As with so much in modern-day technology, the software in 3D printing is as important as the hardware. Generally, to run a 3D print, a 3-dimensional blueprint file has to be converted into many 2-dimensional files. These are then again converted into a set of 2-dimensional coordinates that are inputted into the printer. The printer runs the coordinates of one level of the print, moves up one level, and then runs the next set of coordinates. This continues until the print is finished.
In addition to this, many 3D printing algorithms include a structural addition which fills in hollow spaces, reducing warping and making the finished product much more rigid and impact-resistant.
Obviously, the choice of software for a 3D print is immensely important. Almost all 3D printers come with their own software but there are also open-source programmes available over the web. For most hobbyists, the choice of software is completely personal preference. We suggest you experiment with different software and see what you prefer.
The file format generally used by 3D printing software is known as the STL file format. STL is useful because it’s easily converted into co-ordinates for a printer (via slicing software) from a 3D blueprint. Input formats generally come in VRML or PLY formats, from a designed blueprint or a scanner, respectively. This all sounds complicated, but most of the time the software does conversions and changes file formats automatically, so it’s not much hassle.
Some of the best software we’ve found is open source, but of course, once you get to making high-end, quality products, you get what you pay for. But for beginners, we recommend several open source programmes that you could try out:
For file conversion, Meshlab is probably the first thing you want to download - I know I just said that most of the time the software that comes with the printer will convert files anyway, but as you get more advanced, you’re going to want better conversion software. Meshlab is an excellent choice for file conversion because it’s free, easy to use, and will do everything you want it to do (and probably more).
Our favourite building/modelling programmes are, without a doubt, 3dtin and TheBlender Project - both are open source, excellent programmes that again do everything you need to get started with printing. An added bonus of 3dtin is that it’s not a big, heavy download, but a web-browser app, meaning that all of your add-ons are automatically saved and are easily exported to your computer when you need them and only when you need them. The Blender Projectis truly special - entirely open source, the website is full of useful information and tutorials on how to use the programme properly, and has a close-knit and helpful community of users
Slic3ris our favourite slicing tool, and is immensely simple and easy to use, with enough power to slice even very complicated prints relatively quickly. Slic3r is compatible with practically every printer on the market and is, of course, open source.
It’s easy to see how close-knit and helpful the 3D printing community is, and projects like The Blender Project and RepRap show that they’re not just helpful, but innovative and creative, too. The community is gaining more members every year; and with more hobbyists with more printers, the community can move towards bigger and better things. This, among other exciting things, means that both printers and software are getting better and better, and more and more affordable. If you do chance upon a problem, there’s hundreds of blogs to help you. Our favourite 3D printing blog (FilamentDirect Blog) is the most popular: Fabbaloo. The best forum and community we’ve found is, without a doubt, SoliForum.