Introduction: 3D Printing for Museums (Introduction to Autodesk Fusion 360)

3D printing is an exciting tool that museums can use in so many ways--to create accessible touchables for use in the galleries or educational programs, to make models of artifacts or exhibition designs, or even to make 3D maps! Unfortunately, many museums don't have the budget to buy their own 3D printers or have anyone on staff who would know how to operate them. That's where this tutorial comes in. Fusion 360 is an accessible software that is easy to download and use, and many local libraries or maker spaces have 3D printers available for public use. With this basic introduction to the software, anyone can learn how to make amazing 3D printed objects, and even tiny museums can make use of this great technology.


A computer with internet access and which meets the system requirements for Autodesk Fusion 360

Access to a 3D printer (check out your local library!)

Step 1: Getting the Software

For this tutorial we'll be using Autodesk Fusion 360, which is available to download here. Anyone can get a free 30-day trial, which is perfect for people just wanting to try it out and get a feel for what it can do.

You will also need to set up an account with Autodesk in order to use the software. One great benefit of setting up an account with them is that you can save your designs online and access them from anywhere.

Step 2: Open a New Project

When you open Fusion 360 for the first time, you'll be greeted by a big empty grid that looks something like this. Welcome to your fresh new project!

If you ever need to start a new project (maybe you got part-way through and it's not working, or you have two projects on the go, or just want to have a place to experiment), there are two ways to open a new tab and get another empty grid to work on:

  • The first, and easiest, is to simply click on the "+" tab to the right of your active tab (circled in red here)
  • The second way is to go to the top bar, and go to File > New Design

Step 3: Start Your "sketch"

Now you're ready to start making something!

First, click on the "Create Sketch" button in the top left (circled in red in the first image). You'll see the grid change a bit, and orange and blue diamonds pop up to represent the different 3D planes you can work with. Click on one of them. It doesn't matter which plane you pick, but I like using the bottom one (with a red arrow).

Your view will shift to something like the second image, where you're looking straight at a basic grid, this time with some new buttons and menus.

Let's start by making a rectangle, which we'll use as the base for our model today. Go up to the menu just above your grid, and choose the "2-point Rectangle" button on the left (circled in red in the second image). Then you can click on your grid to place where you would like the corners of your rectangle to be.

Very important: Click the green "Finish Sketch" button in the top right corner to finish making your shape.

Tip: Make a mistake you don't know how to undo? Not happy with your rectangle? Down in the bottom left there are some buttons that look like video controls. Icons will appear to their right, representing actions you take in the program. By selecting those icons (the part it affects will become highlighted on your grid) and then pressing delete you can undo or delete unwanted actions.

Step 4: Add Some Depth (Extruding)

Now let's take that flat shape and give it some depth!

Click on your shape (it'll turn a darker blue), and then press the "Extrude" button (circled) right beside the "Create Sketch" button we just used. A new side menu will appear, as well as a small dialogue box beside your shape. Type in the depth (in mm!) you would like it to be, either in the dialogue box or the "distance" field in the side menu. Hit enter and your shape will become 3D!

Tip: to get a better look at your new masterpiece, you can use the "orbit" tool (circled in the second picture) to spin your perspective. The "pan" tool (it looks like a little hand, near the orbit tool) is also a good way to reposition your perspective. If you're working on a laptop, you can use hand gestures like pinching or scrolling with two fingers on the trackpad to move your perspective as well.

Step 5: Rounding Edges ("Fillet")

This next tool is useful for adding some extra polish to your piece by perfectly rounding off sharp edges. It's an easy way to make an attractive "plinth" for your models!

To begin, all you need to do is click the "Fillet" tool (circled) and then select the edges or faces of your shape you'd like to round off. If you select a face, all of the edges will be rounded off (like in the second picture). Then, type in the depth of the rounding you'd like in either the pop-up menu or the small dialogue box beside your place (see arrows in the first picture). Feel free to experiment with different depths to get the look you want!

Tip: To undo (or redo!) a step, you can use the undo/redo buttons in the top left (they look like little arrows). Or, you can press "Command" (Windows users press "Control" instead) and "Z" on your keyboard to undo, and "Shift" "Command" "Z" to redo.

Step 6: Curves and Free-form Shapes

Ready to put something on your fancy new plinth? Tired of straight lines and right angles? Let's experiment with free-form shapes and curves!

Once again, we're going to press the "Create Sketch" button. You'll see the orange "plane" diamonds reappear, but this time, instead of choosing one of those, we're going to select the top of our plinth (picture 1). This lets us draw a shape and build directly on top of it. Your view will switch so you're looking directly down at the top of your plinth.

First, let's try a free-form polygon. Click on the "Line" button, and then click on your plinth to make whatever shape you like. Don't forget to press "Finish Sketch when you're done! Just for fun, try selecting your new shape, click "Extrude", and then give it a negative value (make sure it's less than the height of your plinth). This will create a sunken area instead of raised one.

Now let's try something a little different. Press "Create Sketch" and select the top of the plinth again. This time, click the "Fit Point Spline" button (circled). Experiment with placing different points and watch how the outline of your shape changes. When you've got a closed shape you're happy with, press "Finish Sketch".

Step 7: Offset Planes and Lofting

Stay with me here, because this is going to sound a little complicated, but it's very cool and not as complicated as it seems. Let's say we want to build a shape up, like extruding, but have it change shape as it goes. For example, we want something with a square base that flows up to a round top. Or, in our case, something that flows from one awesome wiggly shape to a different wiggly shape. To do this, we're going to use two new tools: Offset Plane and Lofting.

An offset plane is a plane that's parallel, but higher or lower than the default planes you start with. Think of it like floors in a skyscraper- they're all level to the ground, but they're all at different heights. To make an offset plane, click the "Construct" button (circled). If the icon doesn't look like the one in the picture, click the tiny black triangle to use the drop-down menu and select "Offset Plane". Next, you select the plane you want it offset from. Since we want to play with our wiggly shape, select it. A mini menu and dialogue box will pop up where you can enter how far away you want your new plane to be. I put in 20mm so we can get a good view at what will happen in the next step, but put whatever you'd like. When you press Enter, you'll end up with a neat translucent orange rectangle floating in the air above your plinth- that's your new plane!

Go ahead and select that new plane, click "Create Sketch", and draw another wiggly Fit Point Spline shape. Don't worry if it looks like you're just drawing on your plinth again; once you hit "Finish Sketch" you'll be able to see you've been drawing on the new plane.

Now for the really fun part! Click your bottom wiggly shape, then use the "Create" drop-down menu to select the "Loft" tool. Then click your higher wiggly shape (the one on your offset plane) and press "Ok." Admire your amazing new shape!

Step 8: Hollowing Out ("Shell")

Let's play around a little bit more with our fancy lofted shape, shall we? Fusion 360 offers a neat tool called "Shell" that lets you hollow out a shape, which is very handy if you want to make any kind of container or tube.

All you need to do is select the "Shell" tool (circled), then click the plane of your shape you want to be the open end (in our case, the top of our lofted shape), and type in how thick you want the walls of your hollowed-out shape to be.

Tip: If you get an error message, try making the walls thinner. This feature doesn't always work on more complicated shapes.

Step 9: Adding Text

Being able to add text is another great feature Fusion offers, and is especially helpful for adding a label to your museum model.

To add text, begin by clicking "Create Sketch" and selecting where you would like the text to be. Then, under the "Create" drop down menu, select "Text." A pop-up menu will appear, where you can type in your text, adjust the size, choose a font, and apply other effects. You can also drag and rotate the text by dragging the circles near the beginning of the text (see arrows in second picture). Remember to "Finish Sketch" when it's where you want it!

Once you've made your text, you can use tools like "Extrude" to make it more prominent.

Step 10: Using "Revolve" to Create Forms

"Revolve" is another great method for making curved and rounded shapes. Start by sketching a profile of the shape you want using "Create Sketch" (try combining free-form lines and fit point splines!). Then, click your shape and choose the "Revolve" tool (circled). You need to then pick the axis or plane you want your shape to revolve around. This might take some playing around to get right- just remember you can always use Command + Z to undo mistakes!

Once you've got the basic shape you want, try using tools like "Shell" and "Fillet" to hollow it out or nicely finish the edges.

Step 11: Save and Export Your Work!

To make sure you don't lose any of your hard work, be sure to save it! Since Fusion saves to the cloud, you'll be able to access your designs from anywhere. To save it, simply go to File > Save in the menu at the top of the screen.

Now, if you plan to print your work, you'll need to Export it. Go to File > Export in the top menu, and choose "STL Files" from the "Type" drop-down menu. STL stands for “stereolithography,” and it's the most common and universal file format for 3D printing. Depending on the printer you're using, another file format might work better for you, but STL is generally a safe bet. Save your export to a USB key, and you're ready to head to a printer!