Choosing Modeling Software

When building activities around 3D printers, it’s important to note that in many cases, you’ll want your students to design and model their own projects as opposed to simply printing off something that someone else has designed. There are MANY different modeling applications on many different platforms, so finding what program to use is going to be something that you, as a teacher, really need to put a lot of thought into. It’s important to note that I’m not ranking these by order of what is best, simply because there will probably be no one “best” option for a given project.

On this page, I’ll list some of the modeling software that I’ve used and list some advantages and disadvantages of each. Also note that this is by no means an exhaustive list, so if you find something else that works for your needs, then go for it!

ZBrush

ZBrush from Pixologic is a professional modeling and animation software for PC, and it’s pretty much one of the top-tier software that you will be able to get. It’s meant for professional use and as demonstrated in their 2015 film reel, it’s used for big budget movies. As a result of this, it’s definitely not free. The current going rate for a single-user license is $795 USD, which is well outside the viable price range of most casual users. Pixologic does offer a free trial however, which is how I was able to use and test it.

ZBrush does have a few functions that make it great for organic character design, like the option to start with a base skeleton and then build onto it with its ZSpheres, which easily make for realistic-looking proportions, before sculpting away at them for added detail. A result of this though is that the polygon count (the number of faces of an object) that the computer needs to keep track of can quickly get out of hand, rising in number so that the program starts to lag. I have a pretty decent gaming laptop and it very quickly lost the processing power battle there when I started adding too many faces. When you take into account what’s needed for a successful 3D print, ZBrush (in regards to polygon count) is wasted as well, since your print is probably not going to reflect that level of detail.

Since ZBrush is such a powerful technology, it’s not exactly going to be easy for a beginner to learn how to use. The Pixologic website does offer a large collection of video tutorials, although most require a membership to be able to access them. There are, however, many good ones available for free on Youtube.

Advantages: Very powerful and advanced software

Disadvantages: The $795 USD price-tag, steep learning curve, and the need for advanced hardware to keep up with the processing requirements

Conclusion: For the school setting, I would say that ZBrush is going to be a lot more powerful and expensive than what would be needed for a project involving 3D printing, so something else would probably be preferable.

Blender

Blender is another mesh-modeling software, similar in many ways to ZBrush. It’s not quite as powerful, but one of the most notable differences is that it’s free to use. That’s right, you heard me: it’s free. That fact alone makes it very desirable for classroom use, although like ZBrush, it has a steep learning curve. There is a lot of stuff going on in Blender, so it’s important for you as the teacher to have a very good knowledge of it before introducing your students to it because there will be a LOT of questions to answer. One of the best resources I’ve found to that end is a series of video tutorials created by Neil Hirsig. He’s very thorough and detailed in all of his explanations, and even though he’s using a slightly older version of Blender than what is currently available, everything he says is still relevant.

Blender is also open-source, which means that across the internet, there are many Blender-users that are actively creating modifications that you can download and install into your version of Blender to customize it and make it better for what you need. One of the ones that I’d recommend most simply for 3D printing reasons is the Blender Export Selected add-on, which makes it so that you can tell the program which parts of the scene to render as a printable 3D object. Blender runs on Python script, so if you have any programming experience, then you or your students can create your own modifications as well.

Like with ZBrush, Blender can easily get out of hand in terms of processing power needed, especially when sculpting. I find that this happens more quickly with ZBrush than it does with Blender though.

Advantages: Powerful software, free, large community of users for support, many add-ons and modifications available

Disadvantages: Steep learning curve

Conclusion: For the school setting, I would say that ZBrush is going to be a lot more powerful and expensive than what would be needed for a project involving 3D printing, so something else would probably be preferable.

Polybrush

Polybrush is a yet-unfinished 3D modeling software that looks like it will be about as powerful as Blender and ZBrush, based off the trailer. Its major distinctive draws appear to be design-by-drawing rather than sculpting, “shape brushes,” and its ability to build organic designs easily. For now it’s advertising a free Beta version.

123D Catch

Here’s something a little different. 123D Catch from Autodesk is a mobile app which creates 3D models from “scans” you make by taking pictures from a variety of angles of an object. It then goes and creates a 3D model that can be further modified in other programs like ZBrush or Blender.

It’s not, as you might guess, as easy as it sounds. You can get some pretty good scans of simple objects, but the more detailed the object, the more difficult the scan. I feel like the having the right lighting and background are also pretty essential as the app doesn’t always recognize when the camera has been moved in relation to the object. It certainly takes some practice to get right, but with a little time, it gets easier get better models.

The app itself is free and one of the other advantages of living in the modern age is that most students already have their own smartphones which we as teachers can use to make meaningful connection to how modern technology can be used in effective ways. There is also an integrated community so anyone with the app can see what other people have scanned.

This app is also part of an ongoing effort called Scan the World where people are encouraged to go out and collect pieces of art and history in digital form so that they can be shared and preserved.

Advantages: No additional technology required beyond smart phones, free to use, can take real objects and translate them directly to digital form, simple to use

Disadvantages: It can be tricky to get a good scan, no integrated modeling features

Conclusion: This is an excellent app for any age level within schools. If there is something that needs to be made smaller or printed, then anyone with a smart phone can make use of this app to scan duplicates of already-existing objects.

ReconstructMe

ReconstructMe seems to work in much the same way that 123D Catch does, however it utilizes more advanced capture technology than a basic mobile phone scanner to do it, such as the XBox Kinect sensor. When I get access to one, I will give it a try and review it.

Autodesk’s 123D Design & other Apps

There are many mobile and PC-based apps released for free by Autodesk, all with different functions for a variety of needs. 123D Sculpt, for example, allows you to use basic sculpting functions similar (but lighter) to those found in ZBrush and Blender. 123D Design on the other hand, deals more with geometric mesh objects. Meshmixer specializes in creating mashups between already-existing 3D models that can be found in the database shared between many of these apps. Note that I elected to include 123D catch as a separate entry simply because of the way that it stands out from all the others by means of its use of the camera to scan the environment around it.

These apps are all free, and as noted in the entry for 123D Catch, anyone with a phone can make use of them. That being said, many probably run better on tablets and iPads than they do on the smaller-screened phones that are so abundant.

One of the things that could be both an advantage and disadvantage for these apps is that there are so many specialized apps. I personally sometimes have difficulty keeping track of which one does which and having to pass along models between them all can be a bit of a hassle. Most of these apps also have PC counterparts, which allows for the transfer of models between the PC and mobile devices. For elementary school class projects, this can be useful because one class account can be created so that the teacher can manage individual projects from the PC while the students work independently on iPads.

The one that I want to take a moment to talk about the most here is 123D Design because it’s the one that most heavily deals with shapes for modeling purposes. In a nutshell, 123D Design is like Blender-Lite. It has some of the same functionality with manipulation of basic shapes that Blender and ZBrush have, but to a much lesser extent. With my experience with Blender, it was very difficult for me to be able to go back and use this well simply because I’m used to having a much larger amount of control over my digital environment than what 123D Design allows for. That being said, if you were to go the other way, starting with 123D Design and then working your way up to Blender or ZBrush then you would have a much easier time making progress in your learning.

Advantages: Free, great for beginners, many can be run from smart phones or PC

Disadvantages: Limited controls and functions compared to Blender and ZBrush

Conclusion: These apps are great for beginners to 3D design, and I would recommend these apps for beginners and elementary school level students over some of the more advanced software.

3D Slash

If your students are fans of Minecraft then they’ll feel right at home using this web- or PC-based program. Essentially what this modeling software does is reduce any given model to a collection of small cubes which can be created or destroyed with the click of a button. Of all the modeling software I’ve talked about so far, this one is probably the easiest to just pick up and use. And like with most of the others, it’s free!

3D Slash also offers a premium account which they advertise as for classroom use, which allows for class management and teacher dashboards, as well as private galleries and private versions. (I don’t really know what those mean since I haven’t bought the premium account!)

While 3D Slash is very simple to use, the trade-off, as far as I can see, is in its functionality. What I mean is that with everything within the software as cubes, it would be difficult to sculpt round objects, for example. To this end, I can see this being especially good for very young students, whereas the more advanced programs like Blender or ZBrush would be more useful at the high school level.

Advantages: Very easy to use, has design features for classroom use, free base edition

Disadvantages: Limited in scope due to block-based design, not particularly useful for higher grades

Conclusion: 3D Slash excellent for elementary school students, particularly those who have played Minecraft. I personally wouldn’t use it above the elementary school level though, and I would try to segue into 123D Design before too long after introducing it.

SOLIDWORKS Apps for Kids

This entry is a bit of a placeholder simply due to the fact that these apps are not yet released. The idea seems to be along the same lines as the 123D Design apps, where there are multiple apps for different applications, but with younger kids as the primary focus.

You can sign up on their website for more information and they promise that the Beta versions of the apps with be available soon.

Conclusion: I can’t make one yet since it’s not out yet, silly. That being said, it looks pretty promising in terms of what it can accomplish: making 3D design easy and available enough to be plausible for young students to use.