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What Software Do I Need for 3D Printing?

Picture of Hironori Kondo
by Hironori Kondo
Jul 7, 2019

What Software Do I Need for 3D Printing?

Ready to dive into 3D printing? Get up and running with these must-have 3D printing software tools. They'll help you unleash the technology's full potential.

3D Printing Software Software Is Key

A sketch (left) and a 3D printed model of it (right).
A sketch (left) and a 3D printed model of it (right). Source: All3DP

3D printing can be an incredibly powerful tool to realize your designs. But to take your ideas from paper to plastic, you’ll need a couple of software tools in between. 

Only one software tool is absolutely necessary, but we’ve also included a couple of extra ones to take your 3D printing to the next level!

3D Printing Software Must-Have: Slicing

Cura, from Ultimaker.
Cura, from Ultimaker. Source: All3DP

Slicing software is a must-have for 3D printing. Slicers convert your digital 3D models, in the form of meshes, into printing instructions, called G-code. 3D printers execute these G-code files to produce physical reproductions of your models.

In producing G-code, slicers cut models into horizontal layers (slices) that are printed sequentially. They also create internal structures and paths for printing your models, alongside any external structures, like supports, to aid the printing process.

Most 3D printers come with their own dedicated slicers. If yours doesn’t, or if you want to try a new one, here are some good choices:

Cura

Cura is a powerful, free, open-source slicer from 3D printer manufacturer Ultimaker. But don’t let the simple interface and free download fool you – under the hood are hundreds of settings that can be individually tweaked, landing Cura the 2019 Software Tool award at the 3D Printing Industry Awards. Cura is the perfect tool for beginners and experts alike. We have a review of the newest version and a thorough guide to slicing with Cura.

Slic3r

Slic3r is another popular, free slicing tool, maintained by Alessandro Ranellucci and Joseph Lenox and developed alongside several contributors. Born in 3D printing’s RepRap days, Slic3r remains an open-source tool that is constantly being improved by the community. It’s been adapted to fit all sorts of printers, by both manufacturers and community members, so you’ll likely be able to get it going with yours as well.

Preparing a model in Slic3r.
Open-source and user-friendly! Source: BQ Educación España / YouTube

Simplify3D

Simplify3D is a powerful, commercial slicing software preferred by many experts and professionals. While free alternatives, like Cura and Slic3r, have been catching up, Simplify3D continues to stand out for its incredible suite of features, including advanced G-code editing and viewing, multi-part printing, and variable print settings. In our review, we hail it as the best slicer for 3D printing.

3D Printing Software 3D Modeling

The SolidWorks interface.
The SolidWorks interface. Source: Ultimaker

There’s nothing wrong with 3D printing premade files, but at some point, you might start looking for ways to create your own models. To do that, you’ll need some 3D modeling software to turn your ideas into 3D-printable files.

For a complete list of options, take a look at our article on the best 3D design and modeling software. In the meantime, however, here are a few highlights.

Free Software

  • Tinkercad: Tinkercad, by Autodesk, is a great, browser-based 3D modeling tool for beginners. It’s not a very powerful tool, but it is very easy to get into, combining basic geometric shapes to create more complex models. If you’re interested, you can get started with our tutorial.
  • SketchUp Free: SketchUp Free, by Trimble, is a great tool for those who want a little more flexibility than what’s offered by Tinkercad. Treat it like its name: a tool for sketching out your designs, for beginners and more advanced users alike. If you want to get started with SketchUp, you should check out our dedicated tutorial!
  • FreeCAD: FreeCAD is an open-source, community-developed CAD tool, with core developers Jürgen, Werner, Yorik, Abdullah, Bernd, sliptonic, and WandererFan. A parametric design tool, FreeCAD allows you to create models by specifying parameters that can be accessed and modified later, providing more design freedom. It also comes packaged with some Finite Element Analysis tools for engineering simulations. If you’re interested, we have a FreeCAD tutorial for 3D printing.
  • OpenSCAD: OpenSCAD, maintained by Marius Kintel, is a unique 3D modeling software that runs off of scripts. Instead of modeling visually, you write code that is turned into a digital model, providing you with full design freedom. This isn’t for everyone, but if you’re interested, we have a handy beginner’s tutorial as well as an advanced tutorial to get you going.
  • Sculptris: Sculptris, by Pixologic, is another unique 3D modeling tool. Unlike most of the other software on this list, Sculptris is a digital sculpting tool. Think of it as digital clay. You can pinch, pull, drag, smoothen, and more to perfect your models. This is the perfect tool for those looking to create the likes of statues and figurines.
  • Blender: Open-source and developed by hundreds of contributors, Blender is a free but professional 3D modeling tool for creating sophisticated 3D models. It is one of the most powerful 3D printing software tools available, for design and mesh editing alike. We have a whole list of tutorials to get you started with this advanced tool.
Extruding surfaces in Blender.
Extruding surfaces in Blender. Source: Bryson Jack / YouTube

Commercial Software

  • Fusion 360: Fusion 360 is a popular parametric design tool created by software giant Autodesk. It features professional CAD, CAM, and simulation tools for all of your engineering needs. And, best of all, it’s free for students, hobbyists, and start-ups. You can get started with our Fusion 360 tutorial!
  • AutoCAD: AutoCAD, also by Autodesk, is another popular choice for professionals. Packaged with specialized toolsets tailored towards architects, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, and more, it’s made to streamline the design process for anyone for whom time is money. Check out our tutorial.
  • SolidWorks: SolidWorks, by Dassault Systems, is another industry standard for engineering and manufacturing. Coming with leading design and simulation tools, it’s a favorite among professionals.
  • Rhino: Rhino, developed by Robert McNeel & Associates, is a popular 3D modeling software for designers, capable of producing complex designs and beautiful, photorealistic renders.
  • ZBrush: ZBrush, by Pixologic, is a digital sculpting and rendering tool used by professional artists and designers for products, films, video games, and more. If you’re looking to create free-form, organic, and artistically-oriented objects in digital clay, ZBrush is for you.

3D Printing Software Mesh Repair

The Netfabb interface.
The Netfabb interface. Source: Autodesk

Occasionally, you may bump into the odd 3D printable mesh file that has some errors that trip up your slicing software or 3D printer. In that case, you’ll need some mesh repair software to fix the file.

Certain 3D modeling tools, like FreeCAD, SketchUp, Blender, and Fusion 360, to name a few, have mesh tools included. But, in case those don’t fit your needs or skill level, there are some dedicated mesh repair programs out there as well. Once again, we have a complete article on STL repair tools, but below are a few top picks.

Meshmixer

Meshmixer, by Autodesk, is a free mesh repair tool that can analyze, automatically repair, and modify meshes. It’s loaded with easy-to-use, 3D-printing-oriented tools, making it a top choice among 3D printing enthusiasts. Check out how easy it is to use with our beginner’s tutorial

MeshLab

MeshLab, by P. Cignoni, M. Callieri, M. Corsini, M. Dellepiane, F. Ganovelli, and G. Ranzuglia, is a free and open-source program that allows you to modify meshes and point clouds. It’s often used for photogrammetry scanning, but it also works well for mesh repairs!

Netfabb

Netfabb, by Autodesk, is a professional, commercial tool directed specifically towards additive manufacturing. It features a host of powerful tools for preparing and repairing 3D files for 3D printing, including automatic part packing, automation of print tasks, and simulations of the printing process. We have an overview of the 2019.0 version.

3D Printing Software Print Management

The OctoPrint interface.
The OctoPrint interface. Source: All3DP

If you’re doing a lot of heavy 3D printing, you may want to consider some print management software to control your 3D printer (or pinters) and organize your prints. These typically include built-in 3D printer control and monitoring, file slicing, and print releasing to streamline the 3D printing process.

OctoPrint

OctoPrint, developed by Gina Häußge, is one of the most popular print management tools available. It’s a web-based interface, running on a Raspberry Pi connected to your 3D printer, that allows for detailed printer control, monitoring, slicing, and wireless printing. With a whole host of plugins available, it’s an incredibly powerful tool for getting all your 3D printing done inone place. Get started with our quick setup guide

PrintRun

PrintRun, written by Kliment Yancev and currently maintained by him and Guillaume “iXce” Sequin, is another powerful print management tool. Like OctoPrint, it features 3D printer control, slicing, and print release. With so many settings and parameters available, however, it’s not for newcomers to 3D printing. If you want to try it out, refer to our beginner’s tutorial.

3D Printing Software Let's Get Printing!

Ultimaker Cura being used as the slicer in the 3D printing workflow.
Ultimaker Cura being used as the slicer in the 3D printing workflow. Source: Ultimaker

Now you know the must-have software, slicing software, as well as some optional tools to make your 3D printing experience more enjoyable.

For a more detailed look at software, take a look at our top 3D printing software tools, top 3D modeling tools, and top 3D printer slicing software.

Happy printing!

Feature image source: Ultimaker

License: The text of "What Software Do I Need for 3D Printing?" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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