Focusing on 3D Printing
A quick search will reveal that there are many mobile apps made for “3D design” out there, so you might have some trouble sifting through the whole pack to find one that’s reliable and functional. Things get even more complicated when you realize that most 3D design apps are targeted towards visualization or fun rather than designing 3D printable models.
Fortunately, we were able to find some of the best 3D design apps for mobile devices — apps that are actually worth their space on your home screen.
In addition to that, we only selected apps that fit into a casual 3D printing workflow, with one noteworthy exception that has its own significant use case.
The Platform Situation
Here’s the thing: As you can imagine, a tablet form factor is more suitable for 3D design than a tiny 6-inch phone screen, and the tablet landscape is dominated by iOS devices. Due to this popularity, and also the more suitable hardware of iOS devices, many developers target this platform with their apps. As such, most of our selections are only available for iOS.
It’s also worth noting that we’re only listing apps made for mobile operating systems. Because, although Microsoft Surface devices are technically “tablets”, they run a desktop operating system and desktop software, which means they have full access to Solidworks, Fusion 360, and other extremely capable professional software. They don’t need specialized apps to accommodate 3D design.
Let’s start off with a heavyweight: the parametric modeling powerhouse, Shapr3D. This app, with almost four hundred reviews on the App Store and a 4.5-star average, is powered by the same modeling engine as professional modeling software Solidworks.
It doesn’t take much browsing of its user interface and feature set to see that this app is targeted towards professional engineers and industrial designers. Shapr3D allows you to create concepts on the go, concepts which can be exported to desktop software for more granular editing at any time.
In a nutshell, if you’re looking for an app for even a semi-professional use case, look no further. Shapr3D is one of the most functional and reliable mobile apps out there for parametric modeling.
What fun would a touch-centric operating system be without sculpting apps? That’s where Sculptura comes in — an app that hopes to satisfy all your virtual clay-morphing cravings.
It’s a fairly intuitive sculpting tool similar to Sculptris, the desktop software commonly referred to as a “lite version of ZBrush”. The simple set of tools available in Sculptura makes it most suitable for creating base meshes, which are then exported to desktop modeling software for more granular edits.
The interface is clean, and the performance is smooth. It’s a modeling experience clearly optimized for mobile, so if the functionality fits your workflow, you won’t be disappointed. And if the price tag scares you away, we’ve got you covered with the next option.
The best way to sum up Putty3D is “a cheaper Sculptura”. Sure, it hasn’t got as many ratings, but it gets the job done for about half the price of Sculptura. Keep in mind, however, that its modeling tools are slightly more limited. Thus, if you’re a relatively advanced sculptor, you might want to skip straight to Sculptura.
With Putty3D, you still get the mobile-optimized modeling experience, file export to desktop apps, and clean user interface that you would enjoy in Sculptura, so if budget is a concern of yours, here’s your chance to work on those base meshes on the go.
The one app that always seems to make it onto a list about 3D design apps is uMake. This iconic app takes a unique approach to modeling because of its touch input. You mainly use 2D sketches to form 3D shapes, but the experience somehow feels more like 2D drawing with an added dimension variable instead of traditional parametric modeling with planes and sketches. It’s difficult to explain in words, you just have to try it yourself.
A nice bonus of uMake is the ability to view your 3D designs in augmented reality. You can literally project your supercar concept onto a live video view of your garage, to see if it will fit (next to your imaginary Porsche 911).
A Word of Warning
Maybe it’s the way the interface is designed, but uMake naturally invites the creation of organic shapes, even though it’s not a sculpting tool, per se. That brings us to an important aspect to consider about this app: It feels more suitable for concept work and visualization rather than physical manufacturing with 3D printing.
Sure, you could export the 3D files you design with uMake to more advanced 3D modeling software like Fusion 360 and Meshmixer, but the import options hint at a more design-centric (as opposed to manufacturing-centric) purpose.
Photoshop, Procreate, Autodesk Sketchbook, and other popular 2D drawing apps are among the supported import sources. This might allude to the developers’ intention to make uMake an app for concept artists primarily working with 2D sketches and visualizations.
This popular DWG viewer and editor is quite a solid option for architecture or BIM-related functions, but bear in mind that you won’t be using this if your interest is to make something for a 3D printer. AutoCAD the mobile app is designed for the viewing and lightweight editing of DWG files, a common file format in the construction industry. It’s quite good at its intended function, but that function is not 3D printing.
In truth, we almost have to mention AutoCAD because of its notoriety in the 3D design space. It’s in a completely different category than the other apps mentioned here, but at least now you won’t mistake it as a 3D modeling option for your printing needs.
And now for something completely different. (But still worth it.)
Picture this: Your shiny iPad, with its pressure sensitivity and spectacular stylus support, running desktop modeling software. That describes the reality created by Luna Display, a solution that allows your iPad to function as a second display, and input method, for your Mac computer.
You first plug tiny dongles into the iPad and the computer, which establishes a wireless connection between the two machines. Through this, the iPad mirrors your desktop screen, and you can use the touch input of the iPad with your favorite desktop modeling apps, like ZBrush, for instance. The beauty of this approach lies in the fact that it combines the hardware of the iPad, which is suitable for modeling, with the power of desktop software, which is superior in functionality to mobile apps.
What’s truly outstanding about this solution is that iPad specialties, like pressure sensitivity, are available with Luna Display, too, meaning your iPad turns into a slick drawing tablet for your desktop software. You can barely imagine how smooth the experience of sculpting in desktop software is when you’re using the cutting-edge hardware of the iPad.
An Older Variant
The creators of Luna Display provide another solution that is similar in function: Astropad. Astropad does the same thing as Luna Display, except it works with more versions of the iPad, and uses WiFi or a USB connection, instead of a dongle pair.
If you don’t want to break the bank, or you just want to see what all the fuss is about with this unique solution to modeling on mobile devices, Astropad is a good option.
Listed above are some stellar options for 3D modeling on mobile devices; there are solutions for many different use cases. We’re truly lucky that mobile devices have evolved to a point where they are capable of 3D modeling, a task traditionally reserved for heavyweight desktop systems.
As smaller devices become more powerful, we can only expect the ecosystem of powerful mobile modeling apps to grow, so keep an eye on this space, even if you can’t find what you need right now. The horizon is littered with innovations.
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License: The text of "2019 Best 3D Modeling / 3D Design Apps for iPad & Android" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.