How to learn Fusion 360: From makers, for makers

Whether you like a gentle, clear, and organized introduction to a new technology or a fire-hose brain-dump of useful nuggets, we have some video training options for you. Fusion 360 can be hard to learn. The courses we're pointing you to make the barrier of entry much easier to leap over.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Let's talk about 3D printing for a minute. A 3D printer is a mechanism that takes in material (usually plastic filament and resin), performs some processing based on digital instructions, and builds up a finished object layer by layer. Normally, we focus on the machine and the additive nature of desktop fabrication. But today, we're going to focus on those digital instructions.

Most 3D printers (and subtractive devices like CNC machines) use a programming language called G-code (not to be confused with the 1999 album by rapper Juvenile, the 2005 song by Geto Boys on their The Foundation album, or the album put out in 2008 by Korean rapper Eun Ji Won).

The G-code we're looking at as a foundation for desktop fabrication goes all the way back to the 1950s and the MIT Servomechanisms Laboratory. It consists of a relatively large number of numeric codes (many preceded by the letter "G", hence G-code) that function as commands that tell machines what specific actions they're to take. Codes can move a gantry to a specific X/Y/Z position, can control the heating and cooling of print heads, can instruct the printer to feed out filament, and more.

The thing is, while some diehard 3D modelers will code in G-code, it's almost impossible for mortal humans to design complex 3D models directly in G-code. Instead, we use 3D modeling tools, or CAD/CAM (for computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing). These are tools that let us create graphic representations of shapes, build them up, mold them, trim them, and turn them into digital models.

Programmers will be very familiar with this approach. In the same way that compilers convert human-readable lines of text into binary machine instructions that the CPU operates on, CAD/CAM programs and slicers comprise a pipeline converting human-viewable 3D models into G-code that fabrication machines operate on.

If you're going to print something on a 3D printer, you're either going to download an already-designed model from a repository like Thingiverse or MyMiniFactory -- or you're going to design it yourself. If you design it yourself, you're going to need a 3D modeling program. Those who have followed my articles and videos have seen me discuss 123D Design (which is unfortunately discontinued), TinkerCAD, SketchUp, and Fusion 360.

Also: Practical 3D prints: A first TinkerCAD project for your 3D printer

You can certainly use any of these programs to model your design, and then export your model to an STL file, which will then go through a slicer and be translated to G-code. I use TinkerCAD a lot for my quick-and-dirty Practical 3D Printing projects because it's quick and super-easy to learn.

SketchUp is another 3D modeling program. It's much-beloved by woodworkers and builders. It's quite comfortable with designing an entire piece of furniture or even an entire house. I just started using SketchUp, and I'm using it to design my new dust collection cart for the workshop. The cart itself is mostly woodworking.

Fusion 360 is on a completely different level from either TinkerCAD or SketchUp. You could use Fusion 360 to design a car. It's an insanely complex, stupendously powerful program. That makes it a little hard to approach and even harder to master. I've been using Fusion 360 now for about three years and I'm still coming up to speed with it. I used Fusion 360 to design the Ultimate Cable Organizer and also the dust collection adapter system I've been teasing over Instagram (it will eventually turn up in an article).

Bob likes to make stuff

That's where Bob Clagett comes in. Bob went to design school and spent years both as a designer and a software developer. Now he runs the YouTube channel I Like To Make Stuff. If you haven't spent time poking around I Like To Make Stuff, you've missed a treat. Not only does Bob do compelling and fun projects, but he's an excellent teacher. I've learned a tremendous amount from him ever since I started watching.

Fusion 360 for Makers

One of the reasons I've gravitated to Bob's channel is that his projects are a mixture of technologies and techniques. He often combines a variety of fabrication techniques with basic woodworking and a bit of programming. All that is right up my alley.

Also: Practical 3D prints: Increasing workshop storage with bolt-in brackets

Not all of Bob's projects on I Like To Make include 3D printing, but many do. Those that do tend to involve making some custom 3D printed object in Fusion 360. I'm guessing that Bob got enough questions about Fusion to inspire him to create a course, and that's what he did.

Fusion 360 for Makers

A month or so ago, Bob sent me an access code for Fusion 360 for Makers, and I've been gobbling it up ever since. This is a very well done course. It's not free. It costs either $120 in a single payment, or two payments of $60. It consists of 72 videos, ranging generally from about 2-6 minutes. This course is not related to the book of the same name, Fusion 360 for Makers by Lydia Sloan Cline.

Let's get this out of the way upfront. If you can budget the $120, the course is well worth it. Bob has a very approachable, very clear training style which makes the videos easy to digest. I thought I knew a lot about Fusion 360, but in the first 15 minutes I picked up a few tidbits I didn't know. That was cool.

The Podia player is a little annoying. When doing the lessons, there's a menu of lessons on the left side, but they don't have time details. So you don't know how long each lesson will be. There is a master list on Bob's site, but that's not as convenient as seeing the lesson time. Even once you load the player, it shows how long you've watched, but not how long the lesson is. That said, most of Bob's lessons are in the five minute range, so you can pretty much watch any one of them without too much time being taken.

His tone is friendly and encouraging, including a helpful lesson "don't get overwhelmed". As I said earlier, Bob's teaching style is awesome, which is why I recommend paying for this course even though there are extensive and helpful Fusion 360 lessons available on YouTube for free.

Each chapter ends with a short quiz. Quizzes, even simple ones, are proven to aid in learning. I know this because I have a Master's degree in education and I had to write long tedious academic research papers on the value of learning assessments for retention. Bob's quizzes are relatively minimal, but some of the proposed answers are laugh-out-loud funny. That humor is an effective involvement device that encouraged me to want to take additional quizzes just to see the next Bob joke.

While I really enjoyed this course, there are some issues you should take into account before ponying up your $120. First, keep in mind that Fusion 360 is very, very complex. There's no way you're going to learn all it can do -- and especially, gain true mastery -- in just four and a half hours or so of training. Bob doesn't attempt to teach everything. Instead, he gives you a gentle introduction. It's enough that by the time the course is over, you'll feel moderately comfortable using the product.

Unfortunately, his examples are more suited for woodworkers than 3D printers (although his CAM section later in the course makes up for that and rocks). He shows how to design a bookcase and a bed frame. Neither of them involve the kind of curves and complex shapes that a 3D model often requires. I recently used Fusion to make a hollow, V-shaped hose adapter and I needed to skin the model around a curve and add threads that worked. Nothing of that level of complexity was in Fusion 360 for Makers.

In fact, the course left out a number of Fusion concepts I'd really hoped to see Bob explain. There was no discussion at all about constraints, which are integral to how Fusion limits model architecture. There was no real discussion of mirroring. And while one of Fusion's great differentiating features is its timeline, he only spent 49 seconds on it, which isn't really enough to understand its usefulness or how to apply it. The timeline is so integral to Fusion 360 that it really warrants more attention.

Bob balanced these weaknesses with deeper dives into other areas where Fusion excels. He talked about parametric design (which allows an entire design to reconfigure itself based on coded variables). And, as I said, he provided a very helpful, gentle dive into using the CAM features of Fusion, particularly for exporting to 3D printing slicers.

Free alternatives

There are free alternatives to Fusion 360 for Makers. The two I recommend have a lot more information than Bob provides, but neither is as welcoming or as well organized, and neither benefits from Bob's teaching talents.

The first I want to mention is on Arnold Rowntree's channel. He has two playlists, Fusion 360 Basic Tutorials (with 19 videos) and Fusion 360 Intermediate Tutorials (with 6 videos).

Then there's Lars. Lars Christensen works at Autodesk and runs a somewhat independent YouTube channel with an amazing amount of Fusion 360 training. Some of his videos are basic and tutorial in nature. Others are deep dives into one or another subject. He has 530 videos online (as of when I'm writing this) and you will, without a doubt, learn from him.

The challenge with Lars is discoverability. Finding just the right video for what you want to learn is tough. Some of his videos cover multiple topics, so you might miss what you want to know because all the topics don't always surface easily in the main interface.

There is absolutely no doubt you should bookmark Lars' channel. But if Bob's course is organized and gentle, Lars' lessons are often a roller coaster of information, fire-hosed right at you. That said, if you have a nice cup of coffee and a piece of pumpkin pie, I definitely recommend you devote some time to absorbing Lars' brain dumps. They are fascinating.

Are there any Fusion 360 resources you've found helpful? What 3D printing projects are you working on? Let us know in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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