Picture of Create a 3D printed 3D fractal
Who doesn't love a good fractal image? Beautiful, ornate shapes expressed though a series of simple formulas. Recent advances in the Fractal Arts have surfaced a whole new breed of 3D fractal shapes - and they are fantastic! Check out this channel on Vimeo to see some of the possibilities: Mandelnauts.

I'd like to show you how you can bring some of these incredible shapes into the real world via 3D printing. We'll be using a 3D printing service like Shapeways or Ponoko - so all you'll need is a PC, some free software, a few hours to tinker, and a few bucks for the final 3D print.  I suppose this is a little less physical than most Instructables, but these 3D printers are starting to blur the line between real and virtual.

There are 3 main steps to this process, and each involves a different piece of software. You won't need to master any of them, though. We'll just pop in to use the features we need, then pop out and onto the next step. If you're comfortable installing new software and you don't mind poking at a few mysterious menu items then you'll be fine. 

Step 1: Gather Your (free) Tools

Picture of Gather Your (free) Tools
First, we need to load up our virtual assembly line with a few free tools.

We'll be using a program called Mandelbulb 3D to generate our shapes. Grab it. This is an app that allows you to explore the strange new world of 3D fractals. M3D is Windows only but it does work on Macs via Wine or CrossOver.

It's a complex, somewhat arcane program - but we'll be concentrating on just a few features. Be warned - if you have a weakness for eye candy or algorithmic art you can easily get lost in the Mandelverse for long stretches of time. ;)

From there we'll move onto an app called Fiji. Grab it. Fiji is cross-platform. I know very little about this one, except for the fact that it will gobble up the stack of images from M3D and spit out the resulting shape as an .OBJ mesh. Easy peasy.

The last stop on the line is Meshlab.  Grab it. Meshlab is a powerful app that can perform all manner of topological wizardy. We'll use this to clean up the mesh and prepare it for 3D printing. Opensource and cross-platform.

I've collected these links and a few other resources into a Bitly bundle for easy access.

Get yourself setup with those three apps and let the tinkering commence!
GeoffreyB24 months ago

Excellent article Don

JacobN5 months ago

My computer is trying to open the finished .stl file as something called a Certificate Trust List.... that isnt going to be a problem when I actually try to print this thing out, is it?

And thanks for an awesome Instructabe!

MR86 months ago

Another good program to create fractals is mandelbulber, but it remains to be seen if something done using it can be 3d printed. Great ! I had been waiting for sometime now for someone to think of making 3d fractals actually 3d by 3d printing them.

Vtsst made it!8 months ago

Awesome step-by-step guide! I made one: https://sketchfab.com/models/eb41f1d9621c4c2a98475fb4f6555b54

dizingof3 years ago
Great Tut !!

I recommend Ponoko.com not Shapeways - for a much better surface details & quality.


randofo3 years ago
The second pic in the intro is really cool. Did you get that printed as well?
Don Whitaker (author)  randofo3 years ago
No yet, randofo, but I am prepping that one to print. I wanted to see the results of my current print before going for one of the crazier shapes. My print from this tuitorial should be here in just a couple of days.

I've created more of these 3d objects and am using them for various 3D projects. Most of the plants and some of the terrain in my Crashed Lander game started ou as shapes in Mandelbulb 3D. You can play the game at http://CrashedLander.com or see more examples in this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRfCPoI2RX8

Lindie3 years ago
Very nice! If only I knew what fractal was.... Oh, don't explain it to me, I'm still trying to figure out my remote control. But 3D printing intrigues me...so do shapes.
Don Whitaker (author)  Lindie3 years ago
I'm glad that the interesting was greater than the confusing. :) 3D printing intrigues me, too. I'm only just getting started. It'does seem to be getting a goof foothold now and I think that it will be more common and consumer-friendly in the near future.