The concept of 3D printing has been receiving a lot of hype, and the technology is increasingly becoming accessible to everyday users. Despite promises that everybody can 3D print, without some basic skills in 3D modeling, the end user is limited to printing models designed by others, usually distributed over the Internet.
The golden promise of 3D printing relies in some part on the end user's abilities and is not realized when the printer is used only for the blind creation of plastic tchotchkes.
There are many 3D capture packages available; some are free, but others cost a lot of money. In this column, we will consider Blender, a free, open-source software suite that supports the entirety of the 3D pipeline, from model creation to animation, and runs under the Linux, Windows, and Mac operating systems. Advanced users can employ Blender's API for Python scripting to customize the application and write specialized tools. Blender can be easily utilized by new and experienced users to produce custom 3D printables, from machine parts to objets d'art.
What can I make?
A question often asked about 3D printing (or Blender) is "What sort of stuff can you make with it?" Using Blender -- or a 3D printer, or clay, or pen and paper, or toy blocks -- you can make whatever you believe you're capable of making. Desktop 3D printers commonly print in nonconductive materials (like ABS or PLA). However, some clever folks have been able to create conductive thermoplastics. Others have modified their printers to deposit solder or to function as a pick-and-place machine.
A 3D print of "Skitter Lizard" designed by the author using Blender.
Having said this, it is not reasonable to expect to print a fully functioning circuit board with a 3D printer out of the box. Things you can reasonably expect to make with a desktop 3D printer today include:
- Most of the parts for said 3D printer, including upgrades that can improve print quality
- Art objects
- Dishware (using food-safe plastics)
- Replacement parts, brackets, jigs, etc.
- Electronic project enclosures
Because Blender features robust and flexible scripting capabilities via Python, you could make it do pretty much anything you like. However, it's important to have reasonable expectations out of the box. Blender is not a CAD program, and it does not do some CAD program things. It does not feature functionality for mechanical simulations (though you can do quite a bit with its rigging capabilities). It does have a number of plugins for procedural mesh generation, but you would need more than Blender in situations where you require the design to be parametric.
Blender has a well-designed interface for the sketching and refinement of 3D models, and it provides a wealth of useful tools for producing vertex-perfect topologies -- a must for preparing models for 3D printing. The best example of this is the Mesh Analysis tool, which highlights potentially problematic areas of the model. This tool can visualize areas where overhangs may be too steep for some printers, where a wall is thinner than the printer's resolution, and much more.
Drafting copies of parts within Blender is fairly straightforward. It can be set up to use real-world units for all its functions, making it easy to punch in the dimensions and coordinates of an object's features. Many times, I've used nothing more than calipers, Blender, and a keen eye to create copies of objects, such as enclosures to parts, brackets, and interfaces, or to allow specific components to fit snuggly within a printed object.
Sculpt mode with dynamic topology enabled is a powerful tool for quickly sketching out designs with a mouse or a graphics tablet. Using this mode with Blender's retopology tools or decimate mesh modifier, users can quickly make 3D printable designs as easily as if they were working in clay.
There are volumes of quality tutorials and learning resources available for Blender, many of which are published by its robust community. These resources are published in a variety of formats, from written how-tos and books to videos and tutorials.
Blender.org is a good starting point for learning Blender. The Blender foundation also has a number of books and DVDs for sale, many of which are published under a Creative Commons license and may be downloaded freely online. Purchases made through the Blender.org store support the Blender Foundation and future development of Blender.
For further learning
Blender for 3D printing is a great starting point for newcomers. It covers the basics of using Blender, and it goes into detail on how to use Blender's 3D printing features.
Humane Rigging explains Blender's rigging and animation features, which are quite useful for simple simulations of mechanical components and how they interact with one another.
Have you used Blender? What do you think about it, and how do you think it compares with other 3D packages?