• Tom Price

Choosing a CAD program for 3D printing

Not all CAD programs are created equal, rather they each are optimized for an intended use case. This can create challenges when trying to make a part for 3D printing. In some cases the programs might not even be able to makes designs that can be 3D printed. In this post we will take a look at the differences in CAD programs when it comes to 3D printing. We will discuss how they internally represent their models and the challenges their internal representations present.

the logos for Google SketchUp, Blender, and OpenSCAD


Lightweight and/or free programs such as SketchUp are primarily intended for representational purposes or limited 3D printing. They enable you to digitally visualize your designs. However, the generated models can be difficult or virtually impossible to use for any non visual purpose. Since these programs are just for visualization they often lack supporting interoperable file formats making the model difficult to view or edit unless everyone has the same CAD program. Some even go as far as making their file formats proprietary making them all but impossible to use elsewhere.

Overall they are great for making simple objects and cool visualizations. However, these programs make it difficult to integrate into modern digital workflows. When looking to 3D print with a model from these programs it is often necessary to recreate the model in a more capable CAD program.

The logos for Rhino, Revit, and Chief Architect


Professional CAD programs like Rhino, Revit, and Chief Architect are more robust and allow users to create complex accurate CAD models. They have extra utility allowing users to produce accurate technical documentation needed for manufacturing or construction. Very rarely though are components made directly from these models and instead the models are used to generate documentation such as drawings and bills of material which are instead sent to manufacturers for components, trusses, beams, internal structures, and more.

However, these programs often struggle to make directly manufacturable 3D models. Issues of non-manifold geometry prevent to models from being exported successfully to Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) software. In some (such as Rhino) models can be modified to allow them to be 3D printable by making the model “water tight”. A practice of closing neighboring surfaces to ensure there are no overlaps or gaps.

logos for Solidworks, ProE, and AutoDesk


Engineering grade CAD programs (Solidworks, ProE, Catia) are the most capable programs and can export designs directly to CAM software which can then directly produce the artifacts. They are governed by parametric equations (NURBS specifically for those wanting to dive down a rabbit hole) which explicitly and perfectly define in mathematical equations every shape, curve, and angle that defines a part. These are the most restrictive and difficult programs to model in but objects that exist in these programs usually can exist in real life. These programs are the most compatible for transferring CAD directly for 3D printing with little to no design work though the design itself may require additional work to optimize them for 3D printing.

If you choosing a CAD program or are looking to have a model 3D printed feel free to reach out. We are happy to work with clients at any stage and with all programs and even 2D programs such as AutoCAD. Though in some cases we my need to perform 3D modeling / CAD work ourselves or even remodel the part in a useable format.

Contact us and let us be your 3d printing experts.