With the latest advancements in technology, anybody can own a 3D printer, with which you can create an unlimited number of complex structures, tools, architectural designs, art, and any other 3D objects you can think of.
The digital file from which the 3D printers can read the instructions is in a STL format. STL (Standard Tessellation Language) has been used since the first appearance of CAD software packages. These types of software are used for prototyping, different manufacturing processes, and 3D printing.
Of course, there are multiple levels of 3D printing. The most basic one is done by owning a consumer-level 3D printer, to which you can apply your 3D model, and can create tools and objects in the size that your printer allows.
The printing material that this level of printers use is usually made out of plastic, and works by adding layers on top of other layers (additive process). Each layer that the printer lays, is virtually a cross section of the final 3D object.
On the other end of the spectrum there are industrial-level 3D printing technologies that can create equipment pieces, tools, complex architectural structures, and many other objects. This type of 3D printing comes at a bigger size, and from more durable materials like iron, thick rubber, and even cement in some cases.
The industrial level 3D printers work in the same exact way as the consumer-level ones do, but offer greater speeds of proccessing STL files, and more accuracy.
Using 3D printing instead of mass produced molds, or any other type of mold systems for that matter, is far more efficient when it comes to consuming materials.
In this article, we will explore some of the best software options on the market that allow you to easily create 3D models in STL format so that you can print out objects in 3D.
3DS Max by Autodesk
3DS Max is an incredibly powerful tool that allow you to design your own 3D models easily, with an incredible array of customization options and tools on offer.
This software is part of the collection of software from Autodesk that offers a great range of features from product design and manufacturing, to incredible visual effects, and last but not least, for building design, infrastructure and manufacturing.
3DS Max was designed specifically in order to offer an intuitive user experience while also creating complex 3D models. No matter if you’re a beginner or an expert, this software has something to offer you.
Here are some of 3DS’ best features:
- Keyframe and procedural animation tools
- Can combine 2D modelling with 3D modelling to create stunningly detailed projects
- Can customize the interface by the use of Python programming language
- Advanced sculpting tools and brushes
- Can model, sculpt and print our your models with ease
- 3D rendering — ability to create VR visualizations
- Automated skinning for 3D virtual characters
- Ability to create custom workspaces
- Procedural animation and character rigging using CAT
- Mesh and surface modeling
If you want to see a full list of all of Autodesk 3DS features, you can visit the official website.
Maya by Autodesk
Maya from Autodesk is another incredibly useful software option that gives you the power to create 3D models in STL formats, and includes a wide range of features and capabilities.
Maya has an integrated programming language called MEL, which allows you to create custom scripts that automate all time-consuming and repetitive tasks, or, you can also download already created scripts and apply them to your setup. Automating all the processes that don’t require constant surveillance makes you more efficient in designing and printing your projects, and also reduces overall costs.
One of the best features found in Maya is the integrated renderer names Arnold, which helps you preview your project in a 3D environment, zoom in and modify any part of your design no matter how complex. By using Arnold, you make sure that the parts of your object are perfectly measured, scaled and applied.
Being able to test the way your 3D objects react after printing also increases productivity, reduces material waste, and also offers you a safer environment that actually testing the products live.
Some other notable features of Maya include:
- Easy to understand user-interface that allows you to quickly access any options and create complex models
- MASH nodes – curve, world, placer, etc.
- Geodesic voxel binding – produces high quality projects quickly
- 3D symmetry modeling
- Can create a live connection between Maya and Adobe After Effects to affect changes in real time and see how they look
- Allows SVG files importation
- Time editor – allows you to make non-destructive changes to your 3D object
- Polygon modeling – enables you to use polygon geometry to simplify the complex shapes of your project
If you are not sure about how to get started using Maya, you can find a great guide here.
— RELATED: 6 best 3D animation software for Windows PCs
NetFabb by Autodesk
NetFabb is an incredibly powerful tool from Autodesk that allows you to design and manufacture different 3D items at a professional level. This software was designed to aid professionals in the field of manufacturing and design improvement, by being able to create complex 3D models, print them out, and test them to see how they can be improved or modified for more efficiency.
Because this software is part of the Autodesk suite, it has full compatibility with any software from this company. This app is very useful for all levels of design and engineering by it’s powerful simulation engines, and also great optimization features for advanced toopaths.
NetFabb can create STL files from scratch, but these files can also be imported from another compatible workstation. This software converts your 3D STL model into different slice layers, in order to start printing your project layer by layer.
You can view, edit and repair all models before starting the printing process, and can process your project either as a full 3D model, or splitted into slices that can be analyzed and modified on their own.
NetFabb is designed in a modular fashion, with each module having different capabilities. There are, for example, modules for creating supports, modules that help you repair your 3D models, manipulate meshes, analyze parts, add labels, etc.
Each of the modules found in NetFabb, once loaded, create a custom user interface that offer you clear access to all options, switches the tools found in the menus, and it also creates a new path in the project tree for each one of them. This allows you to easily keep track of all modifications, and to adjust accordingly.
Even though you can start creating 3D parts from scratch by using this software, most of the users import their files created in a 3D CAD software. Netfabb is compatible with a wide range of files obtained by using most CAD sofware available on the market – Inventor, Rhino, SolidWorks, etc. , and also supports SketchUp file formats(IGES, JT, STEP and VRML).
Let’s explore some other notable featuers of NetFabb:
- Can create perfectly crisp previews of your 3D model, allowing you to modify the forms to your needs
- Lattice commander – allows you to modify your design with a simple lattices and skins tool
- Can create custom scripts that allow automation of repetitive tasks
- Helps you with part orientation and allows you to preview supports
- PowerShape Utility – modify the size and location of new elements and support structures
- Allows you to observe real-time stress simulations on your 3D project
SketchUp is another great software option that allows you to create STL 3D modelling files and edit them in a variety of ways. This software has a very intuitive user-interface that is suitable for both beginners and professionals. Besides that, SketchUp is entirely free to download and use.
The Layout feature found in SketchUp allows you to transform your 3D model into a drawing, or, a drawing into a 3D model. By using this feature, you get access to options like – choosing drawing scale, adjust the weight of lies in your model, can add dimensions, callouts and graphics, and also allows you to model the way you view your workspace pages.
This software also offers you access to a great hub of items and downloadable content from the SketchUp 3D Warehouse. This library contains an enourmous amount of 3D objects, both created by developers from SketchUp, and user created content as well.
You can use 3D Warehouse to store all your finished and ‘in-progress’ projects safely. This options allows you to now worry about carrying USB disks, or other external storages with you at all times. You can just access the cloud storage from anywhere in the world, with an internet connection.
You can find a greately useful set of tutorial videos, for beginners, intermediate and expert users, on the official SketchUp website.
- Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in other printing software and tools, check out our wide collection of guides.
Blender is another great 3D modeling and creation software that has a wide range of editing options, and it is also competely open source. This software uses NURBS (Non-Uniform Rational B-Splines) and also polygon meshes, has great simulation tools, and if you feel confident enough, you can even create your own features.
One of the most interesting features of Blender is the incredibly responsive 3D printing community. The community offers you great ideas, solutions to your 3D rendering problems, and that can come very useful for a software like Blender, which is not really designed to be used by beginners.
If you’re a begginer and absolutely must go with Blender, you can get a complete range of training courses and tutorials. These will help you get familiar with the way this software works, and eventually, you will be able to use the entire might of this software. Go to the official site to read more on tutorials.
If you want to know how to import and also export your STL files through Blender, you can find a good guide relating to this topic, here.
Here are some other useful features of this software:
- Allows you to use Python scripting
- Can combine 2D with 3D elements to create complex structures
- Model and sculpt an incredibly wide range of models
- Can perform 3D painting with brushes and maskings
- VFX – gives you the power to import raw files
- Great sculpting and brushing tools
In this list we covered some of the best software options on the market that give you all the tools you need (and some extra as well), in order to create professional level 3D models and export them as STL files.
If you want to use a professional set of tools, and you don’t mind the learning curve, you should try out the software options we presented from Autodesk. With an incredible range of features and varied compatibility, – Maya, NetFabb, or 3DS Max, allows you to create, modify and print every aspect of your 3D model.You can also get amazing results by using Blender.
If you are a beginner and don’t want to start learning a complex software, we recommend that you try the beginner-friendly SketchUp options, that covers all the necessary tools for creating and editing your 3D model without spending too much time learning how to do it.
We would love to know what software option you tried from this list, and how it worked out for you. Free to let us know in the comment section below.
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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in February 2019 and has been since updated for freshness, and accuracy.