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What software is best for the basest of n00bs when it comes to 3D parts creation?

I have a heavy math background and know how to create explicit functions of volume, surface area, center of mass, etc. Ideally, I'd like a program that uses those strengths but I realize that most n00bs have a crippling math phobia so I'm not holding my breath.

I tried freeCAD once and made some headway but the next time I turned my computer on, it refused to open. It was just a weakling netbook that I don't even have in my possession anymore but the computer I'm currently using is rather slow and doesn't seem to have much memory left either, so I still need something lightweight.

tl;dr: Seeking a free, lightweight program to create .stl files that is good for n00bs that are not afraid of math.

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I don't have a heavy math background, but enjoy using such skills when applicable.

If you've not yet explored OpenSCAD, you may find that it meets your qualifications. It's more or less a scripting/descriptive language "compiler" that takes ordinary text and converts it to your model design. I use quotes, because I'm not skilled enough to qualify it as a true compiler, although it works in a similar manner and may indeed be a compiler.

It meets another qualification of yours in that it's free and there's quite a supportive mailing list/forum for any questions or difficulties that arise. If you look on Thingiverse using OpenSCAD as a search term, you'll find others' code available for examination and integration into your own models.

For the folks who are not so much into the math and text and logic, there's a GUI of sorts for OpenSCAD called BlocksCAD that allows drag and drop of various modules in a manner akin to Scratch programming.

I'd been using OpenSCAD long enough that I found BlocksCAD to overly complicate the creation of models by obscuring details. It may be better suited for younger model makers in that respect.

Syntax and punctuation errors would be eliminated with BlocksCAD, while it's far too easy to create such errors in the editor for OpenSCAD. One gets used to it and error count quickly is reduced.

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    $\begingroup$ I concur re. OpenSCAD -- if you're not scared off by doing affine transformations and writing your own 'for' loops, it won't take long to learn. It may be more work at the outset (as compared with something where you drag shapes in a GUI), but as soon as you try to re-use part of a design (in the same or a different overall object), modify some feature without manually manipulating every related part, etc, you'll regain all that time and more. $\endgroup$ – TextGeek Mar 14 '16 at 17:47
  • $\begingroup$ I started making models in OpenSCAD using "brute force" assignments. Seeing someone else's work using parametric values has made my model creation that much easier. As an example, my recent model measured out to a 20mm gap, printed to a 19mm gap and fits perfectly when I set the gap to 21.5, which changed all the other dimensions of the model related to that axis. Parametric assignments meant one number changed in the code and bingo! $\endgroup$ – fred_dot_u Mar 14 '16 at 23:22
  • $\begingroup$ OpenScad Rules. $\endgroup$ – EvilTeach Apr 15 '16 at 1:21
  • $\begingroup$ For those interested in BlocksCAD: it's an open source software with the code on Github. Not updated since April 2017, so it might not be the latest version found on blockscad3d.com, though. $\endgroup$ – tanius Apr 26 at 16:16
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The software I began with was Tinkercad, it is a fully online solution that is very beginner friendly. The interface is trivial to use and there's a 15 minutes tutorial that guides you over everything the software has to offer to the common user.

Here is a screenshot of the interface and a part I made using the basic tools : enter image description here

It works the following way : you are provided with a dozen basic shapes (cube, sphere, etc...) and you create your model using boolean combinations of those shapes and translation, rotation and scaling. That's for the base.

Then there is a very large collection of more complex shapes provided by the community (screw, stairs, tree) that tend to be very useful to create specific things and a very important aspect is that those shape usually have some parameter you can adjust at the creation of the object (say the thickness of the trunk and the number of branches of your tree).

The last increment of complexity is that those community objects are actually made using JavaScript (with their own API, it's not related to openjscad) and you can create your own objects by using their interactive JavaScript interface. That's when your programming and mathematical knowledge will be required.

As a small PS note: my personal taste is, depending on the part I want to make, to use either Tinkercad, Freecad or Openscad

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OpenSCAD sounds like the best fit for the original poster given his math background but I think SketchUp is probably the easiest software for most beginners to use for basic part creation.

There are two (or three) plugins I would recommend for anyone looking to use it to produce STL https://extensions.sketchup.com/en/content/sketchup-stl https://extensions.sketchup.com/en/content/solid-inspector https://extensions.sketchup.com/en/content/solid-inspector%C2%B2

The first one allows export to STL The second and third check models to ensure they're solid. This is important for 3D printing as slicers have issues when models have holes in them.

One more tool I would recommend to the beginner is http://www.netfabb.com/basic.php

It also checks over STL files to ensure there won't be any problems slicing them.

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  • $\begingroup$ As the original poster referenced his interest and likely his skills in math, the OpenSCAD option is superior to SketchUp. I can think of no circumstances where a strong knowledge of formulae and mathematical processes would be implemented in SketchUp, unless one is creating a plug-in or a specialty script. For beginners, I'd want more information from the prospective user. $\endgroup$ – fred_dot_u Mar 14 '16 at 23:20
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    $\begingroup$ You are restating exactly what I said in the first sentence of my answer. The purpose of my answer was to provide an alternative answer to the question of "Good (preferably free) beginner software for part creation" which inevitably will attract other beginner users who may not have a math background. If you don't like the answer you don't have to vote for it. $\endgroup$ – Kevin Morse Mar 15 '16 at 0:16
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I recommend Fusion 360 as it is free to use, full of tutorials and is super simple.

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Blender is a free professional level application, where maths isn't particularly necessary but can be used to good effect, and its minimum requirements aren't all that excessive (my copy of Blender runs on a maxed out 20 year old Dell 380):

Minimum (basic usage) hardware

  • 32-bit dual core 2 GHz CPU with SSE2 support.

  • 2 GB RAM

  • 24 bits 1280×768 display

  • Mouse or trackpad

  • OpenGL 2.1 compatible graphics with 512 MB RAM

Recommended hardware

  • 64-bit quad core CPU

  • 8 GB RAM

  • Full HD display with 24 bit colour

  • Three button mouse

  • OpenGL 3.2 compatible graphics with 2 GB RAM

Optimal (production-grade) hardware

  • 64-bit eight core CPU

  • 16 GB RAM

  • Two full HD displays with 24 bit colour

  • Three button mouse and graphics tablet

  • Dual OpenGL 3.2 compatible graphics cards with 4 GB RAM

If you like coding, then Python and C libraries are available as well.

Also, there is a StackExchange site dedicated to Blender, which is useful.


As a comparison, from Best 3D Design/3D Modeling Software 2019 (15 of 30 are Free), this comparative list could be useful

Name            Level             OS                                           Price                                Formats
3D Slash       Beginner        Windows, Mac, Linux, Raspberry Pi or Browser    Free, 24$/year Premium               3dslash, obj, stl
LibreCAD       Beginner        Windows, macOS and Linux	                       Free                                 dxf, dwg
Photoshop CC   Beginner        Windows and Mac	                               142€/year                            3ds, dae, kmz, obj, psd, stl, u3d
SculptGL       Beginner	       Browser	                                       Free                                 obj, ply, sgl, stl
SelfCAD	       Beginner        Browser	                                       Free 30-day trial, 9.99$/month       stl, mtl, ply, dae, svg
TinkerCAD      Beginner        Browser                                         Free                                 123dx, 3ds, c4d, mb, obj, svg, stl
Clara.io       Intermediate    Browser                                         Free, Premium from 100$/year         3dm, 3ds, cd, dae, dgn, dwg, emf, fbx, gf, gdf, gts, igs, kmz, lwo, rws, obj, off, ply, pm, sat, scn, skp, slc, sldprt, stp, stl, x3dv, xaml, vda, vrml, x_t, x, xgl, zpr
DesignSpark    Intermediate    Windows	                                       Freemium, 835$ (All Addons)             rsdoc, dxf, ecad, idf, idb, emn, obj, skp, STL, iges, step
FreeCAD        Intermediate    Windows, Mac and Linux                          Free                                 step, iges, obj, stl, dxf, svg, dae, ifc, off, nastran, Fcstd
MakeHuman      Intermediate    Windows, Mac, Linux                             Free                                 dae, fbx, obj, STL
Meshmixer      Intermediate    Windows, Mac and Linux                          Free                                 amf, mix, obj, off, stl
MoI            Intermediate    Windows and Mac                                 266€                                 3ds, 3dm, dxf, fbx, igs, lwo, obj, skp, stl, stp and sat
nanoCAD        Intermediate    Windows                                         Freemium, 180$/year                  sat, step, igs, iges, sldprt, STL, 3dm, dae, dfx, dwg, dwt, pdf, x_t, x_b, xxm_txt, ssm_bin
OpenSCAD       Intermediate    Windows, Mac and Linux	                       Free                                 dxf, off, stl
Sculptris      Intermediate    Windows and Mac	                               Free                                 obj, goz
SketchUp       Intermediate    Windows and Mac	                               Free, 240$ Pro                       dwg, dxf, 3ds, dae, dem, def, ifc, kmz, stl
3ds Max        Professional    Windows                                         1505$/year, Edu. licenses av.        stl, 3ds, ai, abc, ase, asm, catproduct, catpart, dem, dwg, dxf, dwf, flt, iges, ipt, jt, nx, obj, prj, prt, rvt, sat, skp, sldprt, sldasm, stp, vrml, w3d xml
AutoCAD        Professional    Windows and Mac	                               1575$/year                           dwg, dxf, pdf
Blender        Professional    Windows, Mac and Linux                          Free                                 3ds, dae, fbx, dxf, obj, x, lwo, svg, ply, stl, vrml, vrml97, x3d
Cinema 4D      Professional    Windows, macOS                                  3695$                                3ds, dae, dem, dxf, dwg, x, fbx, iges, lwf, rib, skp, stl, wrl, obj
modo           Professional    Windows, macOS, Linux	                       1799$                                lwo, abc, obj, pdb, 3dm, dae, fbx, dxf, x3d, geo, stl
Mudbox         Professional    Windows and Mac                                 85€/year                             fbx, mud, obj
Onshape        Professional    Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android               2400€/year, free and price reduced business version available    sat, step, igs, iges, sldprt, stl, 3dm, dae, dfx, dwg, dwt, pdf, x_t, x_b, xxm_txt, ssm_bin
Poser          Professional    Windows, Mac                                    Standard 129.99$, Pro 349.99$        cr2, obj, pz2
Rhino3D        Professional    Windows and Mac                                 495€ Educational, 995€ Commercial    3dm, 3ds, cd, dae, dgn, dwg, emf, fbx, gf, gdf, gts, igs, kmz, lwo, rws, obj, off, ply, pm, sat, scn, skp, slc, sldprt, stp, stl, x3dv, xaml, vda, vrml, x_t, x, xgl, zpr
ZBrush         Professional    Windows and Mac                                 400€ Educational, 720€ Single User   dxf, goz, ma, obj, stl, vrml, x3d
CATIA          Industrial      Windows                                         7180€; Edu. licenses av.             3dxml, catpart, igs, pdf, stp, stl, vrml
Fusion 360     Industrial      Windows and Mac                                 499.80€/year, Edu. licenses av.      catpart, dwg, dxf, f3d, igs, obj, pdf, sat, sldprt, stp
Inventor       Industrial      Windows and Mac                                 1935$/year                           3dm, igs, ipt, nx, obj, prt, rvt, sldprt, stl, stp, x_b, xgl
Solidworks     Industrial      Windows                                         9950€, Edu. licenses available       3dxml, 3dm, 3ds, 3mf, amf, dwg, dxf, idf, ifc, obj, pdf, sldprt, stp, stl, vrml
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I am using DesignSpark Mechanical. It's super cool and easy to use.

DesignSpark Mechanical Download Page

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