Skip to main content

3D Modeling Software for 3D Printing - Getting Started

Β· 14 min read

The core of 3D printing is a 3D model. 3D modeling for 3D printing is important as all 3D prints start with a digital CAD model that is "sliced" in a slicing software which the 3D printer prints. Being an integral part of 3D printing, having a working knowledge of 3D modeling and the various tools becomes crucial.

In this article, we'll go over the fundamentals of 3D modeling for 3D printing, as well as the distinction between inorganic and organic 3D models, and the popular software for each type.

We've included 3D modeling software for beginners for those on a low budget, as well as a few high-end options for professionals.

But first, to make sure we're all on the same page, let's go through the fundamentals of 3D printing.

How does 3D Printing work?​

A CAD design (left screen), slicing software (right), and the finished print / Courtesy: Ultimaker

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a method of creating three-dimensional objects layer by layer using a computer-aided design, or CAD. 3D printing builds objects by layering materials such as polymers, composites, or biomaterials that vary in shape and size, as well as rigidity and color.

Even though 3D printing isn't new, there are some who will benefit from our guide to the most common 3D printing terms for beginners.

Regardless of the 3D printing technology being used, it all starts with a 3D CAD model. In this article, we will go through the fundamentals of 3D modeling and its different types, with a focus on 3D printing.

To further help you in selecting the best CAD software for your 3D models, we will also list out a number of 3D modeling software suitable for both beginner and advanced users.

So let's jump in!

Do you have to create your own models for 3D printing?​

Computer Aided Design (CAD) is the method of creating 3D models digitally. You can either build your own 3D model from scratch or download one from one of several online 3D model repositories. Since there are numerous commercially available 3D models, one might start 3D printing without first knowing 3D modeling software.

However, as you begin to 3D print more, you will find that a ready-made model can only help you till a certain level. For more professional usage, you need models that have exact dimensions, tolerances, shapes and many more important specifications. If you learn to design 3D models, you'll be able to do more and be far more efficient and productive with your 3D printing projects.

The possibilities are truly endless once you master CAD software and start making your own 3D models for 3D printing.

Learning CAD is a sure approach to improve your 3D printing experience, whether you want to modify and customize the available 3D models to fit your specific needs or develop an original 3D model.

Types of 3D modeling​

The field of 3D modeling is extremely flexible, embracing a wide range of techniques and approaches.

But first, let's simplify things by defining the two most fundamental types of 3D modeling. Organic 3D modeling and inorganic 3D modeling.

No matter what you make in your 3D software, the models you make will fit into one of these two groups.The distinctions between these two types are rather obvious. It's all in the name.

For organic modeling, animals, people, plants and other forms of life are typical subjects. Thus "organic."

Inorganic modeling then refers to items or models created with hard surfaces. Like plates, cars, and other inanimate or "inorganic" objects.

Inorganic Modeling​

Inorganic modeling is a great place to start for beginners because it is easier to start with a flat, smooth object like a box rather than complex organic shapes such as the muscular body of a horse. Although not as difficult as organic modeling, they still require a lot of practice to look good.

With 3D printing in mind, let's look at the most popular 3D modeling CAD software for inorganic shapes.

Autodesk Fusion 360​

Autodesk Fusion 360 user interface / Courtesy:

Autodesk Fusion 360 is a popular cloud-based 3D modeling CAD tool used by students, makers, and small businesses in the 3D printing industry. It is very good at creating complicated mechanical pieces, and it's simple to build objects that are mathematically accurate and use real-world units. Autodesk Fusion 360 has a quick and effective workflow, which makes it one of the best choices for 3D printing projects. It allows users to import and export STL files, as well as edit design files, for 3D printing.

If you are eligible for personal use, you can use Autodesk Fusion 360 for three years with full design and 3D modeling tools.

Price: 545$ per year for a commercial license. Free for non-commercial use for up to three years.

Pros: Fusion 360's user interface can be overwhelming due to the many options and features, but once you master the basic workflow, it's easy.

Cons: Commercial plans are somewhat pricey.


FreeCAD user interface / Courtesy: OficineRobotica

FreeCAD is a free and open-source parametric 3D modeler designed primarily for the creation of real-world objects of any size, with an implicit emphasis on mechanical engineering product design. FreeCAD will help you make the best 3D projects you can, from designing products to making machines. 3D printing capability can also be developed into more engineering fields, such as architecture and electrical engineering.

Because the FreeCad is free and open source, users can not only interact with it, but they can also improve its features by utilizing the Python programming language.

For your 3D printing projects, FreeCAD is a great choice because it can read and write to a wide variety of file formats, simplifying your 3D modeling workflow.

Price: Free

Pros: It's great for hobbyists because it's free, open-source, and can be downloaded and installed locally.

Cons: Since the UI environment is lite, FreeCad may not handle complex CAD files well.


OpenSCAD user interface / Courtesy: all3dp

OpenSCAD, like FreeCAD, is a free and open source parametric computer-aided design (CAD) software for 2D and 3D modeling. But that's where the similarities end, because OpenSCAD does 3D modeling in a bit of a different way.

OpenSCAD is a script-only modeler that use its own description language. Its user interface displays simply code and does not provide literal representations of the objects you're working with. The fact that you'll be designing with word commands rather than pictures distinguishes OpenSCAD from other applications.

OpenSCAD has a steep learning curve and is not for everyone, but true coders will appreciate it as a free CAD program for modelers who enjoy seeing their code come to life on their computers and inside 3D printers.

Price: Free

Pros: Ideal for coders who wish to explore their modeling software's inner workings.

Cons: If you don't know how to code, this program won't help you much with your 3D printing project.


Tinkercad user interface / Courtesy:

Tinkercad is a browser-based software designed primarily for those with no prior CAD experience. It is the ideal introduction to 3D modeling software, suitable for use in education. Tinkercad will allow you to bring your ideas to life even if you have no prior experience with 3D modeling. It works by placing blocks one by one to form the desired object. You may easily develop your own 3D project and experiment with the many 3D tools thanks to the intuitive interface.

To get you started, Tinkercad offers a wealth of beginner-friendly, leisurely paced tutorials.

Tinkercad was founded in 2011 by software engineers Kai Backman and Mikko Mononen with the goal of developing a user-friendly 3D modeling tool. Autodesk acquired the site in 2013 and since then the program has quietly moved from students to 3D printing hobbyists and designers.

Price: Free

Pros: Perfect for beginners and students with no 3D modeling expertise.

Cons: It lacks capabilities for modeling complex shapes, such 2D and extruding or revolving tools.


SolidWorks user interface / Courtesy:

SolidWorks is a parametric, assembly-focused program with powerful advanced features for engineers and designers. It is suitable for 3D printing of parts and components and offers a variety of features and tools for designing 3D models for industrial applications. SolidWorks provides a lot of advanced features, like tools for design validation and reverse engineering, that come with it.

SolidWorks has been a frontrunner for quite some time when it comes to CAD modeling, especially for the engineering and manufacturing industries. According to estimates, over 2 million engineers and designers at over 165 000 companies are reportedly currently using it.

Price: Solidworks comes in three distinct packages, depending on the exact features you need. The pricing varies from $1295 per year for a subscription to $4000 for a perpetual license.

Pros: Pros: It's the go-to CAD for industry pros, despite the steep learning curve.

Cons: This software has only one drawback, and that is the price. If the company is large enough, this won't be a problem, but for small businesses just starting out, it can be a serious barrier.

Autodesk Inventor​

Autodesk Inventor user interface / Courtesy: SDC Publications

Autodesk Inventor is a Windows-based 3D CAD software for 3D modeling that includes strong parametric, freeform, and direct modeling tools. For mechanical design, simulation, visualization, and documentation (from rough sketches to detailed simulations and stress tests), Autodesk Inventor was developed in 1999 as a direct rival to SolidWorks. One of its main benefits over SolidWorks is that it needs less processing power, which makes it more stable when working with large assemblies.

The reliability and consistency of this tool has made it indispensable to professionals around the world.

Autodesk Inventor 2023 now integrates with Fusion360, allowing users to swiftly access and initiate generative design, simulation, electronics, and manufacturing workflows between the two platforms.

Price: Free for students who can validate their enrollment. Inventor's professional license is subscription-based, with three payment options: $290 monthly, $2,300 annually, or $6,555 triennially.

Pros: Designed for product design and engineering with simulation and manufacturing tools.

Cons: The price is too high for 3D printing hobbyists.


Shapr3D user interface / Courtesy: Shapr3d

Shapr3D may be the first professional 3D modeling CAD tool exclusively created for mobile platforms, ushering in a new category of CAD software. It was with this goal in mind that the Shapr3D team set out to create an iPad app that could potentially rival any desktop CAD system in terms of capabilities.

Shapr3D is geared on early conceptual design, which necessitates iterations that are both quick and simple. In addition, the iPad screen can be utilized to display ideas that are both persuasive and visually appealing. Before diving into precise and hefty CAD solutions, the most crucial aspects of a project can be showcased in Shapr3D.

Shapr3D integrates with a variety of desktop CAD and 3D printing programs, including SolidWorks, PTC, Catia, Fusion, OnShape, and others.

Price: The basic edition is free, but it is restricted to two designs. Pro costs $25/month or $299/year.

Pros: Ideal for rough drafts and presentations.

Cons: With a tablet and digital pencil, precision industrial design is difficult.

Organic Modeling​

The term "organic modeling" refers to the process of making 3D models of things that live in the "real world". Specifically, this means that organic 3D modeling software will be superior at producing lifelike 3D printed items, such as animals, monsters, and comic book heroes. The process of modeling something like that in inorganic 3D modeling tools would be a nightmare.

The list below includes 3D modeling software that has been enhanced for animation, while the method of developing models for 3D printers remains the same.

Let's look at the most popular 3D modeling tools for creating lifelike organic shapes for 3D printing projects.


Blender user interface / Courtesy: all3dp

Blender is a completely free 3D design software that is one of the most versatile 3D printing tools for producing organic shapes. It is loaded with a toolset used for creating animated films, visual effects, 3d printed models and video games. Blender is unique in that it's not meant for engineering applications.

Blender has supported 3D printing since2002, but version 2.67 added a 3D printing toolbox and real-time mesh analysis features. Since then, many new tools and features have been introduced to the platform that can help you print 3D models effortlessly and with higher quality organic shapes like characters or animals.

Blender has a steep learning curve, but its active community and many tutorials make it a better alternative than other professional applications that require digital art training.

Price: Free.

Pros: Blender is ideal for beginners, with fantastic features and a strong community.

Cons: The learning curve could be intimidating.


Maya user interface / Courtesy:

Autodesk Maya is a robust 3D animation software used by industry professionals to create high-quality visual effects and motion graphics, and it has been the industry standard for a significant portion of its 23-year lifetime. Maya was designed for 3D animation but has many practical applications in 3D printing, particularly when it comes to the 3D modeling of organic forms.

Its powerful rendering engine is perfect for artistic 3D modeling and printing needs that call for complex models with intricate details.

Although it covers modeling, texturing, animating, and rendering, the software’s primary end use is producing good animations and thus, it may be more useful to pursue expertise in Maya.

Price: $225 per month with a $1,785 annual subscription and Triannual price of $5,085. Free access is also available with an educational license.

Pros: Maya is the de facto standard in the industry, and it's widely used for applications like 3D printing and video game production.

Cons: The most significant deterrent is the price.


ZBrush user interface / Courtesy: Pixologic

ZBrush is Pixologic's flagship product, and it's arguably the most advanced digital sculpting modeler available. ZBrush does not use CAD programs to build its models, instead employing a "3D pixels" technology similar to sculpture. Simply put, you start with a ball of "clay," which you may mold into different shapes and sizes by pinching, smoothing, dividing, and so on with the help of brushes. It's the tool that most digital artists use when they want to work with "digital clay" instead of mesh or parametric modeling.

This software is aimed mostly for seasoned designers due to its many advanced features and tools that offer them greater creative flexibility in the design process.

ZBrush is widely regarded as one of the best and most widely used programs for making organic 3D models.

Price: Plan prices range from $39.95 per month to $359.90 per year. There is also a perpetual license available for $895.

Pros: If you have experience with conventional sculpting, ZBrush would help you adapt to digital sculpting.

Cons: Pricing and learning curve can be a barrier for new users.


Meshmixer user interface / Courtesy: all3dp

Meshmixer, another Autodesk offering, is a powerful, free 3D printing software for viewing, verifying, editing, designing, and fixing STL files.

The software is a "Swiss Army Knife" for 3D objects, allowing for simple modification, extension, splicing, merging, and more. It's capable of detecting problems and fixing them automatically.

When compared to more advanced tools, Meshmixer's 3D sculpting tools aren't as good. However, when combined with the dynamic remeshing infrastructure, these tools can be used to make very detailed surfaces with much lower polycounts.

It's ideal for beginners, students, designers, and engineers who are new to 3D modeling.

Just one thing, though.

Even though there are no confirmed plans to retire Meshmixer, Autodesk has stopped developing and supporting the tool. Since then, Fusion 360 has integrated many of Meshmixer's features.

Price: Free.

Pros: Meshmixer is tailor-made for 3D printing.

Cons: Meshmixer's 3D sculpting tools are minimal compared to other options.