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Getting Started with Open Source 3D Design

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3D design is everywhere! From designing airplanes, kitchenware, toys, to video games or even creating your own movie, 3D design skills are essential. In industry many different commercial softwares are used but increasingly many companies and individuals are choosing open source software, software that is made by groups of contributors and all the code is available for anyone to use, play with or contribute to.

One of the best known open source 3D design software packages is Blender. Blender has been around for a long time and it has lots of users in its community. That’s important as it means that there are lots of resources, tutorials, videos and discussion forums available for help and advice. Blender is a very fully featured 3D creation suite. It not only allows you to create 3D models through a variety of approaches, modelling or sculpting and more, but it has lots of other tools. A small look into these extra features and we find; tools that enable animation with lighting and cameras, physics modifiers to control how objects interact with each other, it even has video editing and game creation tools built in. Absolutely amazing for free software!

Downloading and installing Blender is straightforward and when you open it up for the first time you get a default project with a cube mesh model, a camera and a light already inserted into the scene. You will see, even on this default screen, hundreds of tools and buttons and then if you click through the tabs at the top of the page marked layout, modelling, sculpting and others, you will see even more. Don’t be put off however, there is lots of help to get you started! It’s so big it’s unlikely that any user of Blender understands every single thing it is capable of doing. A great place to start is to go through the “Fundamentals of Blender” video series. This starts off with how to move around a scene, zooming in and out, how to move objects and how to add them and change their dimensions before jumping into how to model and animate and more complex areas.

Modelling in Blender is a achieved in numerous ways, a good starting point is it can create primitive mesh shapes like cubes, spheres, cylinders and torus (donut shaped objects), you can modify these shapes endlessly with lots of different approaches but a fun one to play with is the sculpting workspace. In the sculpting workspace you can use different brushes to grab parts of the mesh object and perform lots of actions. You can add parts in a similar fashion to if you are adding clay to a sculpture in real life, you can drag nodes around and create all manner of interesting and organic shapes. Painting or texturing objects is also fun to play with and you have a texture paint tab where you can see a projected version of a selected object (your object flattened out like its on a sheet of paper) and then you can colour and paint on the projection and watch your paint appear on the 3D object.

We mentioned earlier that Blender is very good at creating organic shapes, and it’s worth considering this a little when choosing the right open source 3D design tool for your project. Blender is more geared towards creating interesting organic shapes rather than perhaps strictly sized and dimensioned engineering type projects. If you are an expert in Blender you probably could design an engine or a rocket in it but if you are a beginner and are more interested in 3D design for engineering then you might prefer to choose a different piece of open source software.

FreeCAD is a 3D design environment that is perfect for these types of engineering projects. It doesn’t have the sculptural tools of Blender but uses a variety of approaches, including accurately dimensioned sketches extruded into 3D parts to create complex accurate assemblies. Again FreeCAD, like all 3D design software, is very complex and very few people will use all the functions it has to offer. Where Blender has endless options for animation and video creation, FreeCAD has lots of tools built in for engineering and manufacturing processes. For example it can create toolpaths for CNC routers (to cut your designs out of woods, metals or plastics). You can export professional standard technical drawings and you can create assemblies of parts with constraints that force the parts to interact in the way they are supposed to. For example we built an assembly of a pulley put together in such a way that you can move the pulley around using the mouse, but it cannot be moved off the pulley shaft. Setting up assemblies with constraints like this allows you to check if it works as intended and you might identify a collision or a part that doesn’t fit. FreeCAD uses the idea of “workbenches” where your project is instantly transferred to a new workbench with lots of different tools when you select a workbench from the drop down menu. As it is open source there are heaps of add-on workbenches that cover a huge range of different sets of tools. There are workbenches for slicing objects for 3D printing, workbenches to help you create folded sheet metal designs, workbenches to design and simulate boats, workbenches to perform analysis of how forces affect your design and hundreds more. Again similar to Blender, the FreeCAD community has lots of community support and there are lots of videos, books and magazines available full of FreeCAD tutorials. FreeCAD also allows you to edit the history of an object and push a change through to the finished model, whilst perhaps complex to imagine an example would be that you might only have to change one number attached to a sketch to change the diameter of a hole all the way through your model, perfect for when you have 3D printed something and realise it doesn’t quite fit!

Finally another option you might want to consider for more engineering type 3D design is OpenSCAD. OpenSCAD is very different from both Blender and FreeCAD in that you create your 3D design using code. For some people this might sound daunting but if you have learnt a coding language previously or have played with code in projects it might be an approach that you enjoy. The basics are pretty straightforward, you can type in the name of an object with some dimensions and some positions, click the f5 key and you will see your model appear in the preview. Of course you can explore and ramp up the complexity pretty quickly and you can end up exploring and creating mathematical functions that can create all manner of complex geometries. OpenSCAD saves its projects as SCAD files which are essentially a text file, in fact as it’s all based on scripting you can send a design to your friend or co-designer in a text message!

Whatever open source 3D design tool you choose, remember that it takes some time to learn 3D modelling, seek help when you need to and make sure to thank the communities that help you and design all these wonderful free tools for us to use!

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