The quantity and quality of 3D modelling software available today, is actually quite staggering.
Once more, you might be surprised at the number of powerful 3D modelling programs, that are absolutely free.
You also get a sense that some companies, such as AutoDesk, are creating 3D modelling software, purely for the desktop 3D printing market.
Take AutoDesk 123D for example.
Given such incredible variety, I thought it might be nice to produce a list of the best 3D modelling software packages, for creating 3D printing models.
Most of them fall into the category of free 3D modelling software.
And at least half of them, you can use without any prior design experience whatsoever.
I have also included two premium offerings, that we actually use at LayerTrove to create our 3D printing models.
Take a quick look and give one of the free 3D modelling programs a trial.
You never know, perhaps you are a skilled designer just waiting to take your first steps!
Best 3D Modelling Software 1 – Tinkercad
In a previous article, I wrote that Tinkercad was one of those 3D printing companies that could become the next billion dollar business.
Autodesk must have seen some real potential when it chose to buy it.
What makes this 3D modelling software so good, is that you don’t need any design skills whatsoever, to give it a go.
That, and the fact that it is absolutely free!
To get more people interested in desktop 3D printing, we need to give the average person the ability to create their own models.
Of course it’s lots of fun downloading and printing other peoples weird and wonderful creations.
However, real satisfaction comes when you print something you have designed yourself.
You create models using Tinkercad by dragging and dropping shapes onto the design area.
These shapes can be used to either add or subtract material.
It sound simple, because it is.
But you would be amazed how quickly and easily you can design something really cool.
Desktop 3D printing is supported, and you can export your files in STL format.
There is also a great user gallery, full of inspirational ideas for 3D printing models.
I have no design skills myself, but this is one 3D modelling program I have given a go.
It’s so much fun and strangely addictive, I would recommend everyone try it at least once.
Oh, and there are some great tutorials to help you get started.
Best 3D Modelling Software 2 – ZBrush
The awesome ZBrush by Pixologic.
This 3D modelling software is most certainly not for beginners.
For starters, it costs nearly $800 to buy.
High levels of skill are also required to get the most out of it.
This is the 3D modelling program that our in house designer Bridgette Orozco uses.
If you want to see what capable hands can create using Zbrush, take a look at our Marvel Avengers collection.
As I’m sure you will agree, the details are just fantastic.
I still find it hard to believe that these models can be printed at home.
Bridgette uses a Huion GT-185 pen display in conjunction with ZBrush, to create our organic models.
We actually have a great time lapse of her designing Lisa Simpson, which we will need to get uploaded onto the website.
For the time being though, there is an excellent video on Pixologic’s website of a model truck being designed.
ZBrush has some great features, specifically for 3D printing, such as being able to cut models into parts, and also add joints.
Something which is ideal to avoid the use of support material in printing.
You can also reduce the density of your mesh, to keep files sizes reasonable, and export to STL.
A really powerful piece of software, that we will continue to use to create our 3D printing models.
Best 3D Modelling Software 3 – AutoDesk 123D
AutoDesk 123D is actually a suite of different 3D modelling software apps, one of which is Tinkercad.
It has formed a number of partnerships with 3D printing companies, including: Makerbot; Dremel; iMaterialise; Sculpteo; Shapeways; and 3D Hubs.
Your design journey could start in the 123D Gallery, where you can make use of other peoples creations, under the creative commons licence agreement.
Many of these designs can be modified using 123D Design or Tinkercad.
If you would rather scan an existing object, 123D catch enables you to use any camera, including your iPhone, to do exactly that.
I think scanning technology still has a long way to go, with regards to desktop 3D printing.
However, I can see the day, in the not to distant future, where you can literally “photocopy” a three dimensional object.
In addition to Tinkercad, there are two great 3D modelling programs for designing from scratch: 123D Design; and 123D Sculpt.
123D Design works much like Tinkercad, using shapes to build objects which tend to have more flat surfaces, and straight lines.
123D Sculpt works more like ZBrush, where you can mould more organic shapes.
For those of you who do not own a desktop 3D printer, Autodesk’s partnerships with 3D printing companies like 3D Hubs, will mean you can easily have your creation printed and sent to you.
Best of all though, this entire suite of 3D modelling software apps is free.
An excellent place to dip your toe in the water’s of 3D design!
Best 3D Modelling Software 4 – SketchUp
Once owned by Google, SketchUp is 3D modelling software largely targeted at architectural designers.
However, if you want an example of some great 3D printing models, developed using SketchUp, take a look at this 3D printed train set by Steven Conine.
In fact there are a large number of models on Thingiverse, which have been developed using this 3D modelling program.
There is a free version of the software, and it is relatively straight forward to use.
SketchUp actually prides itself on being user friendly, and it claims most people with be able to “get good fast”.
You design objects by using a pencil (your mouse) to create shapes.
These shapes can then be manipulated creating recesses and protrusions.
It’s not as simple as the likes of Tinkercad, but the added complexity gives you more flexibility.
There is a learn section on the website too, with seemingly endless resources on developing your SketchUp skills.
The “getting started” video tutorials are especially useful, and I can imagine you getting up and running relatively quickly.
Best 3D Modelling Software 5 – Sculptris
For those of you interested in ZBrush, but are not ready to fork out the $800, there is an alternative.
Pixologic also has Sculptris, which is the perfect 3D modelling software, if you are new to digital sculpting.
It is also a great stepping stone, before upgrading to ZBrush.
You can get started with Sculptris without any previous experience in digital art.
It works by moulding a piece of virtual clay, into pretty much anything you want.
There is a great video on Pixologic’s website, to demonstrate this process.
The controls are similar to that of ZBrush, and anything you create in Sculptris can immediately be moved into the premium software.
As far as 3D modelling programs go, this is an excellent one to get a taste for sculpting design.
It’s very powerful, and also completely free.
You should take a look at some of the models people have created with this software, it’s unbelievable how realistic they are.
Maybe if you get good enough, you could join the LayerTrove design team!
Best 3D Modelling Software 6 – Blender
I know Blender is popular amongst 3D printer enthusiasts.
Not just because it is open source and free, but because it is also very powerful.
In fact I think it claims the title of being the most popular free 3D modelling software in the world currently.
No mean feat, when you consider the competition it is up against.
This powerful 3D modelling program comes with a caveat however.
It’s not a great place for beginners to start.
For that, Autodesk 123D is a better option in my opinion.
The range of features are extensive, and go way beyond what is necessary for creating 3D printing models.
Fast modelling is possible, alongside sculpting, and also rendering; which is something we use a lot on LayerTrove.
Rendered models just look a lot nicer than pictures of the actual prints.
Because of its open source nature, Blender has fairly extensive support, which includes: online manuals; tutorials; an active community; and even certified trainers.
If you do make use of its software, there is also a Blender development fund you can contribute towards.
This should help to keep it open source and free.
Best 3D Modelling Software 7 – Meshmixer
Another classic piece of 3D modelling software from Autodesk.
And another free 3D modelling program.
It’s actually surprising the quantity and quality of free applications available today.
This is all great news for desktop 3D printing.
Meshmixer’s forte is working with triangle meshes.
It fits in perfectly with Autodesk’s 123D suite, enabling people to clean up 3D scans, from its 123D Catch, or modify existing models, from its 123D Gallery.
You can have a lot of fun combining two existing models into a single design.
A frankenstein model, if you will.
Meshmixer isn’t just about repairing and modifying either.
You can design models completely from scratch, using its simple interface.
It definitely has a focus on desktop 3D printing, with some nice features for consumers.
The ability to add support material to designs for example, is a really useful feature.
As you know your 3D printer slicer will handle this, but sometimes supports are placed in areas you don’t really need them.
Your 3D printer slicer may have the option for manual support placement.
However if it does not, I recommend you take a look at the awesome Simplify3D.
Best 3D Modelling Software 8 – Fusion 360
With a market capitalisation of $14 billion, Autodesk is clearly a major player in the 3D modelling software world.
It’s products have appeared three times on this list already, but so far they have been relatively basic and free.
Now it’s time for one of its premium offerings – Fusion 360.
Annual subscriptions cost $25 per month, and there is a 30 day free trial.
This is the 3D modelling program LayerTrove uses to develop its mechanical 3D printing models.
Take a look at the Steam Train collection, paying special attention to the Steam Engine mechanism.
The assembly modelling feature in Fusion 360, makes it easy to test how these intricate parts will work together.
Fusion 360 also has a number of desktop 3D printing features, including the ability to create and optimise support structures.
Partnerships with Makerbot, Ultimaker, Dremel and Type A Machines enable direct integration of the software.
Autodesk has also created its own resin based desktop 3D printer, similar to that of FormLabs.
As you can imagine this printer connects nicely with Fusion 360, producing one streamlined operation.
Some really impressive software but similar to that of ZBrush, it’s relatively expensive, and you need to know what you are doing to get the most out of it.
One for the serious, professional designer.
Best 3D Modelling Software – Conclusion
So as you can see, there is no shortage of quality 3D modelling software available today.
Further more, you are spoilt for choice when it comes to free 3D modelling software.
It’s amazing what companies are willing to offer at no cost.
For me the AutoDesk 123D suite, is a dream come true for the desktop 3D printing market.
And the fact you don’t need any prior experience, to start creating awesome designs, is just fantastic.
Everyone should give some 3D modelling a go at least once, especially the younger generation.
If desktop 3D printing becomes as big as predicted, it could be a great skill set to develop.
Once you’ve got the basics learnt, you can then upgrade to the powerful premium offerings from Pixologic and AutoDesk.
Who knows, maybe you could create something for the LayerTrove collection.
Please leave me a comment below, and let me know if this post was useful.
Are there any 3D modelling software packages you think should be on my list?