3D Printer Design Guide

Your 3D printer needs something to actually print, but what?Once you have a 3D printer, you’ll need something to actually print with it. While most consumer 3D printers come with a selection of model designs for you to print as test pieces, a printer doesn’t come into its own until you’ve printed something for your own entertainment, enjoyment or use.


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But unless you have a 3D scanner or a degree in computer arts, actually creating 3D models is a difficult process. So that you’re not left completely adrift when your hardware is assembled, we’ve put together this guide to explain how you can make your own 3D-printable designs and where you can get designs that other people have made.

The best place to look for 3D models is in dedicated marketplaces, where they’ve usually been vetted and community-tested, if not tested by the stores themselves. Many marketplaces also allow you to upload and sell designs you’ve created yourself.

MyMiniFactory is a fully curated site, which means that all its designs have previously been tested on a genuine 3D printer to make sure they work, so there’s effectively zero chance of you getting anything that doesn’t work – as long as your 3D printer meets the minimum requirements for the design.

Launched in 2013, the site now contains a database of several hundred items at various costs, some of which are available to download for free. Most are fully open-source, meaning you’re free to edit and even re-upload any free designs you download. The site is also one of the first to make strategic partnerships with manufacturers and companies, having formed links with Royal Mail and Cel Robox, which have integrated the library into their 3D printer software.

Although its library isn’t the biggest, the curated nature of it does mean that all of the items are high quality, and the considerable amount of free downloads makes it a good place for beginners. Whatever you download, you’ll know that the only thing you’re sacrificing is your time.

One of the leading 3D printing marketplaces, Shapeways allows you to buy user-created 3D models or upload and sell your own designs. It’s a bit like Etsy, only it involves 3D printing.

The important thing to note is that Shapeways doesn’t sell the designs, only the models themselves, printing them to order whenever a user purchases one. Models can be created in a variety of materials, from plastic to metal to ceramics, and it’s even possible for users to edit the models using an online tool before they actually buy their goods. Shapeways’ legitimacy is such that it’s even partnered with Hasbro. Inc to sell user-created models of My Little Pony characters.

While it’s not much use for people who want to print their own 3D items, it’s worth knowing about Shapeways if you’re planning to make any designs yourself. A few good pieces and you might start to make a dent in the price of the printer itself! It’s a great place to see what’s possible with 3D printers, even if you haven’t actually bought one yet!Distinguished from marketplaces simply because all their content is free, model repositories generally have a larger but slightly less high-quality selection of models. Errors are possible (if not necessarily common), and compatibility with certain devices might be less assured, but for the price, it’s hard to complain.

Set up by MakerBot, a company that produces its own popular range of ‘Replicator’ 3D printers, Thingiverse has a large range of free downloadable items, with the best grouped into featured collections. An Android app allows users to converse with other enthusiasts, which is a feature you won’t find in many, if any, other repositories, and the site has a built-in customiser, so registered users can modify designs before they’re downloaded.

Although it’s run by MakerBot, the designs aren’t proprietary in any way and can be used with any compatible 3D printer. Indeed, the site itself is almost totally free of MakerBot branding, so it’s clear that it’s a community venture rather than one aimed at existing MakerBot customers.

As with all repositories, it’s possible to upload your designs, as well as download other people’s. There’s no financial compensation for this (and Thingiverse makes no money out of distributing them), but you do retain copyright. Work is distributed under a creative commons licence, which essentially allows anyone who didn’t create the design to use the designs noncommercially. With over 100,000 downloads available, it’s definitely a strong place to start.grabcad.com/library/category/3d-printingGrabCad is an online repository for CAD designs of all types. Although it’s not 3D-printing specific, the website has a section of its database devoted to 3D printer designs, which can be downloaded and used for free. It’s a fully searchable database, with user comments to help you check the performance and practicality of the designs before you’ve wasted a drop of plastic trying to make them, and this also means that if you have trouble, there’s at least some recourse for getting help – even if it’s not immediate.

If you grow to use the site a lot and want to share your own designs, there’s also a powerful user backend called the ‘workbench’, which allows you to manage any CAD files you’re sharing, including viewing them, comparing 3D models of the designs, managing revisions and creating shared workspaces. There’s also a desktop app that can communicate with the site’s cloud storage, so you aren’t restricted to the web interface when managing your designs.

With features like this, GrabCad is probably slightly better-aimed at rising and established professionals, so it’s maybe only of cursory interest to beginners. But at the same time, if you’re hoping to use your 3D printer in that sort of context, it’s a site you shouldn’t ignore!If you want to create your own 3D designs from scratch, you’ll need a 3D modelling package. There are plenty around, but it can be tough to tell the difference between high-end modelling packages that would intimidate even the best Pixar animators and basic, simple packages that a home 3D modeller needs. There are more available than we could ever cover in one article, but these are some of the best.

Created by Autodesk, the company responsible for the likes of industry-leading packages like AutoCAD, 123D Design is an ultra-simple 3D modelling package specifically designed for 3D printer enthusiasts. The software is completely free unless you intend to sell your designs commercially, in which case you have to pay a $9.99 monthly subscription.

Features of the free version include unlimited access to basic 3D models, access to ten premium 3D models a month and unlimited online storage. Premium users, in addition to being given a commercial licence to models, are allowed unlimited access to premium models, given access to a 2D layout creation option and discounts on PCB orders.

As a package, it’s simple to get to grips with, and it’s designed with 3D printing beginners and hobbyists in mind, so you’re unlikely to find yourself grappling to understand features you don’t need. It may not be the most comprehensive 3D modelling suite around, but for home-based 3D printing, it’s near perfect.

Most 3D rendering packages look and feel the same, but SketchUp takes a different approach. Rather than manipulate meshes and primitive solids, SketchUp allows you to draw and extrude shapes in any direction to create initially simple but increasingly complex 3D meshes in an intuitive manner. If you’ve never touched a piece of 3D rendering software before, SketchUp is the package for you.

One of the benefits of SketchUp is that it comes with literally millions of models that you can import and adapt into your 3D design project. The models are largely designed for 3D rendering purposes, so a lot of them are slightly too complicated or detailed for you to pass them directly through to your 3D printer, but they’re easy to edit and make a fine base for your own models.

In most cases, all you need to do to get SketchUp working with your 3D printer is download an open-source STL plug-in so it can output designs in the right format. If you can make it that far, everything else should be easy.

The most common file format for 3D printing is STL, which was originally specified by 3D Systems for its Stereolithography CAD software. It’s used across multiple software packages for design and prototyping, but crucially for us it’s the most common format supported by 3D printers whether they were built by 3D Systems or not. Having software that can convert and read STL files is necessary for any 3D printer user, and that’s why we’ve picked out a couple of essentials.In the website’s own words, “MeshLab is an open source, portable and extensible system for the processing and editing of unstructured 3D triangular meshes”, which means, in practice, that it’s mostly intended as a tool for cleaning up the designs created by 3D scanners. Its feature set includes tools for editing, cleaning, healing, inspecting and converting meshes in the STL format, and while it’s powerful, it’s not quite a full 3D rendering suite: this program is designed purely for manipulating designs that are destined to be printed.

Although MeshLab is usable if you’re a novice, it’s definitely aimed at those with a more thorough understanding of the format and its uses, so don’t be surprised if it seems a little daunting at first. The good news is that it’s free to use and contains a website with thorough documentation, so the only thing you have to spend on it is your time. Versions exist for every major OS, from Windows, Linux and Mac OS X to iOS and Android, so there’s no excuse for not giving it a try!


A little like a simpler version of MeshLab, Netfabb Basic is an STL mesh viewer that includes an automatic repair function, making it ideal for those inexperienced with 3D modelling. The software is a reduced version of the company’s commercially sold Netfabb Professional software package, but it’s available for free on Windows, Linux and Mac OS X.

Although the basic version lacks many of the more advanced features, such as editing, file reduction and mesh refinement, it retains the already-mentioned auto-repair function as standard. The only problem with hitching your wagon to Netfabb early on is that the full version is considerably more expensive  than you’re probably expecting. Let’s put it this way: it doesn’t list a price on the website, and as the saying goes, if you have to ask, then you can’t afford it.  It costs thousands of dollars, so the average home user will never get the chance to go beyond Netfabb basic even if they wanted to.

But at the same time, that really shows you the level of service offered by Netfabb Basic. If you want professional-grade tools that can work for even the first-time user, this is one way you can do that.

By this point we should have pointed you in the direction of everything you need to bridge the gap between setting up your first 3D printer and getting your first personally designed objects out of your imagination and into the physical realm. Whether you’re using existing designs, modifying them for your personal needs or trying to create something from scratch, you’re now ready to take your 3D printer for a proper spin. Just remember to share what you create – one day, someone else will be in the position you were in. How cool would it be if the first thing they printed was something you made?Although most 3D printer designs are either provided in or converted into the STL format before they’re actually sent to your printer, there’s no particular reason this has to be the case. It’s simply a convenience that has turned into a convention. This very month, Microsoft has sought to challenge that convention by announcing, along with seven other companies, the birth of the 3MF Consortium at the Build Conference 2015.

As well as Microsoft, the members of the 3MF Consortium are Dassault Systèmes, netfabb, HP, Shapeways, SLM Solutions Group and Autodesk – many of whom you’ll recognise from elsewhere in this article. The goal of the consortium is to create and formalise a new 3D Manufacturing Format (3MF) file specification, which will allow design applications to send full-fidelity 3D model designs to other applications, platforms, services and printers with greater flexibility than the current STL format allows.

Part of the problem with current formats is their age. STL was designed in 1989, and there are many problems with interoperability and functionality. Some applications treat the format differently from others, while the format lacks elements that 3D fabrication software and hardware would find it useful to be included. Color and material specifications are notably absent, as is specific information about how additive creation should proceed. If the 3MF format catches on, it’ll make it easier for all printers to use the same files and produce the same items in the same way.

The first draft is available now under an open-source agreement, and it’s already announced that Printbot’s new Metal Simple 3D printer will be the first to use it to enable plug-and-play 3D printing in Windows.

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