One of the reasons I was able to get involved with 3D printing so quickly was that I was already using CAD software. Computer Aided Design software allows you to create an .STL file, which creates an item in 3 dimensions and is the file from which a 3D printer works.

I started using Alibre software about five or six years ago because, honestly, I can’t draw. Yes, I know that’s weird, because I’m an artist, but I’m a sculptor. I can think in 3 dimensions, but drawing is, at best, a challenge for me.

I picked Alibre because it was free. I could download a trial version and play with it, which I did. A lot. I spent many hours just dinking around with it.

After the trial period, I could still create designs, but I couldn’t save the file to anything other than the Alibre format. I could print the image, though, or get a screen shot to put it into a proposal.

And that’s what I mostly was using CAD for: creating designs for commissions that I would then insert in an image of a location so my prospective client could see what a sculpture could look like in place.

I found that I liked designing in CAD, though. I could work with shapes and manipulate them more easily on the screen, and, if I screwed up, simply delete them. That has real advantages over making a design in steel and then finding out I didn’t like it (that hasn’t happen a lot, but it does now and then) and having to scrap it. That can get expensive, too.

I also just liked how the forms flow in CAD. Armed with red wine and chocolate, I can spend hours in front of a monitor ….

Eventually I purchased Alibre, which was easy  to use. Then 3D Systems bought the program and Alibre became Geomagic Design. It’s not a lot different, and the learning curve was easy. When 3D Systems offered its Cubex 3D printer to Alibre / Geomagic users, I was on my way to buying my first 3D printer. I figured they would be compatible, and I’d have some support.

Like many other programs, you can download a free trial of Geomagic to try it out.

I also use Pixologic’s Sculptris, a clay-based CAD program. It can also create .STL files. Sculptris is popular with gamers and modelers, and a lot of animated movies are created in a version of Sculptris. I’m still playing with it – I haven’t created anything in it I like enough to even print it – but my style seems more attuned to the geometry of mechanical CAD.

There are also architectural CAD programs for designing buildings, but that is even further afield for me.

I recently downloaded a trial version of the mechanical CAD program Rhino, but it’s been very difficult for me to learn. It’s very complex, and very powerful – it will do things Geomagic won’t. But it’s very expensive and thus far I haven’t seen the value of it for me.

If you’re thinking about getting your feet wet with CAD, there are still some good free options.  SketchUp is a great way to get into CAD, see how it works, and see what you can do with it. There is a paid version, too, but you can get started for free.

TinkerCAD is another good basic choice, but it resides in the cloud, so you need to be online to use it.

So if you want to create your own designs to print on a 3D printer – and there are places out there that can print for you if you don’t have your own 3D printer – I hope this helps you get started.

Next week I’ll talk about the next type of software I use, the slicer.