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If you can do PowerPoint, you can do 3D design

If you're intimidated by the idea of using a 3D design program to create an object for a 3D printer, don't be. In this quick article and tutorial video, you'll see how skills you have with PowerPoint (and other graphic programs) can translate easily to 3D design.

One of the biggest challenges new 3D printing users face is getting comfortable with the idea of 3D design. To many people, using a 3D CAD (computer-aided design) program seems completely out of reach. But, as it turns out, there are a lot of features in 3D design that are similar to those in something almost all of us have had to use: PowerPoint.

In the above video, I created a simple tutorial with two open windows, one in PowerPoint and one in the 3D design program I've been using, the free Autodesk tool 123D Design. By switching back and forth between the two programs, you can see how they parallel each other, even though the user interfaces are substantially different.

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Now, before I go on, let's talk about 3D design programs. There are a ton of them, including a bunch of excellent ones that are free. For this DIY-IT discovery series on 3D printing, I've settled on 123D Design because it's both free, and was used in a whole bunch of YouTube videos that inspired me to explore this topic. You're welcome to use other 3D design programs and you'll find that the similarities I discuss are common across most of them.

For example, when designing slides in PowerPoint, you often have to create basic shapes like squares and circles. You select from an Insert Shapes menu and choose from available shapes. In 123D Design, you can also insert shapes, both three-dimensional and flat. In the demo, I created a square and a circle in PowerPoint and then a cube and a cylinder in 123D Design.

Another similar function most of us are familiar with is grouping. You can treat a set of objects like one object with the PowerPoint grouping tools -- and the same sort of thing exists in 123D Design. In PowerPoint, I grouped a circle and square and moved them around, and in 123D Design, I grouped the cube and the cylinder.

When you want to make objects line up, the alignment tool comes in very handy. Almost all graphics programs have an alignment tool. In PowerPoint, I demonstrated aligning the centers of the square and the circle, and then, in 123D Design, I pressed the 'A' key and aligned the cube and the cylinder.

PowerPoint has a very powerful menu in its Shape Format tab, which allows you to combine and break apart shapes. The Union command combines two separate shapes into one, which makes all of the shape style effects work across what becomes a new outline. In 123D Design, there's a merge function that does the same thing.

PowerPoint, in the same menu, has a subtract function, which allows you to subtract one shape from another. While it's powerful in PowerPoint, it's a go-to tool in 123D Design because you can use it to remove material from 3D objects. Watch the video for a demonstration about how I use subtract to effectively nibble away at portions of a 3D object to get the final shape I want.

Another feature is one we all take for granted in PowerPoint, but often don't think about in 3D design: filling an object with a color. It's easy to do in PowerPoint and it's just as easy to do in 123D Design. While you're not likely to 3D print objects in two colors (unless you have a printer with dual extruders), using color in a 3D design can be very helpful to understand how pieces fit together or for any other organizational approach.

There are a lot of other great features in a 3D design program and we've showcased some of them in other videos. But one that's not in PowerPoint and is very cool is the ability to hollow out the inside of a shape by effectively turning it into a shell. With just a few clicks, I turned a cylinder into a simple cup. You'll see that when you watch the video as well.

Overall, the message I want you to get from this article and the accompanying video is right in the title: if you can do PowerPoint, you can do 3D design. I think I've shown that, for at least a bunch of features, that's really true.

So go out there and make great stuff. Stay tuned. We've got more projects coming.

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.