Question of the Week: How To Get 3D Models For Printing?

By on April 2nd, 2022 in news, question

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Vase 3D models at Thingiverse [Source: Fabbaloo]

This week’s question is about obtaining or making 3D models for printing.

Jamaican Fabbaloo reader Oshane Robinson writes:

“Good day, I recently bought an Anycubic Photon Mono X 3D printer and I am having some difficulty trying to figure out which site I can use to create 3D designs as I have some things I wish to create. In my research I found your breakdown of the product most useful.”

Thanks for reaching out, Oshane, and your question is certainly one that many others would have, particularly those who have just acquired their first 3D printer, like yourself. Congratulations on the Photon, it is a very good 3D printer.

Like a 2D paper printer, a 3D printer is entirely useless unless there is content to print. The question is, where do you get the 3D models to print?

There are only two possibilities: you must design them yourself, or download models that have already been designed by others. Let’s look at these two scenarios separately, as they are a bit different.

Downloading 3D Models

First, downloading, which is by far the easier approach.

There happens to be several public sites where you can download literally millions of 3D models suitable for printing. We periodically publish a guide to them, the most recent being “Alternatives to Thingiverse, 2021 Edition”.

This post details the pros and cons of several popular download sites, as many people seek alternatives to Thingiverse. Thingiverse is by far the largest and the oldest online repository of printable 3D models, launched by MakerBot in 2008. However, while Thingiverse holds a massive number of models (more than 5M), MakerBot has not updated the site with new features as often as many would prefer.

In particular, the search function is particularly challenging to use because of the huge number of models involved. For example, a search for a “vase” yields 10,000+ results, and Thingiverse won’t show any more. It’s very difficult to find specific models. Some are effectively “lost” in the Thingiverse forest.

However, the good news is that there are multiple other sites available with 3D models, many of which also hold copies of the most popular models on Thingiverse. I encourage you to read our post with our thoughts on each.

While downloading 3D models is a lot faster than taking the time to design your own, there are two disadvantages to point out.

First, you may not be able to find exactly what you want. Other people design what they want, not necessarily what you want. You may have to compromise what you are looking for.

An example might be that you’re seeking a dragon sculpture to print. After looking at dozens of dragons, is one of them exactly what you required? Does the dragon have the correct pose and features?

Basically, you’re at the mercy of other unknown designers.

The second problem as mentioned above is the search process itself. You may end up searching multiple sites in an effort to find the desired model, and even then you may not find it. Do not underestimate the amount of time required to find the right model.

Designing Your Own 3D Model For Printing

The only way to guarantee you get what you really want is to design the 3D model yourself. However, this can be quite an involved process, particularly for those unfamiliar with 3D design.

The first step is to identify what kind of models you wish to create, which will point you toward the right kind of tool to build the 3D models.

For example, if you intend on making sculptures, then a 3D modeling tool with sculpting capabilities would be ideal. An example would be ZBrush, but there are several others, including iPad apps that can do sculpting.

On the other hand, if you’re making mechanical parts that must be of specific dimensions, then a parametric modeling tool would be ideal. (Parametric means you are typing in dimensional values for precise sizing). There are multiple tools available in this category, including Autodesk Fusion 360 (free to qualified users), FreeCAD, SOLIDWORKS and many more.

Note that some of the tools can be extremely pricey. High-end design tools targeted at industry product designers can cost upwards of US$10,000 or more, putting them out of the range of casual designers.

Blender is often mentioned as a useful 3D modeling tool, but I have some things to say about it. It is available for free, because it is an open source project. But just because something is free doesn’t mean it is the correct tool.

Blender has a vast amount of functionality included, and not all of it is for making 3D printable objects. The majority of use of Blender is to make 3D models for video productions or games, which do not have to be 3D printable. Yes, you can make printable 3D models with Blender, but newcomers may be baffled by the avalanche of other functions. Blender used to have an extremely challenging learning curve, but in recent releases their interface has been simplified somewhat — but that does not overcome the explosion of features that can be overwhelming.

One tool I often recommend to new 3D designers is Tinkercad. This is an online web-based tool, so it is very easy to get started. It is targeted at new designers, and has a simplified interface.

It’s very easy to get started in Tinkercad, yet the tool also has some advanced functions so it’s not a toy. I know of several professionals that regularly use Tinkercad to produce printable designs for their work. Tinkercad is also free to use.

Once you learn one 3D design tool, others will be a bit easier to grasp. However, most of them require a long time to become proficient. The best strategy is to pick a tool that matches your design niche and learn it as best you can.

Final Advice

Take note of your 3D printer’s capabilities. Oshane, in your case you have selected a resin 3D printer that has very high resolution. It should be able to successfully reproduce very detailed 3D models, if you’re able to set up the print jobs carefully. But that’s another story.

I hope this helps you and other readers new to 3D printing.

By Kerry Stevenson

Kerry Stevenson, aka "General Fabb" has written over 8,000 stories on 3D printing at Fabbaloo since he launched the venture in 2007, with an intention to promote and grow the incredible technology of 3D printing across the world. So far, it seems to be working!

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