Best 3D Printing Software – Create Real 3D Worlds

By Jovan Milenkovic March 8, 2021

While we are still a long way from Star Trek-level replicators, 3D printers bring science fiction closer to reality every day. As prices of these intriguing devices are becoming comparable to those of mid-tier paper printers, we can expect that soon every household will have one. However, this hardware is just an extension of what modelers, designers, engineers, and hobbyists create using the best 3D printing software currently available. Many fantastic software solutions for 3D modeling and printing can be found online. We will show you a few that can help you turn your ideas into reality. 

  • An advanced professional tool
  • Community resources
  • Lots of features
  • Achieving mastery takes a lot of time and effort
Price Free
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  • Easily handles large files
  • A wide selection of mesh repairing tools
  • Perfect for processing 3D scanned models
  • Not very user friendly
Price Free
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  • Simple user interface
  • A wide selection of mesh repairing tools
  • Great printing prep tools
  • Focused solely on 3D printing
Price Free
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  • Great for educational purposes
  • Code-based parametric design
  • Community libraries
  • It can be difficult and time-consuming for beginners
Price Free
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  • Great for product design and manufacture
  • CAD and freeform design
  • Cloud element analysis
  • Trial version for up to 1 year
Price $42/mo
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1. Blender

" Best 3D Printing Software Overall "

  • Functionality:
    Design, file repair
  • User Level:
    Professional
  • OS:
    Windows, macOS, Linux
  • Price:
    Free

Things we liked / disliked:

  • An advanced professional tool
  • Community resources
  • Lots of features
  • Achieving mastery takes a lot of time and effort

Things we liked / disliked:

  • An advanced professional tool
  • Community resources
  • Lots of features
  • Achieving mastery takes a lot of time and effort
  • Functionality:
    Design, file repair
  • User Level:
    Professional
  • OS:
    Windows, macOS, Linux
  • Price:
    Free

One of the most popular, powerful, and best design software for 3D printing is, without a doubt, Blender. It’s open-source software that combines multiple advanced features that you would expect from software like 3D Studio Max or Maya. 

However, it’s not easy to master, and beginners will need to invest a considerable amount of time and effort to learn how to use it. Fortunately, Blender has a dedicated community willing to help out. There is plenty of learning material online, such as video tutorials and helpful literature. 

This amazing software package can do a lot of things apart from 3D printing. It’s full to the brim with tools for modeling, rendering, sculpting, animation, rigging, rendering post-production, 2D drawing, simulation, pipeline integration, video editing, and scripting. If modeling software for 3D printing interests you, then this is the perfect software for you.

Blender’s user interface can be overwhelming for users new to 3D modeling. As you grow accustomed to it, you will most likely start to lean a lot on keyboard shortcuts to speed up your modeling process. This will come naturally to folks using CAD software since they almost exclusively rely on a keyboard instead of using program menus. 

Thanks to Blender’s open-source nature, plenty of community-created add-ons are available that further expand and improve its functionality. One such add-on is the 3D Print Toolbox that makes Blender the best software for 3D printing with professional-level features. This add-on calculates your model’s overhang and volume and detects if the model’s mesh needs repairing before printing. The add-on will show you any issues you might have with your model and which points need to be fixed before printing the file. The most common problems are undefined geometry in mesh intersections, overhang, and thin walls. Resolving these issues before printing is vital, and Blender will show you how to fix them. 

Blender is fantastic for designing both organic and non-organic modes and for printing. However, it isn’t intended for engineering precise industrial parts. There are 3D printer CAD software solutions better suited for accurate measurements that engineers or industrial designers will prefer. 

Blender is brilliant as a modeling software for artists. With it, you’ll be able to create models with insanely high polygon count, crucial for having great-looking prints. 

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2. MeshLab

" Best 3D Printing Software for Repairing STL Files "

  • Functionality:
    Editing, file repair
  • User Level:
    Aimed at professionals
  • OS:
    Windows, macOS, Linux
  • Price:
    Free

Things we liked / disliked:

  • Easily handles large files
  • A wide selection of mesh repairing tools
  • Perfect for processing 3D scanned models
  • Not very user friendly

Things we liked / disliked:

  • Easily handles large files
  • A wide selection of mesh repairing tools
  • Perfect for processing 3D scanned models
  • Not very user friendly
  • Functionality:
    Editing, file repair
  • User Level:
    Aimed at professionals
  • OS:
    Windows, macOS, Linux
  • Price:
    Free

MeshLab, as the name suggests, is an advanced mesh editor. This cross-platform, 3D print, and modeling software started as an assignment for students of the University of Pisa. The goal of this 2005 project was to process 3D models after 3D scanning. MeshLab evolved to a free, open-source program for processing and editing 3D triangular meshes. It packs a whole list of features that can help edit, clean, inspect, repair, render, and texture meshes. 

The process of 3D acquisition is made possible by aligning, reconstruction, color mapping, and texturing. 3D data alignment is an essential part of the 3D scanning process, and Meshlab is a powerful tool in providing a common reference system for the processed data.  The best 3D printer software will be able to clean up the model before printing. While simplification is not something that we prefer in 3D printing, MeshLab is perfectly capable of reducing the number of the model’s polygons and preserving as much detail in the process. 

Since our focus here is on 3D printing, we are more interested in those features. MeshLab can export files in STL  format, one of the most commonly used file formats for 3D printing. It can easily prep the models, make slicing simpler by resampling the model, hollowing it out, creating a watertight mesh, or flattening the model’s bottom side to firmly secure it on the printing surface. 

Meshlab stands out as the best 3D print software for repairing 3D models and preparing them for printing. So if you need free software that will help you remove small isolated components of your model, fill out holes, and remove non-manifold areas, Meshlab is ideal for you.

Meshlabs user interface takes some time to get used to. It looks a bit clunky compared to elaborate menus and commands in programs like Blender. The software is exceptionally optimized, and you won’t have issues opening complicated models on lower-than-average configurations. It’s capable of fantastic color mapping and texturing, so you’ll end up with awesome-looking textured models. 

Meshlab has some exciting advantages compared with its competition. It’s the best 3D software for 3D printing scanned models we’ve tested. It’s excellent for repairing models and preparing them for printing, and anyone who’s ever tried to print unadjusted models will know how important that is. 

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3. Meshmixer

" Best 3D Printing Software for Preparing 3D Models for Printing "

  • Functionality:
    File repair, printing preparation
  • User Level:
    Beginners and experienced users
  • OS:
    Windows, macOS
  • Price:
    Free

Things we liked / disliked:

  • Simple user interface
  • A wide selection of mesh repairing tools
  • Great printing prep tools
  • Focused solely on 3D printing

Things we liked / disliked:

  • Simple user interface
  • A wide selection of mesh repairing tools
  • Great printing prep tools
  • Focused solely on 3D printing
  • Functionality:
    File repair, printing preparation
  • User Level:
    Beginners and experienced users
  • OS:
    Windows, macOS
  • Price:
    Free

Meshmixer is a must-try tool for anyone who has a 3D printer. This free Autodesk-developed application is packed with practical features that make it stand out as the top 3D printing software

The program is easy to master. When you start the Meshmixer, you are prompted to import, open or use one of the pre-set objects. Of course, we had to do our testing with the default bunny model before using our testing prints. Meshmixer handles a good range of file formats. You can use STL (both ASCII and Binary STL), OBJ, AMF, PLY, OFF, 3MF, and MIX. Meshmixer works best with OBJ files and has the best support for that file format.  

Keep in mind that even the best 3D print software may need a bit of adjusting before you can start printing. However, this is just a minor issue concerning XYZ axis orientation. 3D printers traditionally use Z-axis for the model’s height, while X and Y form the printer plate base. Meshmixer uses Y-Axis for height, so just keep that in mind when importing your models. 

The user interface is simple and cleverly designed. Viewing the model is easy, and you have all the essential camera controls like pan, rotate, and zoom. What makes Meshmixer one of the best programs for 3D printing is a set of model prepping tools. You can quickly resize your model by using the Transform Tool Panel or 3D Transform Widget. There are several shader options that you can use for displaying 3D models. The most useful one for 3D printing is the Overhang. It will mark red all the spots on the model that will require supports for printing. 

Meshmixer has a list of supported 3D printers. However, if your printer is not on the list, you can easily set printing volume or import settings. The reason Meshmixer is the best Autodesk software for 3D printing is the set of tools that will make your model or mesh easily printable. The plane cut tool can be used to dismember your model into smaller, more easily printable pieces. You can hollow out the model to save time and printing material. If you are using a resin printer, you can add holes to release the excess material and reuse it. 3D printing beginners will be pleased to know that Meshmixer can automatically or manually create supports for any overhang area on the model. 

The sheer abundance of features makes Meshmixer the best 3D printing software for both veterans and beginners. 

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4. OpenSCAD

" Best 3D Printing Software for Parametric Models "

  • Functionality:
    Design
  • User Level:
    Beginners and experienced users
  • OS:
    Windows, macOS, Linux
  • Price:
    Free

Things we liked / disliked:

  • Great for educational purposes
  • Code-based parametric design
  • Community libraries
  • It can be difficult and time-consuming for beginners

Things we liked / disliked:

  • Great for educational purposes
  • Code-based parametric design
  • Community libraries
  • It can be difficult and time-consuming for beginners
  • Functionality:
    Design
  • User Level:
    Beginners and experienced users
  • OS:
    Windows, macOS, Linux
  • Price:
    Free

If you are on the lookout for something completely different from the traditional CAD software, OpenScad may just be the thing for you. Most CAD software depends on the parameter input for objects you are creating. OpenScad has an even more hands-on approach to user input. This 3D printer CAD software uses its programming language as the basis for designing 3D models.

Designing models by inputting code can be quite exciting and produce very creative results. Parametric input of OpenScad allows users to create easily customizable models. By changing a few numerical values, you can change the model’s properties. The best use case for this is Thingiverse’s customizer. Any 3D model that supports this function can have specific parameters altered and saved to an STL file ready for download and printing. 

While OpenScad is the best CAD program for 3D printing parametric models, it’s also excellent for those interested in learning to program. Having a visual representation of the inputted code is excellent for keeping the students’ learning motivation high and experimenting with different lines of code and results they can produce. 

Another benefit of the code-like nature of OpenScad is that any models can be hosted as code on platforms like Github and shared with the community. Github makes any collaboration straightforward and smooth. So on top of being the best CAD for 3D printing, it’s also open-source and free to use. OpenScad’s community loves sharing designs, models, and advice.  

Despite the positive aspects of OpenScad, some users will find it difficult to get used to this modeling method. It’s complex and may require more time compared with other software solutions. Designing complex models can be challenging. It’s especially true for organic shapes, which don’t follow a pattern that can be easily translated into lines of code. 

Most importantly, any designs can be saved as STL files ready for printing. This modeling software for 3D printing can be a powerful tool to learn programming basics, create parametric parts and exciting models, all for free.

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5. Fusion 360

" Best 3D Printing Software for Prototyping and Product Design "

  • Functionality:
    Design, printing preparation
  • User Level:
    Beginners and experienced users
  • OS:
    Windows, macOS, Android, iOS
  • Price:
    Free plan and paid business plan ($42 per month)

Things we liked / disliked:

  • Great for product design and manufacture
  • CAD and freeform design
  • Cloud element analysis
  • Trial version for up to 1 year

Things we liked / disliked:

  • Great for product design and manufacture
  • CAD and freeform design
  • Cloud element analysis
  • Trial version for up to 1 year
  • Functionality:
    Design, printing preparation
  • User Level:
    Beginners and experienced users
  • OS:
    Windows, macOS, Android, iOS
  • Price:
    Free plan and paid business plan ($42 per month)

Another brilliant Autodesk product that has a fantastic amount of features is Fusion 360. The software is designed for CAD and CAM (computer-aided manufacturing), with plenty of features that engineers, industrial designers, and hobbyists will enjoy. If you are looking for the best CAD for 3D printing and designing anything from a screw to an electric car, look no further – Fusion 360 is the tool for you. 

With Fusion 360, you can prepare the complete manufacturing process of a product. Since this is a CAD-based solution, it’s more than capable of designing industrial parts. Multiple modeling techniques like freeform, mesh, parametric, and others are available. With Fusion 360, you can truly unleash your creativity. 

Fusion 360 has a free version along with the paid premium one. With a robust 3D modeling software for 3D printing, manufacturing, and stress testing, it’s to be expected that some features are locked behind a paywall. If you need a cloud-simulated finite element analysis of parts you are producing, you can’t go wrong with Fusion 360’s subscription. 

Nonetheless, if you just want to try the program and don’t need multi-axis milling, adaptive manufacturing, or plasma cutter functionality, you’ll still have a lot to try out. The trial period lasts for one year, and during that time, you’ll most certainly get used to the program so much that switching to a paid subscription will become the logical next step. 

Fusion 360 has the best 3D printing and modeling software features, and it stands out thanks to its collaboration tools. Sharing your work is as simple as sending a link that the recipient can view as a 3D model in their browser. 

Fusion 360 comes with mobile apps developed for Android and iOS. These are entirely free and can be used for project collaboration. The app supports over one hundred file formats. It can be used to track project activities, review designs, share information, and review assemblies. 

In January 2020, the functionality of Fusion 360 was further expanded by adding electronics design. Users can now design PCB layouts and electronic circuits. 

Let’s sum up what makes Fusion 360 the best 3D printer design software. First of all, it acts as a slicer and prepares your files for printing. It exports the files as G-Code to your printer, so that you won’t need any additional software. It supports metal additive manufacturing, which most free programs don’t. 

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Methodology

If you are at the beginning of your 3D printing adventure, you may feel a bit overwhelmed by the amount of information available on the world wide web. Don’t panic; we are here to break it down for you and help you become a 3D printing pro. 

Let’s first dive into why 3D printing and design software is beneficial. As the name suggests, 3D printing can create 3D objects that you have designed yourself, scanned, or simply downloaded from websites like Thingiverse or Pinshape. However, the real power of 3D printing lies in the fact it can be used for prototype creation, manufacturing spare parts, prosthetics, architecture, even for creating works of art. 

Benefits of 3D Printing Software

Lower Production Costs and Decentralized Production

Let’s say that, to manufacture your product, you need a specific part. You are buying that part from an independent third-party manufacturer. With a 3D printer and design software, you could replicate the required part, produce it on-site, and save money on shipping and purchasing it from a retailer.  

Prototyping Speed

The design process always includes prototype manufacturing to work out any rough edges and design flaws. 3D printing makes this step easy since you can quickly print out your design at any point in the development process. 

Complex Design

With 3D printing, production limitations won’t influence the complexity of your design. Compared with traditional injection molding, 3D printer software has a different approach to producing an object. Models are created layer by layer, freeing you from the design constraints of conventional methods of production. 

Printing on Demand

Unlike standard manufacturing, 3D printing doesn’t require traditional material storage. Whenever you need a part, you can just grab the right file and have it printed. 3D printing can save you space and reduce storage costs. 

Customization

Since we most often use the same software to create and print our 3D models, it’s quite simple to edit your print beforehand. The best 3D modeling software for 3D printing allows you to change your model’s parameters and customize it with just a few clicks. 

Low Waste

3D printing works by adding material to the model you are printing. There is no waste created by removing chunks of material, drilling holes, or sanding the object’s surface to get the desired shape. 

Since 3D printing adds material in layers, some models require supports. They act as scaffolding for the model. These supports are the only waste produced by 3D printing and most often can be recycled. 

Improved Medical Application

3D modeling software for 3D printing is revolutionizing medicine as we speak. The most obvious uses are for creating casts or prosthetics. They can be easily adjusted to patients’ needs to make more comfortable and higher quality solutions than traditionally applied methods. As science progresses, 3D printing is pushed even further by bioprinting. By using living cells as printing material, scientists have produced artificial living tissues. While we are still far from having 3D-printed organs used in transplantation procedures, the possibilities indeed are vast and seem like something straight from the cyberpunk universe.  

When choosing the best 3D printing software for your needs, you need to consider a few things. 

Price

While the price is the most apparent limitation for most users, there are still plenty of software solutions to choose from, even if you are on a tight budget. Many programs have trial versions or are free for personal and educational use. 

Complexity

Some software solutions are more user-friendly and therefore more adjusted toward beginners. A more straightforward user interface usually means somewhat limited functionality compared to advanced programs with more options.

Application 

Some types of software for 3D printing are better suited for engineers and industrial design, while some are better for artists and more organic models. 

Types of Software

There are two basic types of software for 3D printers: slicers and 3D printer hosts

Slicer software processes the 3D model to G-code, a computer numerical control (CNC) programming language. Various industrial-level machines widely use it. In this case, the software slices the 3D model into 2D layers and sends G-code instructions to the printer. 

3D printer host handles the communication between the 3D print program

and your computer. It also serves as a slicer but has additional functionality. It allows you to place multiple objects you are printing on a simulated printer bed, transmit instructions to your printer, and more.

Some software solutions bundle 3D printing functionality with powerful design features. CAD (Computer-Aided Design) programs will let you design anything from nuts and bolts to a helicopter. 

Some programs only view and repair 3D models before printing. This is quite useful because if a 3D design isn’t prepared for printing, it may result in a failed print or a defective model. 

Our review methodology will take all these features into account to find the best programs for 3D printing. We’ll analyze modeling capabilities, preparation for 3D printing, user interface, file type support, and best use cases for the software. We’ve prioritized software that offers features beyond regular slicers.

Top 5 Best 3D Printing Software

  1. Blender
  2. Fusion 360
  3. Meshmixer
  4. OpenSCAD
  5. MeshLab

FAQ

What is the best program for 3D printing?

For the program to communicate with your 3D printer, it needs to act as a slicer. It translates your model into horizontal layers that are translated to G-Code. By interpreting the G-Code, the printer creates the model by using the additive method. 

The best slicing software for 3D printing will have additional functionality besides communicating with your 3D printer. The best program will help you with positioning models on the printing plate, analyze if the model is printable, repair it, and create supports

Since there are plenty of affordable programs that can serve as powerful sculpting, modeling, and CAD tools, selecting just one piece of software is a daunting task. In our review, we found the Blender to be the best overall tool for modeling and 3D printing, and Fusion 360 to be the best CAD and CAM software package. 

What software do people use for 3D printing?

Depending on what you need 3D print and design software for, you might lean towards more creative or CAD modeling solutions. If you are looking for the most commonly used solution with a specialized focus on printing, we would wholeheartedly recommend Meshmixer. If you prefer just downloading the file you need from Thingiverse, Meshmixer will handle everything. 

What is the best free slicer for 3D printing?

The best free slicer-only software we reviewed is Meshmixer. However, most programs we reviewed serve as slicers and 3D printer hosts and have modeling features. Many great 3D printer modeling software solutions are free, with advanced features that you might expect from expensive, subscription-based programs.  

Do you need a slicer to 3D print?

You don’t need dedicated slicer software to print your 3D models. Most advanced 3D modeling software comes with 3D printing features and is therefore capable of slicing a model for printing. The model is sliced into layers, and the number of layers will depend on the printing resolution. The higher the resolution, the more layers will be translated into G-Code and sent to the printer. If you are not sure what software to use, check our guide on the best 3D printing software. You will surely find something that’ll fit your taste and printing needs. 

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