3D CAD for complete beginner?
December 12, 2013 12:39 PM   Subscribe

I had an idea for a product. I'd like to make a few prototypes using a 3d printer. I am utterly clueless on where to start.

I handy when it comes to wood. I've turned and cast some metal. But this thing would be made of plastic, about which I know almost nothing.

The product is small (it would fit in a 8"x8"x4" box) and only one piece. If it went to volume manufacturing, it would be injection molded.

Obviously, if I want to prototype using a 3d printer I'll need to use CAD software. But my design/drafting skills date from the 1980's using pencils and paper.

I can spend a few months getting up to speed on this. Is there a clear favorite of 3d software for beginners? And if I decide to go to the next step, I'd like to be able to use these same files with the manufacturer to produce these items commercially.
posted by Marky to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I've heard of people having good luck as a beginner with Google Sketchup. It also has the benefit of being free, or at least having a free version. I know you can use that app to send your file to an online 3d printer like Shapeways. I'm no expert on 3d printing (other than owning a makerbot and messing around), someone else might have more sage advice on what is the easiest.
posted by ill3 at 1:05 PM on December 12, 2013

Sketch up is more designed for creating small files than it is for use ability, if you ask me.

If you have a Mac, Rhino3d is offering free trials of very functional prototypes of it's Mac version.
There is a learning curve, but it's just so much more powerful and versatile. I also feel like it's logic is more geometry-oriented, instead of procedure/programming oriented like sketchup.

That's just my two cents. I know plenty of people who've had success with sketchup. To me it just isn't a pro-quality cad platform.
posted by MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch at 1:12 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Maybe check out 123D? It's made by Autodesk, which I think is a well known name in CAD, and I've played around with it a bit when working with a makerbot.
posted by brilliantine at 1:16 PM on December 12, 2013

I'd actually do it in reverse, and look into what types of files 3D printers can work with, and then pick your 3D drafting program based on that and what program can produce those kinds of files.

Sketchup isn't hard, but doesn't handle complexity well, especially for beginners, but it would get your feet wet with thinking and working with 3D in a 2D format (your monitor) - as MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch suggests, although pros use it all the time to mess around with stuff, it's not really a pro program. But can 3D printers handle sketchup files anyway? Can sketchup produce a type of file that a printer could work with?
posted by LionIndex at 1:21 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Depending on just how complex it is, last time I looked at such things a lot of friends were turning out complex Lego attachments (strand walkers, etc) with Tinkercad.
posted by straw at 1:21 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Assuming your goal is to prototype a certain device and perhaps get it mass-produced eventually (and your goal is NOT to tinker with 3d printing technology) then I think you're absolutely asking the wrong question.

Find whoever you want to print it, and ask them for help and advice. To that person, the high quality paper drawings you already apparently know how to make might be more useful than anything you can throw together in whatever program you find.
posted by fritley at 1:26 PM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

I agree with fritley's approach. Don't waste your time with all the software steps just for one prototype. Look for someone that can do it for you. A hundred bucks will go a looong way at your local maker shop.
posted by intermod at 1:38 PM on December 12, 2013

Nothing Sketch up, I teach it to 6th to 8th graders and they don't have any trouble. Sometimes the .stl file comes out a bit broken and we have to use net fans free web service to fix it, so far without fail.
posted by dstopps at 6:15 PM on December 12, 2013

As far as generating STL files, Rhino does it quickly and easily.

You can draw in NURBS, which offers almost infinite accuracy, and then you can convert objects to create STL exportable ones. You can choose and preview various resolutions too. Another handy feature is the ability to analyze the volume of an object, which can give you an idea of print time and cost.
posted by MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch at 6:59 PM on December 12, 2013

I would vote against SketchUp. I don't think SketchUp is on the efficient frontier of difficulty of learning vs. power and so on. SketchUp, when it came out, had a couple really good ideas in it. Most of these ideas have been implemented in other CAD packages that make it much, much easier to do other things, and most of these packages aren't much harder to get started with that SketchUp is (although they may be harder to master largely by virtue of being more complex). And SketchUp is, in my experience, extremely unstable.

Any CAD package worth its salt can generate STL files or something that can be easily converted to STL. STL is the simplest, most brain-dead file format in the world.

Rhino is a solid choice. The Mac version of Rhino is free right now (during beta), but it's also fairly buggy, has a fair amount missing functionality, and is underdocumented, but the core CAD functionality is pretty solid. It's mature, it's fast, it's fairly useable in it's bizarre way. However, it will eventually be very expensive.

Another package I would consider is Autodesk Fusion 360. Fusion is early stage right now, and it's free for now. I believe the plan is that it will remain free for personal use for the foreseeable future. There are definitely some annoying things about Fusion: it's buggy (crashes a lot, some oddities here and there where things don't work quite right), it has this dumb Facebook-like interface to the file management and sharing aspects that I think kind of sucks. On the flipside, there are a lot of awesome things about Fusion. I think the core modeling stuff is easier to learn than Rhino (I'm not sure if I'll ever achieve the speed, but I've only been using Fusion for about...maybe 20 total hours of seat time). I also think for certain modeling tasks it's probably more powerful, or at least, the power is more accessible. Fusion's modeling tools are awesome.

I was going to go into a long thing here about different CAD technology but I realized it probably won't make sense to you if you don't know anything about CAD. I would at least download the Fusion 360 installer and go through the first couple tutorials. Also the 3D printing tools Autodesk bundles along with it are pretty slick and save a lot of time/complexity.

I had an idea for a product. I'd like to make a few prototypes using a 3d printer. I am utterly clueless on where to start.

I handy when it comes to wood. I've turned and cast some metal. But this thing would be made of plastic, about which I know almost nothing.

Learning how to use any CAD package is not a joke. I mean, it's not that difficult, but it will take some time. Have you considered making the part out of plastic using the skills you already have? Without knowing anything else about the part, you might want to consider just making a master out of stuff you know how to do: carve it from wood or sculpt it from wax, turn it, find similar pieces of existing random junk and cut them off and glue them together, etc.

Then, order up some mold-making silicone from Smooth-On or something, and make yourself a silicone mold from the master. Then you can order urethane or other plastics that you can pour into the mold and cast. You can get plastics with good machining properties so you can do clean-up after casting pretty easily.

I'm not saying not to learn a CAD package or do the 3D prints, just throwing this out there in case you haven't considered it. 3D prints are not cheap. If you don't own a MakerBot or something and you're going to have to send these out, each individual prototype will probably cost more than the materials it would require to make several molds from silicone. If you want to learn CAD and do 3D printing anyway, great, but if all you really care about is the part, and it's one plastic part that's ultimately going to be injection moldable anyway, you might want to consider other ways to make a prototype and then just make silicone molds the old fashioned way.
posted by jeb at 12:53 AM on December 13, 2013

AutoCAD - still great for 2D - but nobody uses it for 3d modeling. Ever.

Sketchup, but only if you're interested in playing around and getting a feel. Sketchup has a limit to what kind of things you can do. I wouldn't recommend going deep down this route.

Rhino, if you're interested in a fully-fledged 3d modeling platform. It's what I use all the time. It's becoming a platform for all sorts of 3d modeling / computation work, and there's also a good integration with CNC software. If you're an good in Rhino, you can model almost anything.

Solidworks, if you're interested in industrial design. Solidworks can deal with manufacturing tolerances, material thicknesses, drawing layouts, dimensioning, etc. It has built-in support for many manufacturing processes, such as screw holes, assembly tabs, etc. etc. You can run quick and easy physics/stress simulations on it. It can most certainly output to STL files, that you then 'slice' into layers for a 3d printer. But if you also want to manufacture the real deal, Solidworks is the way to go. It's not crazily hard - it comes with a lot of great tutorials. The only disadvantage: $$$.

If you're playing around, go with Sketchup.
If you're interested in industrial manufacturing, and can afford it, Solidworks.
If you're interested in an all-around great 3d modeling platform, go with Rhino.
posted by suedehead at 2:28 PM on December 13, 2013

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