This article is about finding the best 3D printing software for every stage of your workflow. Which 3D printing software is best for preparing 3D models to print? How about designing 3D models from scratch? What if you’re an absolute beginner?
Have no fear, we’ve answered all of these questions, together with information on proficiency levels and where they can be downloaded. And the best thing is that all of them are either totally or free for students, educators, and open source projects.
We’ve also added a section on the 3D printing workflow. This way, you can get a better understanding of how each 3D printing software fits into the process.
Have we missed your favorite 3D printing software? Let us know in the comments!
Cura is the benchmark slicer software for all Ultimaker 3D printers, but it can also be used with most other 3D printers. It’s fully open source and can be extended via a plugin system.
This 3D printing software is very easy to use and allows you to manage the most important 3D print settings in a clear interface. Start in “Basic” mode for rapid on-boarding, where you can choose reconfigured printer quality settings. When you need more precise control over the print quality settings, switch to over “Expert” mode.
You can also use Cura as 3D printer host software for direct control over your machine, but the 3D printer needs to be connected to the PC for the duration.
Seamless CAD integration with the likes of SolidWorks and Siemens NX prove the software’s worth in professional applications, but for the vast majority of home users Cura is a simple and accessible slicer for 3D printing.
Learn More: Cura tutorial
Recently revamped to version 2.0 (which at the time of writing is in beta on Windows), MatterControl is a CAD and 3D printing software for your desktop computer. Featuring printer host functionality that lets you directly control and monitor printing when connected via USB, you can also slice STLs for export to SD card for offline printing and even generate designs in the new CAD section of the software.
The interface is remarkably well structured. To the left side you have a file browser and a library of geometric primitives for importing into your print. A new and most welcome feature is the ability to take these primitives, drag them into position on the STL you wish to print, and designate them as support structures, allowing for truly customizable supports.
Suitably advanced print settings for configuring your print jobs and a slick viewer rounds MatterControl out as a comprehensive 3D printing software for most aspects of the print process, from support preparation to slicing and control.
A cloud-based solution to 3D printer management, 3DPrinterOS is a comprehensive suite that encompasses print job queuing and delegation, printer control and an app-based plug-in system that allows for STL analysis and repair, plus in-cloud slicing.
Essentially, the one-stop-shop for taking an STL to printed object with barely a finger lifted.
Don’t be fooled by the acronym of this program. It may be called “Keep It Simple Slicer” but it is actually a pretty sophisticated 3D printing software tool. Some have hailed it as a worthy alternative to the other 3D slicer software tools, others complain about the confusing interface.
While the free version will be sufficient for most users printing with only one extruder, the paid Pro version enables multi-head printing.
Slic3r is Open Source slicer software with a reputation for adding bleeding edge features that can’t be found anywhere else.
Admittedly it’s been some time since the last stable release (back in 2015) but even this still holds its own against the rest, and serves as a baseplate from which other Open source slicers have grown. Slic3r’s 3D honeycomb infill is a particular revelation, creating structurally useful shapes in 3D throughout the interior of a print.
Another plus of this 3D printing software tool is direct integration with Octoprint. When files are sliced on the user’s desktop, they can now be uploaded directly to OctoPrint for printing at the click of a button.
From the brains behind IceSL, SliceCrafter is a browser-based slicer. With a simple dialogue to upload STLs or paste web links to pull STLs for slicing, you can quickly and conveniently prepare g-code for printing using the vast majority of options afforded to you by IceSL itself.
IceSL is a remarkable piece of 3D printing software. It is not merely a 3D slicer software, but also a 3D modeling tool. In the left window, you can edit your model directly via scripting in a Lua-based language. At first glance, this may seem like a frightening prospect but it enables some nifty parametric modeling. The center window is a live preview.
Finally, on the right, you can find a wide array of slicing settings. Pre-configured beginner-friendly settings make quick and easy slicing an option, but expand out the advanced settings and you open up a world of nifty tricks the IceSL team has developed over the years.
Most notable from the last release is progressively variable settings, which allow you to specify different values for a specific print setting at certain layer heights, with IceSL graduating the changes itself. This means smooth transitions from dense to light infill and fine to coarse layer heights, among others.
Octoprint is a “pure ” web-based 3D printer host that allows you to exercise complete control over your printing jobs and printer itself. Combined with a WiFi enabled device — such as a Raspberry Pi — that is hooked up to your printer, you can dial in and control your machine remotely via OctoPrint’s web interface.
Octoprint accepts G-code from virtually any 3D printer slicer software and incorporates the gCodeVisualizer that allows you to visualize G-code files before and during 3D printing. Alternatively, you can slice STLs files directly in OctoPrint itself, using it as an all-in-one print preparation package.
And perhaps best of all, OctoPrint is open source and has a thriving community around it. Easily activated plug-ins expand OctoPrint’s functionality, making it a robust solution for most 3D printing purposes.
If you want to banish your 3D printer from your desktop and to control it wirelessly, Octoprint is possibly the best 3D printing software currently on the market.
Learn More: Video tutorial on getting started with Octoprint
The great-grandaddy of 3D printing software and the favored choice within the RepRap maker community, Repetier is open source and highly capable software for 3D printer control and slicing.
Straddling the intermediate to advanced user spectrum, Repetier is pitched as an all-in-one solution, offering multi-extruder support (up to 16 extruders!), multi-slicer support via plugins and support for virtually any FDM 3D printer on the market. Be prepared to do a lot of tinkering!
Moreover, Repetier Host also offers remote access features via Repetier Server, so you can access and control your 3D printer from anywhere via a browser on your PC, tablet or smartphone.
3D-Tool Free Viewer is a sophisticated STL viewer that also allows you to check the structural integrity and printability of your file. The “Cross-Section” feature, for example, lets you take a look inside the model and check the wall thickness.
This can be useful when you want to check your STL file for show-stopping errors before you start 3D printing. It won’t slice the STL for you, but this 3D printing software gives you the all clear within a simple and easy to use interface.
This web service checks your STL files for mistakes that might corrupt the print and fixes them. Unlike most free online services though, MakePrintable gives an impressive level of control. You can choose a quality level (prototype, standard and high), hollow and repair the mesh and optimize the polygon count. It even allows you to merge multiple meshes into one.
In the free version of this 3D printing software, users can repair non-manifolds, flipped-faces, boundary edges and intersecting objects on 3 models a month. For advanced options like instant repairs, texture support, hollowing support and adjustable wall thickness, the paid commercial option ticks the box. It also boasts plug-ins that connect it seamlessly with Blender and Sketchup.
Meshmixer is super advanced 3D printing software for viewing, checking, editing and repairing STL files. It’s especially good for spotting potential problems and automatically repairing them. For example, highlighting paper-thin walls that might cause problems when 3D printing. It’s part of the Autodesk 3D printing software family.
MeshLab is an advanced STL editing software that allows you to refine and repair meshes, merge models into solid, and even repair holes. When you need 3D printing software to repair and clean up an ugly 3D print model, MeshLab is a solid option.
Netfabb is 3D printing software for slicing that features advanced STL analysis and repair features, letting you fix up a model before you get to the slicing stage.
Ordinarily subject to Autodesk’s subscription model, students interested in trying Netfabb are in luck. The company offers a free three-year license of Netfabb for those in education.
TinkerCAD is a browser-based computer-aided design (CAD) app that serves as a good entry point for beginners.
Similar to 3D Slash, you can use this 3D printing software to build 3D models from basic shapes, customizing parameters to achieve precision in what you create. TinkerCAD also allows you to create geometrical (vector) shapes in 2D and convert them into 3D models.
Here we have a 3D printing software that’s both wonderfully easy to use and refreshingly different. With 3D Slash, you design 3D models using a simple building-block concept.
Either start with a huge block and remove small cubes by using tools such as a hammer or a drill, which essentially act as virtual stone-cutters, or begin with an empty work-space and build your model by adding cubes or other shapes. You can also add colors and use images as templates.
Other features include a logo and a 3D text maker. The logo maker imports an image and creates a 3D model while the text maker allows you to enter and format text and turn it into 3D text.
Available primarily as a browser-based app that is completely free, paid-subscribers can access an offline version on many operating systems. 3D Design for non-designers.
Sculptris is a virtual sculpting tool with a core functionality you could liken to modeling clay. This is a fantastic 3D printing software if your primary goal is to create statues or figurines. For example, this 3D printing software would be great when creating a bust of your favorite character from video games or comics books. Sculptris is completely free, and positions itself as a gateway to the more sophisticated (and expensive) ZBrush tool.
Vectary is a powerful 3D design web app that offers possibly the slickest interface and range of out-of-the-box options for quick and convenient 3D modeling. Integration with a range of asset libraries including the likes of Sketchfab makes scene creation a case of drag-and-drop, and advanced modeling tools let you generate your own from scratch.
Clearly created as a tool for outputting high quality renderings for web and graphic design, export to OBJ makes Vectary a viable option for 3D pritning. And best of all — accessible from anywhere via a web browser.
Mixing the accessibility of TinkerCAD with the power of more advanced 3D modeling tools, Figuro strikes the right balance for someone looking to advance their 3D modeling skills without diving in at the deep end.
Operating on the design principle of polygonal modeling, you create objects in Figuro by generating shapes (polygons), manipulating and compositing them together. Such a system can cause issues when creating models with the intent to 3D print, so perhaps err on the safe side and use a dedicated STL checker/repair tool on your exports.
An underrated feature present in Figuro is the pleasant and easy to navigate UI. Add to this the work-from-anywhere convenience of the being browser-based and you are left with a winning design solution
SketchUp as a suite of 3D modeling software offers the perfect mix of simplicity and functionality, with a user-friendly interface and relatively flat learning curve attracting newbies and advanced drawing tools appealing to experienced makers alike. This makes SketchUp one of the most popular 3D printing software tools for designing 3D models.
Previously known as SketchUp Make, SketchUp Free is the browser-based version (a paid SketchUp Pro is available for desktop) and features all you need for 3D modeling for printing, provided you download the free STL export module and install it.
Fusion 360 is a professional 3D CAD program tool created by the design software pioneers at Autodesk. Unlike other professional solid-body 3D modeling tools, this program is exceptionally strong in usability and covers the whole process of planning, testing, and executing a 3D design.
This 3D printing software has powerful parametric tools and analytic mesh tools that are well-suited to take on most challenges involving industrial design. Moreover, it is able to simulate both the construction of the designed components as well as the stresses they will face once they are actually manufactured and put to use.
Fusion 360 also sets itself apart by offering sophisticated collaborative features. It supports cloud-based file sharing, version control, and import/export of common CAD file types.
And best of all, if you’re a hobbyist, student or startup then Fusion 360 is completely free. There are a couple of stipulations though: hobbyist use must be non-commercial, as a startup you must be making less than $100,000 a year and the Educational license is limited to three years.
FreeCAD is a feature-rich CAD software and a great resource for developing your design skills. A parametric 3D modeler, at its basest models are created in FreeCAD according to parameters rather than how one might normally think when picturing 3D modeling in the mind — i.e. dragging and manipulating objects directly with the mouse.
Usefully, it’s possible to manipulate every aspect of your design by going back into your model history and editing its parameters.
Blender is a popular computer-aided design (CAD) software with a steep learning curve. It’s perhaps not the best choice for the beginner just getting to grips with 3D modeling, but it’s ideal when you’re comfortable with the concepts and want to develop your skills and produce sophisticated 3D models.
In a nutshell, Blender is one of the most powerful 3D printing software tools you can use. It has a very helpful community and is the subject of a huge number of tutorials online. That and it’s open source, so people are often writing extensions for it to make it even better and more capable.
Onshape is a mighty enterprise-grade CAD software suite that is entirely browser based. Aimed at professional level users who want version control and the ability to collaborate easily, you get parametric 3D modeling and file-less projects accessible to all stakeholders from the cloud.
Indeed, one of the most interesting features of this free CAD software is its collaborative mode. Unlike installed CAD and PDM, Onshape gives everyone on the team instant access to the same CAD work space and same CAD data in one central place in the cloud. Another nifty feature is the ability to manage a master design without the need to save copies or keep track of numerous different file versions.
Typically one would have to pay to access OnShape but educators and their students are in luck. It’s possible to set up a “Class” for communal use of Onshape at school, giving entire classes access to it’s powerful features for free.
If you are new to 3D printing, you might be left wondering what all these 3D printing software tools do and how to make sense of it all. You should know that the 3D printing workflow consists of four major types of software which do their work in series and make 3D printing possible.
3D modeling software, 3D design software, and 3D CAD software let you design 3D models on the computer. You can design anything from a screw driver to a model of a car.
Of course, if you don’t want to design your own 3D model, you can also download 3D models made by others from Thingiverse and other 3D model marketplaces.
STL file viewing, editing and repairing 3D printing software: Whether you make your own 3D model or download it from the internet, you will most often end up with an STL file. However, not all STL files are perfect and some may have defects. Defects lead to poor printing or outright print failures.
STL file viewing, editing and repairing software let you visualize, change and fix STL files to ensure that they are ready for 3D printing.
Slicer software: A slicer then converts the STL file into G-code, which happens to be the language that 3D printers understand. It’s called a slicer because that’s literally what it does; it chops up the 3D model into thousands of flat 2D layers and provides G Code instructions to the printer about how to print each layer.
3D printer host: Finally, a 3D printer host connects your computer to the 3D printer and handles all communication between the two devices. In particular, it is responsible for transmitting G Code instructions to the printer. It also allows you to monitor the printing process and change settings in real time.
Very often, the functionality of a slicer and the host are bundled into the same 3D printing software.
These four classes of 3D printing software work together in unison and lets you go from a 3D model to a 3D printed object.
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License: The text of "24 Best 3D Printing Software Tools of 2018 (All Are Free)" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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