3D Printing 101 (+5 3D Printing Solutions)

Brynne Ramella
Brynne Ramella  |  March 8, 2019

Printers aren’t just for paper anymore.

As technology continues to develop faster than most can fathom, printers are now being used to fabricate 3D objects. 3D printing can be used to create objects from food to buildings (and beyond). But to create them, you’ll need some help from 3D printing software. We’re going to break down these tools and discuss some of the leaders in this software space.

What is 3D printing software?

3D printing software helps facilitate the creation of real, physical objects that were first designed and created with 3D modeling software. 3D modeling solutions translate the object from the digital realm into data the 3D printer can read. (Think of this software as instructions for the printer.

These instructions help 3D printers generate an actual object by taking the instructions from 3D printers and joining or solidifying material to print the 3D object layer by layer. 

3D printing can be leveraged in a wide range of professional fields and industries. (For example, it can be used to create musical instruments.) But this technology is most often utilized in industrial fields. 3D printing software can and has been used to create mechanical components, objects and even buildings.

The history of 3D printing

Believe it or not, 3D printing is not brand new.; it was born in the 1980s. Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute is credited with developing a rapid prototyping technique in 1981. He was the first person to develop a manufacturing process in which an object is created layer by layer.

3D printing technology continued to evolve throughout the ‘80s. Various engineers and companies filed patents for different processes involved in 3D printing in the early part of the decade. The true breakthrough came in 1988 with the creation of fused deposition modeling, the technology that powers the majority of 3D printers today.

 In 1993, the term “3D printing” arrived in the mainstream. Two years later, the research academy Fraunhofer Institute developed a selective laser melting process that would later be used in modern 3D printing. In the 2000s and 2010s, the development of 3D printing software really took off. 2012 saw the creation of a system that allowed 3D printers to print with a wide range of plastics. Since then, 3D printers have become more affordable and organizations continue to work to create more efficient ways to print 3D objects.

How does 3D printing work?

Now, onto one of the most pressing question — How does 3D printing work?

It starts with a design, which is created with the help of 3D modeling software. Once a design is fed into a 3D printing software program, the tool “reads” the design and translates it into data that the 3D printer can “read.” 

After the 3D printer reads that data, it has the ability to turn the data into thousands of tiny slices of an object. These thin slices are then printed layer by layer from the bottom up. The material used in 3D printers allows these different layers to stick together, forming a single and cohesive object. Some printers have the capability to print complex objects like an entire bicycle. Some printers can even create moving parts like hinges and wheels.

What are the pros and cons of 3D printing software?

As with any software, 3D printing solutions have benefits and disadvantages, such as the following:

Pros of 3D printing software

  • Enables decentralization — 3D printing allows businesses to print various components of a product. That means in certain cases businesses can print parts themselves on site.

  • Reduces costs — Because 3D printing software allows users to print components on site, businesses do not need to spend money to ship them from manufacturing plants.

  • Allows for rapid prototyping — Products inevitably undergo many changes during the design process. 3D printing lets users quickly and easily print a 3D model at any point in the process.

  • Improves warehousing — Because 3D printing works quickly, warehouses can print products or components whenever needed. That means businesses won’t face an excess of inventory, as they may have historically.

  • Advances modern medicine — 3D printers have gone beyond simply fabricating mechanical components — this technology is now capable of manufacturing fully functioning human organs.

 Cons of 3D printing software

  • Limited materials — While 3D printing produces a large variety of products, the technology is not perfect yet. Right now, they can only print using certain materials, such as plastic and a few metals. Without access to those materials, 3D printing cannot happen.

  • Eliminates jobs — 3D printing technology has the ability to automate jobs now worked by humans, and directly contributes to an ongoing decline in manufacturing jobs.

  • Copyright issues — As 3D printing becomes more common it becomes easier to counterfeit items via 3D printers. For example, a user can create a copy an existing product virtually indistinguishable from the original, creating potential copyright issues.

    3D printing software

    If your business could benefit from the features and capabilities of 3D printing technology, you’re in luck. The following 3D printing programs can help bring your 3D designs to life.

    Tinkercad logoTinkercad

    G2 Crowd star rating: 4.4 out of 5.0 stars (29 reviews) 

    Overview:

    Tinkercad effectively doubles as both a 3D design and a 3D printing program. Users can create their model and translate the design into data a 3D printer can understand, all in one platform. 

    Features:

    ·     Create your own shapes

    ·      Group together a set of shapes to create models

    ·      Import 2D and 3D models

    ·      Use with any 3D printer

    Pricing:

    Contact Tinkercad with pricing inquiries.

     What users like:

    “Tinkercad is a very simple-to-use CAD software, and provides downloadable STL files suitable for a 3D printing slicer software. Tinkercad on the web + Cure on your local machine is a great path to 3d printing for beginners. The interface is very straightforward, and the tutorials are just enough to get you going.”

    Tinkercad review by a user in information technology and services

    What users dislike:

    “There are some limitations as to what my students can create. Since this program uses geometric shapes, it can be difficult for the students to get too creative as they cannot draw what they want to make.”

    Tinkercad review by Charlie B.

     Recommendations to others considering the product:

     “If you would like to [use] a 3D printer, this is the quickest one to start.”

    Tinkercad review by a user

    simplify3d logoSimplify3D

    G2 Crowd star rating: 3.6 out of 5.0 stars (4 reviews)

    Overview:

    Simplify3D is a 3D slicing and 3D printing solution. This software is designed to help optimize your 3D printer to the best of its ability.

    Features:

    ·      Integrates with hundreds of 3D printers

    ·      Allows users to easily switch between multiple machines

    ·      Offers ability to simulate 3D prints in advance

     Pricing:

    Users can try out Simplify3D with a free two-week trial, then purchase for a flat rate of $149.

    What users like:

     “Simplify 3D is fast in operation, and can work with big models. You can have excellent control of the software.”

    Simplify3D review by Alessio V.

     What users dislike:

     “Lots and lots of settings — sometimes very confusing as to what to set.”

    Simplify3D review by Mark S.

    ultimaker logoUltimaker Cura

    G2 Crowd star rating: 4.8 out of 5.0 stars (4 reviews)

    Overview:

    This software prepares a 3D model for 3D printing, meaning you can take a digitally created design to a fully realized physical object in no time. Ultimaker Cura offers multiple software integrations to streamline your workflow for maximum efficiency. 

    Features:

    ·      CAD integration

    ·      3D file export

    ·      Ability to monitor print jobs

    Pricing:

    Contact Ultimaker Cura with pricing inquiries.

    What users like:

     “Extremely wide feature set, very easy to use, intuitive UI, and very fast slicer algorithm.”

    Ultimaker Cura review by a user 

    What users dislike:

     “I do not like that sometimes it is very slow to render the slicing, but I think that is probably similar to other software.”  

    Ultimaker Cura review by a user

    Recommendations to others considering the product:

    “If you’re completely brand new to 3D printing, I recommend learning this software!”  — Ultimaker Cura review by Enoc G.

    meshmixeMeshmixer

    G2 Crowd star rating: 5.0 out of 5.0 stars (2 reviews)

    Overview:

    This 3D printing software focuses on working with triangle meshes. Its wide-ranging toolset facilitates the creation of a variety of objects, making it ideal for 3D printing across many fields, such as design, health or more creative industries.

     Features:

    • Drag-and-drop mesh mixing

    • A wide range of selection tools, such as brushing, surface-lasso and constraints

    • Remeshing and mesh simplification and reducing

    Pricing:

    Free for Windows and iOS.

    What users like:


    “Meshmixer is easy to use. It comes with magic tools like hollowing and repairing. You could also use it as a slicer for 3D printing. Meshmixer is directly integrated [with] Fusion 360 which is one of the best 3D creation software on the market.”

    Meshmixer review by Oral T.

    What users dislike:


    “It hops on the struggle bus quickly with extremely complex meshes, and crashes often with said meshes.”

    Meshmixer review by Riley T.

    Recommendations to others considering this product:

    “If you are interested in 3D printing, then you should definitely try Meshmixer.”

    Meshmixer review by Oral T.

    3dprinteros logo3DPrinterOS

    G2 Crowd star rating: 4 out of 5.0 stars (1 review)

    Overview:

    This software is the first operating system for desktop 3D printers. 3DPrinterOS manages files and machines across your business. This tool can integrate with all Bosch Dremel 3D printers.

    Features:   

    3DPrinterOS tailors its programs to different types of organizations, such as schools, design firms and manufacturers. Each program features:

    • Gcode and toolpath viewing

    • Print queuing

    • Design tool integration

     Pricing:

    As 3DPrinterOS offers different solutions, each is priced differently. Contact 3DPrinterOS with pricing inquiries.

    What users like:

    “3DPrinterOS supports nearly all 3D printers on the market.”

    3DPrinterOS review by Oral T.

    What users dislike:

    “Not all features work as described. It needs improving.”

    — 3DPrinterOS review by Oral T.

    Recommendations to others considering the product:

    “If you're a 3D designer and want to sell your designs securely on the [internet], then you should definitely check out [3DPrinterOS].”

    — 3DPrinterOS review by Oral T.

Once you’ve selected your new 3D printing software, be sure to leave a review! As 3D modeling is the basis of any 3D printing job, it would be valuable to check out these free 3D modeling software tools.

*Reviews have edited for grammar and clarity

**Data as of February 15, 2019

Brynne Ramella
Author

Brynne Ramella

Brynne is the Buyer Inquiry Team Lead at G2 Crowd. In addition to writing, she leads the research specialists in providing personalized software and services recommendations to buyers. She wishes she had interesting hobbies to include in this bio.