From Concept to Reality: 3D Design and Printing for the Common Man.

Introduction: From Concept to Reality: 3D Design and Printing for the Common Man.

3D printing has changed the way I think about how I interact with the world.  As I have learned to use the tools, I think a lot about how to use printing to make my world more functional, more exciting or just cooler!  Being able to make something that doesn’t exist or that costs more than I want to pay has been inspiring and fascinating.  And really, once you learn a few simple tools, it’s EASY and FUN!!

There are many ways to go about making 3-D Models for printing.  Some of these ways involve putting forth a lot of money into high cost software with esoteric control schemes and then a lot of effort into learning how to use them.  I don’t know about you, but I have neither in great surplus, so in the past several years, I have been exploring the easiest and cheapest methods available on the web to design and create things. 

This instructable focuses on giving you a crash course into the most simple ways I have found to get you making physical objects from your computer.

Tools needed to make a 3D model:
    • Computer (hopefully, you already have this)
    • Sketchup (with CADspan resurfacer).
    • Tinkercad (web-based).
    • NetFabb Studio (get the free version for repairs)

Basic Software for printing your 3D model:
    • 3D printer (Makerbot makes some great desktop models.  Not free, unfortunately)
    • Replicatorg (also free at

I'm lucky because I have access to a 3D printer at work.  If you don't, there are several print-on-demand services that can make your models into reality!  If going this route, check out Shapeways, Sculpteo, Ponoko or i.materialise.  Even if you have access to a low-end 3d printer, don’t disregard these services.  If  you need more detailed / higher resolution prints of your designs, they could be the way to go.

Part 0:

Before we begin, it will be important to download and install the current version of Sketchup on your computer as well as get and install the CADspan sketchup plug-in. You will need to make an account to use CADspan, but it makes taking 3D models into a state that can be printed easy!  Sketchup will mainly be used for the “mechanical” model of this instructable.

Next, make a tinkercad account.  Tinkercad is a web based design program, which is easy to use and can be used for more “artistic” projects.

Although I tend to think about Sketchup as “mechanical” and tinkercad as “artistic,” either program can be used to achieve similar results, but the workflow of each program is quite different as you will see.

While not technically necessary if you don’t have a 3D printer, it’s a good idea download and install Netfabb studio basic which I use to repair anything that might be wrong with the model.  There are places you can send your models to be printed, so having this program is still a good idea if you are going to go from digital design to printed object.

Finally, if you do have access to a 3D printer, you’ll need the software to run it.  I use ReplicatorG.

Whew!  That’s a lot of installing!

On to the fun stuff!

Step 1: PART 1: Defining the Design

The first step is figuring out what you want to design.

Are you creating a work of artA chess setA new ring to hold on your shower curtain?  Each idea might need a different program in order to help it turn out well with a minimum of headache. 

For this instructable, I decided to design and run through one of my current projects to show two different ways of working, artistically and mechanically.  This will allow me to talk about a couple of the options and workflows open for budding designers. 

I recently bought the core set for a tabletop board game called X-Wing Miniatures.  Based on the Star Wars license, the game is a fast playing ship combat game which is really quite a lot of fun.  The downside is that the ships are rather expensive and building up a good size army is out of my price range.

Also, I would love to use the mechanisms of the core system, but start pulling in my own ship designs or building ships from other franchises.  Why not Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica?  I would love to have an X-Wing vs Viper battle!  And with 3D printing, I can make this a reality!

For the first part of the project, let’s talk mechanical, detail-oriented building.  In this case, I decided to work on reverse engineering a flight base for the game x-wing miniatures to allow me to use Micromachine ships (of which I have several from both Star Wars and Star Trek) in the tabletop game. 

For the second part, I thought I would keep with the theme and design a spaceship of my own to use in the game. I can have fun with the design and not have to worry about it looking perfectly like something already existing.

Now, table top war games might not be your cup of tea.  My passions very likely aren’t your passions  However, the concepts I will go over in this instructable can be applied to the things you do care about!  That is the power of the 3D printing revolution!

Step 2: PART 2: Building the Flight Base!

This is what the flight base looks like for the game.

It is a specific size (40mmX40mm) and needs a place to hold the ship, the ship’s number counters and the stat card. Because I want things to be exact, I used Sketchup to create this piece.

Step 3:

 I loaded Sketchup and selected the mm template.  What I got was a screen that looks like this.

It may look different than what you have.  That’s because I went into VIEW-> TOOLBARS and turned on only “Large tool set” “Styles,” “Shadows,” “Views,” and “CADspan.”  This is my default view for working in Sketchup.

You may want to select and delete the girl, she is just there for scale and can get in the way.

Step 4:

The first thing I did was measure the part I wanted to duplicate.  Since the base is 40mm square, I selected the square tool with the mouse.  

Then I started drawing out a base square. Click once to start drawing.  Start dragging your mouse and you should see the box appearing on the ground plane.  You should also see the dimension numbers in the lower right of your screen changing as you move the mouse.  This is one of the best features of Sketchup.  At this point you can reach over and type “40mm, 40mm” (without the quotes) and hit enter and it will create a box of that size. 

Unfortunately, one of the quirks of sketchup is that larger models tend to need less repair at the end of a project.  I’m not sure why this is, but it’s annoying to have a model with problems.  I counteract this effect by multiplying my measurements by 100.  So I am going to make a 4000mm by 4000mm box instead.

Step 5:

Right now, I have what amounts to a flat sheet of paper.  I need to create some volume! 

For this, I measured the basic height of the base (4mm) and used the push / pull tool  to raise the dimension of the box 400mm (remember, I’m multiplying by 100). 

Now I have a 3D object!

Step 6:

Next I want to measure the various distances and parts of the flight base so I can start drawing out the important parts.  There are two things that can help me with this. 

First is the ability of sketchup to snap to midpoints.  I can take the pencil tool   and draw lines across my cube to find the center.  One thing I want to be careful of is that the line I’m drawing changes color.  If it is parallel to the red axis, it will be red.  If it is parallel to the green axis, it’ll be green.  If the line is black, that means it’s probably going off in some crazy direction, but you can’t tell because we are looking at a 3D space on a 2D surface and sometimes optical illusions occur.

Please note, the line WILL turn black after you click to finalize the line.

Step 7:

You can rotate around your object by using the orbit tool.   

Alternatively, click down on the mouse wheel as though it were a button and you will automatically get the orbit tool.

Step 8:

I spent a little bit of time measuring out my flight base and breaking it down. 

Then I used the tape measure  to start to put guidelines in for myself.  For example, there are two small walls that hold the stat card in place that are 34mm apart.  I used the tape measure to create guides 17mm (1700 with my scale) from the center point. 

This let me place lines across the base and raise them using the push/pull tool.

Step 9:

Next, I used the circle tool to draw out the space where the ship’s post attaches to the base.

There were a couple spaces to hold numbers there too, so with some careful measuring and some use of the pencil, I was able to draw them and push /pull inwards.

Step 10:

Here is the process in visual steps:

Step 11:

Ok, so you’ve made a model and want to print it.  There are a couple of things to check for. 

First, 3D models have a face orientation.  There is a side that needs to point inside and one that needs to point outside.  If you click on “Preview style” in the CADspan toolbar , you will see the outside faces turn gray and the inside faces turn red.  This makes it very easy to fix. 

Step 12:

Just right click on any red faces you see with the select tool   and select “reverse faces.”

Step 13:

The other thing you want to check is that you don’t have any walls with no dimension. 

For example, This cup will not print as the walls have no thickness.

Step 14:

This one, on the other hand will do fine because I have created a chamber in which the plastic can exist.

Step 15:

Here’s an invisible cutaway of the two cups to see the difference:

Step 16:

Once you have a model you are happy with and want to convert it to a printable file, you need to Save your work and click on the Resurface tool   in the CADspan toolbar.  When you log in, you’ll get a popup that looks like this:

Step 17:

Click the buttons in order from left to right.  Upload, process and download.  Wait for each button to finish what it’s doing before moving onto the next.  When you download your file, your sketchup file will have become an .STL which is what many 3d printers use for printing.  Save the file to your computer.

Step 18:

Ok, now that we have an STL file, let’s load it up in netfabb studio basic.  This will let me fix any problems with the model before printing.

There are a couple things I do just as a general check of the model.  First, I run a repair by clicking on the red cross in the upper right corner.  Make sure you click “apply repair” in the bottom left and remove the old part when prompted.

It’s also at this point that I check the scale.  Often it’ll be at a different size than I intended, especially coming from sketchup.  Right now, for instance, the length and width are both more than 157mm.  I can go to the PART dropdown menu, select SCALE and add a value of .254 to get it back to the correct scale.

Next, I want to be sure that the part is in the correct position (at the origin of the axis) so it’ll fit perfectly at the center of the build platform. From the PART dropdown menu, select MOVE and click TO ORIGIN.  End the operation by clicking MOVE.
Lastly, I go back to PART, and select EXPORT PART-> as STL.  At this point it may prompt you to do a few more repairs before saving. 

Once it’s saved it’ll be ready to print!

Step 19: PART 3: Building the Spaceship

Tinkercad is the next program we will spend a little time exploring.  In some ways it is a bit less complicated than Sketchup, but can also be a little less exact too. 

For me, it often helps to start with a quick sketch of what I have in mind when designing something art-oriented.  It doesn’t have to be detailed, just a basic idea of the look I am going for.

Here is the design I started with.

Step 20:

When you login to Tinkercad and click “Design a new thing,” you get a screen that looks like this.

The workplane is in the center.  That’s where you will create your model.  The shapes that you can use are on the right.  You can drag them onto the work plane to make your models.

Once there, you can orbit around the object by right clicking on the non-object area of the window, zoom in and out by rolling the mouse wheel, or slide your view by clicking the mouse wheel like a button.

Step 21:

Working with objects is easy in Tinkercad!

You select shapes by left clicking on them.  Once selected, you will see black dots, white dots, 3 curved arrows and a black arrow on the object. 

The black dots make the object bigger or smaller in one dimension.

The white dots make the object bigger or smaller in multiple dimensions.  When you hover over the dot, you will see which dimensions are affected.

You can hold down the shift key while you click on a dot (either white or black) to scale the shape in all 3 dimensions equally.
The curved arrows will rotate the part around one of the 3 axes.

You can move the part by clicking on any part of it that is not a dot or arrow.  This will slide the part only on the surface of the workspace. 

The black arrow will raise or lower the part in space.

Step 22:

The basic way to use Tinkercad is to combine basic shapes.  Even using a few simple shapes, you can create some fairly interesting designs.

In the lower right hand corner of the workplane window there are dropdown menus which will allow you to change unit of measurement and snap grid.  Unit doesn’t really matter – use whatever you are comfortable using.   Snap grid defines how far things will move when you move them.  You may need to set this to a low value (or turn it off completely) if you are having trouble getting your shape in exactly the right place.

You can set color from the upper right corner of the workplane window.  Unfortunately the color doesn’t really translate into printing when your model is printed.

In this case, I made the model using 3 spheres, 1 cone and 4 cylinders.

Step 23:

You can also use objects to create holes.

First, you add new objects. In this case, I added new spheres for eyes.

Step 24:

Then, select the each sphere and click the HOLE button in the upper right corner of the workplane window.

Step 25:

Finally, select the two eyes and the head by holding down SHIFT and selecting each one. 

Click group (right above the hole button).  The eyes will “carve” out space from the head.

Step 26:

So let’s talk about my ship for this project.  Remember, this was initial sketch.

So, I grabbed the parts that I thought I would need...

Step 27:

Using the processes, we discussed, I stretched and rotated the torus shapes for the engines, and used the other shapes for the main body.  Once I grouped them, I ended up with this finished ship.

Step 28:

Unfortunately, it was a little big (86.75mm), so I scaled it down to the approximate size of the Star Wars ships (~45mm). and placed a 3mm hole in the bottom to allow for the base to be inserted.

The big print painted up fairly well, though!

I recommend loading up the spaceship model, ungrouping it and messing around with it a little bit to see exactly what parts are involved and how they all fit together.  The spaceship model is here.  Also available is the snowman model.

Step 29:

Once you get your model the way you want it, you can convert it to STL by clicking the PRINT 3D button in the upper right of the window.  You’ll get the following window which will include links to places to get your model printed if you don’t have access to a 3D printer.

If you do, click on STL under “Download for 3D printing.” You will get the option to save. Once you do, open up in netfabb and go through the same steps that we did for the flight base (step 18).

Step 30: PART 4: Printing

In ReplicatorG, printing is easy, especially if you used netfabb to fix, scale and move your object.  Basically, load up ReplicatorG, FILE -> OPEN your .STL file and hit the “Generate GCode “ button in the lower right. 

You will get a pop-up window that looks something like this:

These are the settings I use for models that I want to be fairly detailed.  Many people talk about the benefits of raftless printing, but I find that rafts help the plastic adhere better and can get much better prints as a result. Support material is only needed if there are severe overhangs on the model  (like the top engine arc of the spaceship). 

You may need to play with the settings a little bit as every machine is different, but this can at least be a jumping off point. 

Once the computer generates the GCode needed to run the printer, you can hit build!   

You’ll have your object in your hands in no time!

Step 31: PART 5: Online Repositories

The greatest thing about 3D printing is the maker community that has grown up around it.  People have really created some awesome and inspiring things and put them out on the internet for all to see, use and derive new ideas from.  Two great sites to check out are Thingiverse and the 3d warehouse

I highly recommend joining these sites and adding your own models to the mix. 

The models from this instructable are available for download on Thingiverse in .STL and Sketchup formats.

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    3 Discussions


    7 years ago on Introduction

    I should say, it's for the 3D design contest. I just saw that Digital Fabrication was a different one. I'll have to enter that one too.

    Thanks for the heads up!


    7 years ago on Introduction

    This is a pretty good instructable, i think you should enter it in the digital fabrication contest.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction


    That's why I put it together,actually. I have entered it and am waiting for it to be accepted!