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Want to 3D Print Something? Here's Why You Need a 3D Model File (and How to Make One)

Everyone knows that 3D Printing is the best and fastest way to turn an idea into physical reality.

Sure, it's true, but HOW do you actually get that idea out of your head and into your hands?

With all the exciting technology around 3D Printing, what's often left out of the discussion is that silent hero (or villain, as is often the case) of the 3D Printing process: the 3D Model file.

What is a 3D Model?

A 3D Model is a digital computer file that contains a "full-turn" three-dimensional representation of an object. Sounds simple, right?

The amazing news that 3D Printing can create anything imaginable is usually delivered without any mention of this most important ingredient. So, why do you need a 3D Model file in order to 3D Print something? Can't a 3D Printer just...build stuff from scratch?

Here's an analogy: imagine you have to give a speech -- you're planning it out in your head, and writing some ideas down on post-it notes as you come up with what you want to say. You've got everything framed out, and now you want to make a printed copy of the speech to have with you on stage.

Of course, it's obvious that there's an intermediate step between having ideas and post-it notes, and actually having a printed document with your speech in a nice big font, with paragraph breaks and bold text for emphasis. You've got to sit down and type it out, right? Then you save it off as a .docx or .PDF file, and then you can print it out.

The same goes for 3D Printing -- you need to turn your ideas and sketches into a 3D Model file before you can 3D Print anything. Think of a 3D Model file as "the PDF of the 3D Printing world." A 3D Model file is a standardized digital representation of a three-dimensional object. And where Microsoft Word or Google Docs is used to make a PDF, your 3D Model file is created using 3D Design software.

There are dozens, if not hundreds of 3D Design programs out there. Some are free, and some come with hefty pricetags. But let's forget about the technical design aspect of it for now.

The main thing to know is this: if you want to 3D Print something, drawings and ideas are just the first step. You need to have a 3D Model file to actually load into a 3D Printer. And 3D Model files come in many different flavors.

Here, we'll focus on the basics of what a 3D Model file is, and the four main types of 3D Model files (also known as CAD files, for Computer Aided Design) used for 3D Printing. These are STL files, OBJ files, STEP / STP files, and IGES / IGS files.

What's not a 3D Model?

Drawings, handmade prototypes, and even meticulously crafted Photoshop renderings can all play an important part in informing the design of a 3D Model file -- but by themselves, these things are not yet ready to be 3D Printed right away.

Hollywood 3D Printing provides a 3D Design service to convert any type of design input you might have into a 3D Model file, which can then be 3D Printed.

If you have some time and want to do this yourself, you'll want to get your hands on some 3D Design software and dive right in to creating your own 3D Model file.

How To Create a 3D Model File

When it comes to choosing a 3D Design software for your modeling needs, there are two main types: organic design, and mechanical / hard surface design.

Things like sculptures and figurines are best created with an organic modeling tool -- ZBrush is our go-to tool software tool for organic sculpting.

If you're designing a product and want to make a working prototype -- something with specific geometric requirements or precise angular / curved surfaces -- then you'll want to use a CAD design software like Autodesk Fusion 360, or SketchUp for very basic designs.

How to actually go about using 3D Design software to create a 3D Model file is an in-depth topic, and different for each type of software. Autodesk has a good knowledgebase for Fusion 360, as does Pixologic for its ZBrush software.

Once you have a 3D Design completed, you'll want to export it for 3D Printing in any of the four main file types: .STL, .OBJ, .STP, or .IGS. These four are all universal 3D Model file formats, and all equally compatible with our online software for automatic 3D Printing quotes.

The Big 4: STL, OBJ, STEP, and IGES 3D Model Files

You're ready for 3D Printing when you have a 3D Model file in either .STL, .OBJ, .STP, or .IGS file format; most 3D Design software programs will give you an option to export your design in at least one of these four formats. Each of these four file types is unique as to the formatting of the information inside the file itself, but they're equivalent from the standpoint of 3D Printing.

It's always a good idea to view your final 3D Model file before proceeding with 3D Printing, to confirm that nothing went wrong during the file export process and that your part is the correct size.

Create an account to start adding 3D Model files to your private online library to view, measure, and analyze your designs using our free browser-based 3D Model tools.

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