3D print­ing — part five

Ex­plor­ing the fea­tures of Tinker­cad — per­fect for new­bies

The Shed - - Contents - By En­rico Miglino Pho­to­graphs: En­rico Miglino and Cristina Man­fre­dini

The grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of 3D print­ers over the past few years has con­trib­uted to a wide dif­fu­sion of CAD ap­pli­ca­tions.

To­day it is pos­si­ble to choose from a large range of dif­fer­ent ap­pli­ca­tions. If you have never ex­pe­ri­enced the use of 3D CAD it is not easy choos­ing the right ap­pli­ca­tion, and con­sid­er­ing all the op­tions can be con­fus­ing. In fact, one right choice does not re­ally ex­ist. Your choice will mostly de­pend on the use and kind of mod­el­ling you want to do, but by re­duc­ing the range of op­tions to a smaller num­ber of ap­pli­ca­tions the de­ci­sion will be a lot eas­ier. In this and the next part of our 3D print­ing se­ries, we will fo­cus our at­ten­tion on two ap­pli­ca­tions use­ful for those who will be mak­ing their own de­signs for 3D print­ing, both de­vel­oped and dis­trib­uted by Au­todesk — Tinker­cad and Fu­sion 360.

Th­ese are very pop­u­lar ap­pli­ca­tions and I am not spon­sored by them (I pri­mar­ily use Rhino 3D for my de­signs). The rea­son for my choos­ing them is to pro­vide com­pre­hen­sive sup­port at two lev­els: a be­gin­ner’s 3D de­sign ap­proach and an ad­vanced ap­proach with free and easy-to-use ap­pli­ca­tions with­out spe­cial hardware re­quire­ments. This will cover the widest range of users — chil­dren, con­struc­tors, hob­by­ists, engineers, de­sign­ers, and oth­ers.

Soft­ware icon

Start­ing in the early ’80s, Au­todesk be­came pop­u­lar with its AutoCAD soft­ware, 2D CAD draw­ing soft­ware for architectu­ral and me­chan­i­cal de­sign.

Cre­ated by Gary Yos in 1996 and pub­lished by Au­todesk, the ad­vent of 3D Studio Max rep­re­sented a big jump in the world of the 3D solid mod­el­ling ap­pli­ca­tions mar­ket. Dur­ing the last decade the Au­todesk 3D mod­el­ling plat­form has con­tin­ued to evolve with con­tin­u­ous im­prove­ments. To­day there are many com­peti­tors, but this

soft­ware re­mains an icon in the world of 3D de­sign.

More re­cently, Au­todesk has in­vested a lot of ef­fort in re­leas­ing CAD de­sign so­lu­tions for per­sonal use, a sig­nal that this cat­e­gory of users rep­re­sents a grow­ing and in­ter­est­ing mar­ket area.

Try­ing to track the evo­lu­tion­ary path of 3D mod­el­ling soft­ware’s pop­u­lar­ity, we find three main ini­tia­tives. Ini­tially, 3D CAD use was lim­ited to me­chan­i­cal de­sign and a small range of pro­fes­sion­als in other dis­ci­plines. With its sec­ond up­date, 3D mod­el­ling ap­pli­ca­tions started to gain the in­ter­est of an­i­ma­tors, film­mak­ers, artists, and home users.

This in­ter­est re­sulted in the cre­ation of affordable 3D mod­el­ling soft­ware ori­ented to de­sign and an­i­ma­tion. The in­tro­duc­tion of the first ver­sion of open-source 3D mod­el­ling ap­pli­ca­tions like Blender was met with an enthusiast­ic re­sponse from the dig­i­tal com­mu­nity. The pop­u­lar Blender 3D soft­ware can also be used for de­sign­ing 3D print­ing ob­jects but can be very com­plex and quite dif­fi­cult to learn. CAD for 3D print­ing re­ally needs fewer op­tions and a user-friendly work­flow.

Low-cost print­ers

In the mean­time, the large dif­fu­sion of low-cost and DIY 3D print­ers has in­ten­si­fied their users’ demand for free and re­li­able soft­ware to eas­ily de­sign 3D-printed ob­jects. The dif­fu­sion of 3D print­ers moved the open-source de­vel­op­ers’ com­mu­nity to cre­ate spe­cific 3D mod­el­ling soft­ware to pro­duce stere­olithog­ra­phy files (STL).

Over the last few years, Au­todesk has also moved into this mar­ket with the two ap­pli­ca­tions men­tioned: Tinker­cad — easy to use, on­line, and to­tally free; and Fu­sion 360 — a more pro­fes­sional 3D mod­el­ling ap­pli­ca­tion that is also avail­able with a free li­cense for per­sonal and non-com­mer­cial use.


Tinker­cad (tinker­cad.com/) is an en­trylevel ap­pli­ca­tion. The first sta­ble and almost com­plete ver­sion was re­leased in 2012, and it was the first browser-based 3D de­sign CAD for the masses.

Able to run on any browser, the pro­gramme is plat­form in­de­pen­dent and no spe­cial hardware is re­quired. You just reg­is­ter on the site and launch the pro­gramme. The user ac­count you

cre­ate to use Tinker­cad gives access to all the Au­todesk ap­pli­ca­tions.

When you first run it, the web ap­pli­ca­tion pro­poses a tu­to­rial se­ries of lessons to ex­plore the main fea­tures. Pre­vi­ous de­sign knowl­edge is not es­sen­tial and it is per­fect for a newbie. After com­plet­ing the tu­to­ri­als you will be able to draw some sim­ple mod­els and ex­per­i­ment with the de­sign fea­tures and con­trols, prim­i­tive us­age, and the spa­tial editor work­place.

The pro­gramme fea­tures are de­signed to be easy to use and are aimed at hob­by­ists, chil­dren, and ca­sual 3D printer users.

With Tinker­cad you can eas­ily draw 3D mod­els di­rectly, work­ing in a user­friendly 3D mod­el­ling space. Us­ing it is like draw­ing and as­sem­bling ob­jects in the vir­tual en­vi­ron­ment of a 3D printer.

After sign­ing into the on­line ap­pli­ca­tion, the main menu at the top of the page shows the pro­gramme ar­eas, from where you see the avail­able group of op­tions:

• Tinker­cad for …

• Gallery

• Com­mu­nity

• Learn

• Teach

As the ap­pli­ca­tion is browser based, it is per­fect for class­room teach­ing. The process is easy: the teacher cre­ates a class­room ac­count and the au­tho­rized

This soft­ware re­mains an icon in the world of 3D de­sign

stu­dents can access the same mod­els and the group, in­clud­ing the teacher, can in­ter­act and share their progress. One of the Teach menu op­tions is Par­ent. With Tinker­cad it is also pos­si­ble to teach 3D mod­el­ling and 3D print­ing in small groups or at home.

In fact, Tinker­cad is an ap­pli­ca­tion tai­lored for build­ing mod­els des­tined for 3D print­ers, op­ti­mized for a step-bystep learn­ing ap­proach to 3D mod­el­ling that is very en­joy­able and pleas­ant.

Teach your­self

Users with­out any pre­vi­ous knowl­edge wish­ing to self-learn can start at the Learn menu, where they will find six easy lessons on 3D mod­el­ling tech­niques and three oth­ers on how to add sim­ple elec­tron­ics com­po­nents to the mod­els.

The Learn sec­tion in­cludes a lot of video tu­to­ri­als; fully doc­u­mented projects to im­prove your skills through mak­ing toys, mov­ing ob­jects; and more, pre­sented in in­creas­ing lev­els of dif­fi­culty. The tu­to­rial projects guide the user to build their own mod­els and pro­vide use­ful sug­ges­tions and tips along the way. It is a very in­ter­est­ing way of learn­ing the pro­gramme’s com­mands and fea­tures, as well as ac­quir­ing the cor­rect 3D mod­el­ling method­ol­ogy.

The Gallery sec­tion is a great source of in­spi­ra­tion: it pro­vides access to hun­dreds of ready-to-print projects shared by other users.

Ob­vi­ously, you can also save your de­signs. When shar­ing your work you de­cide if it will be avail­able for fur­ther edit­ing and use by other users, or only loaded in the STL (non-ed­itable) for­mat for 3D print­ing, depend­ing on the kind of Cre­ative Com­mons (https://cre­ativecom­mons.org/) li­cense — you de­cide.

The menu op­tions

The first menu op­tion, Tinker­cad for …, of­fers some in­ter­est­ing sur­prises: there are six dif­fer­ent de­sign cat­e­gories:

• Poké­mon

• Planters

• Minecraft

• Fid­gets

• Bricks

• Cir­cuits


This op­tion in­vites the user to de­sign their own Poké­mon char­ac­ters, to sub­scribe to a Poké­mon com­mu­nity, and gives access to an ar­ray of pre-built Poké­mon sub­jects.


One of the most pop­u­lar com­puter

games for the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of teenagers is Minecraft. A cool fea­ture of Tinker­cad is the op­tion to trans­form 3D ob­jects and char­ac­ters into per­fect Minecraft style. At any point of a de­sign, you can just press the Minecraft but­ton to see the same ob­jects in a Minecraft sce­nario. You can ori­ent them in the space as you want and ex­port im­age files.


And what about the Bricks but­ton? By press­ing this but­ton your 3D model will be con­verted to a re­al­is­tic Lego model that you can build with the fa­mous coloured blocks. In this mode, the de­sign is rep­re­sented by lay­ers that can be scrolled one by one — it is a sort of build­ing in­struc­tion for your own orig­i­nal Lego model. Cir­cuits

Cir­cuits is a sort of cus­tom­ized ver­sion of the pro­gramme that in­cludes a wide range of elec­tron­ics prim­i­tives: bread­boards; dis­crete com­po­nents (re­sis­tors, ca­pac­i­tors, LEDs, po­ten­tiome­ters, etc.); and the most used IC (in­te­grated-cir­cuit) com­po­nents (shift-reg­is­ter, half-bridge, power reg­u­la­tor, etc.) next to the inevitable pres­ence of the most pop­u­lar mak­ers’ boards: Ar­duino, BBC Mi­cro Bit, and Rasp­berry Pi.

Through this sec­tion you can build 3D-print­able cases as well as an­i­mated toys and more com­plex ob­jects,

Run­ning on any browser the pro­gramme is plat­form in­de­pen­dent and no spe­cial hardware is re­quired

in­clud­ing your favourite boards and cir­cuits, im­prov­ing the de­sign speed and qual­ity with a min­i­mal ef­fort. Planters and Fid­gets

Th­ese two sec­tions are es­sen­tially sim­i­lar to the oth­ers. Planters (re­fer­ring to mak­ing strange and cre­ative plant vases with a 3D printer), is just a page con­tain­ing a se­ries of links to other users’ cre­ations and a PDF guide. Fid­gets the same. So th­ese two sec­tions are just there to make the ap­pli­ca­tion more at­trac­tive and do not re­ally add any value to the ap­pli­ca­tion it­self.

Graphic prim­i­tives

Ev­ery CAD ap­pli­ca­tion has a se­ries of prim­i­tives used to de­sign com­plex 3D ob­jects, ap­ply­ing 3D Boolean op­er­a­tions, join­ing, en­grav­ing, etc.

For ex­am­ple, you can place a cube on the ground plane, then put a sphere over it, then join the two ob­jects, mak­ing a sin­gle one.

As well as join­ing com­po­nents, you can sub­tract one ob­ject from an­other, split an ob­ject into parts, cre­ate holes, and so on. Com­plex mod­els have been made easy by Tinker­cad thanks to the wide range of avail­able prim­i­tives, the full list of which is ac­ces­si­ble from the drop-down menu to the right of the de­sign editor. The best way to ex­plore the po­ten­tial­i­ties is by try­ing them one by one. With a min­i­mum of prac­tice and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, you can save a lot of time and achieve some very good re­sults.

Make your own prim­i­tives

Tinker­cad of­fers an­other sur­prise ded­i­cated to more ex­pe­ri­enced users.

If the 3D prim­i­tives and helpers avail­able by the ap­pli­ca­tion do not cover all your needs, you can cre­ate your own prim­i­tives with the Shape Gen­er­a­tor (the last avail­able op­tion in the Prim­i­tives drop-down menu).

When gen­er­at­ing a new shape, you are first asked to se­lect one of the ba­sic 3D geo­met­ric fig­ures from a list (or leave null to start with an empty editor). After this step, the Shape Gen­er­a­tor editor starts.

For a com­plete de­scrip­tion of the Shape Gen­er­a­tor, you can read the ex­ten­sive Tinker­cad doc­u­men­ta­tion on­line, but it is worth men­tion­ing one par­tic­u­lar fea­ture — the editor area is di­vided ver­ti­cally into two parts. On the right side, there is the 3D space, while on the left there is a JavaScript editor.

Start­ing from the se­lected prim­i­tive you can try changing some pa­ram­e­ters on the JavaScript side and, after sav­ing your changes, th­ese are ren­dered im­me­di­ately on the right side. This ap­proach is use­ful to learn the maths be­hind the 3D mod­el­ling de­sign. 

The Gallery sec­tion is a great source of in­spi­ra­tion: it pro­vides access to hun­dreds of ready-toprint projects shared by other users

Above: A sim­ple 3D scene cre­ated by plac­ing some ba­sic prim­i­tives on the workspace. The solid prim­i­tives have then been po­si­tioned and re­sized. You will note that by se­lect­ing an ob­ject (the yel­low pyra­mid), it is im­me­di­ately quoted. The se­lected ob­ject can be eas­ily ro­tated, re­sized, and de­formed us­ing the con­trol points shown

Press­ing the Bricks but­ton, the 3D scene has been con­verted to a set of Lego blocks. Depend­ing on the se­lected de­tail level, the blocks as­sume dif­fer­ent pro­por­tions. Sim­i­larly, when an STL model is sliced by the 3D print­ing soft­ware, this Tinker­cad fea­ture cre­ates a se­ries of lay­ers ac­cord­ing to the di­men­sions of the model and the bricks’ thick­ness. The im­ages show some of the lay­ers of the con­verted de­sign. In prac­tice, a Tinker­cad 3D de­sign is con­verted to the assem­bly guide of the cor­re­spond­ing Lego model

Right: When us­ing prim­i­tives made of com­plex poly­gons, by se­lect­ing the ob­ject you also have access to a set of mod­i­fiers. For ex­am­ple, the rounded die in the im­age when se­lected shows a pop-up with three slid­ers: Sides, Bevel, and Seg­ments

Above and be­low: This se­ries of im­ages shows what happens when im­port­ing an STL file cre­ated with Tinker­cad into Rhino 3D, a com­mer­cial 3D-mod­el­ling pro­gramme. After im­port­ing, the STL file is just a sin­gle ob­ject, a solid el­e­ment that can only be repo­si­tioned, scaled or ro­tated. In fact, the STL file for­mat is the out­put rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a solid ob­ject

Left: The pre­vi­ous ex­am­ple scene ex­ported to STL shown in the 3D print­ing soft­ware Repetier

An­other com­po­si­tion de­signed to be trans­formed in Bricks. The im­ages show some of the lay­ers to build the cor­re­spond­ing Lego model

Two build­ings cre­ated with the Skele­ton prim­i­tives. To­gether with Di­nosaur and Con­nec­tors, th­ese are de­sign com­po­nents specif­i­cally pro­vided by Tinker­cad with which to build toys, ob­jects, mov­ing parts, etc., in the eas­i­est pos­si­ble way

Step five: The bread­board is also set as hole, so the bread­board vol­ume will be sub­tracted from the base. The two parts of the base are grouped to­gether, mak­ing a sin­gle ob­ject. The new green colour as­signed to the base is ar­bi­trary to show the change An ex­am­ple of how elec­tronic parts can be em­bed­ded in de­signs to cre­ate — for ex­am­ple — cases, cir­cuit con­tain­ers, or an­i­mated ob­jects, in­clud­ing elec­tron­ics

Step six: Only the parts that should 3D printed are ex­ported: the base and the holes, the four cylin­ders, and the bread­board. The im­age shows the re­sult­ing STL file in the 3D print­ing pro­gramme Repetier

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