3D printing — part five
Exploring the features of Tinkercad — perfect for newbies
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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:
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.
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.
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