3D printing hands on: How to design your first 3D project without tears

Most people are intimidated by the idea of designing their own 3D objects, but it turns out that the basics can be simple and easy. In this article, we take a look at building our first project using nothing but simple rectangles.

Beyond the ever-dropping cost of 3D printers themselves, one of the biggest perceived barriers of entry to 3D printing is the supposed difficulty of the design process. And, make no mistake: if you're building Jony Ive-level designs, the design process is hard.

But if you just want to make objects that are useful around the home, office, shop, or data center, 3D design can be simple and painless.

In this edition of DIY-IT's discovery series on 3D printing, we'll look at making our first design in a CAD program and then printing it on the MakerBot Replicator. The design took less than 20 minutes to do (and you'll see the whole thing in real time on the video). The print was once again the longest part of the process, taking about five hours to completely generate.

Let's start off by talking about design programs, otherwise known as CAD (or Computer Aided Design). There are a lot of 3D design programs, some free and some commercial. Different designers swear by different programs and, like with most software, certain programs are better at certain kinds of projects than other programs. Over time, you're likely to pick up a few favorites.

I'm going to use 123D Design from AutoDesk. I chose it because it's free and also because a number of the YouTubers who built interesting projects used it, and it seemed reasonably approachable. Just because I'm using this tool doesn't mean it's the best for you. But we'll use it for now.

Today's project is a simple tray made from rectangles. The idea is that if you can create rectangular slabs, you can turn them into a lot of useful objects. The entire knock-down (or ready-to-assemble) furniture industry relies on assembling different sized rectangles into many different forms, resulting in desks, bookcases, tables, and more.

3D printing with 123D Design

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We'll start by taking a cube and sizing it to 2.5 mm high by 100 mm long and 125 mm wide. Most of the CAD programs and 3D printers tend to like millimeters, and it is often easier to work in units of ten rather than units of 12, so once you start 3D printing, you'll be walking on the metric side.

We'll make four other rectangles, which become the sides of the tray. All that's needed is a tool that moves and rotates, and you'll see how to do that in the video as well.

Finally, we'll move and rotate those rectangles in position, save the file, and send it to the printer.

Watch the 22-minute video at the top of this article for a complete step-by-step set of instructions, but what I really want you to take away from this is that 3D design isn't scary. It's a little tedious, and a little boring, but it's also a lot of fun. And the potential for all you can create is insanely exciting.

So go ahead and download a copy of 123D Design and build your own projects. In fact, even if you don't have a 3D printer, you can get a feel for the design process by downloading the program and tinkering virtually. If you want to print this box, I've posted both the .STL and 123D Design files to my Thingiverse account.

Have fun and build great things!

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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