Friday, February 3, 2012

Printing in 3D Starts With 3D Modeling

Whether you're an engineer with a revolutionary new widget or the next Rodin of our generation (or an architect, inventor, or what-have-you), 3D printing allows you to turn the shape you've conceived in your mind into hard reality. But, before you can send that revolutionary widget or objet d'art off to the printer, you need to first construct that model. The way to do that is with 3D software.

Just take a casual look on CNET, and you'll find a host of 3D design applications, like Autodesk 3ds Max, Rhino 3D or SketchUp. With so many to choose from, it's enough to make you ask, "What do they do?" Or, "Which one is right for you?"

At its most basic, 3D software creates mathematical representations-or "models"-of three-dimensional objects. The real potential of 3D design lies in the sheer breadth of its applications. Engineers use 3D modeling to draft parts and design vehicles. Architects use 3D design programs to realize their conceptions of buildings and landscapes. Scientists use it to depict detailed models of chemical compounds or geological formations. Special effects movies like Transformers, and video games like the Halo franchise owe everything to 3d modeling, and the list goes on.

The term "computer graphics" was first coined by William Fetter back in 1961, when he worked on Boeing Man, the first computer model of the human body. From the 1980s, programs like Wavefront Advanced Visualizer and CrystalGraphics Topas made it to desktop computers. 3D modeling applications evolved over the '90s as programs like 3D Studio Max and Rhino 3D came to the fore. In 1998, My Virtual Model, Inc. brought us the first commercially available 3D human model with the Lands' End Virtual Model 3D dressing room.

Today, the market plays host to a bevy of programs, each one positioned differently along the spectrums of capabilities, cost and ease of use. For example, Autodesk 3ds Max-the contemporary incarnation of 3D Studio Max-boasts industrial-grade power and capability and is well worth it if you've got the scratch ($3,495 to be exact) and the time to master its learning curve.

Rhino 3D, on the other hand, is a solid middle of the road alternative. Rhino 3D has been lauded for both its ease of use and (relatively) low cost. At just under a grand, Rhino is a steal, even if it's not as powerful as 3ds Max.

If your budget is free-to-cheap, then take a look at SketchUp from Google. SketchUp is all about ease of use, plus it comes in both a freeware version and a Pro iteration, which ranges from $395-$495 depending on how many licenses you purchase.

Once you've decided which 3D software is right for you, it's time to decide whether to buy a 3D printer or use a 3D-printing service. Soon after, you can sit back and gaze at your wonderful creation --from concept to reality!

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