, but it is faster than 123D’s web browser-based program.
To compare my thoughts here is a brief chart:
Easy to learn
Great dimensional features
Great for 2D drawing
Easy to learn
Large shape database
Easy to learn
Faster than web-based
Very complicated to learn
seems more suited for movie/game making
Must purchase full version
to be able to create
Slow but Acceptable
More difficult to
learn than Design
Average performance (speed)