3D printing has recently exploded in popularity. What was once a niche industry that crafted very precise and obtuse pieces to be used in larger equipment and projects has become a growing hobby thanks to the falling prices of material and printer costs.
Even though the field of 3D printing seems more accessible than ever before, projects require specific software that can read models and print them in a physically possible way.
These pieces of software are great because of how they integrate with computer-aided design but still require some learning to operate properly and may also incur an extra cost that newcomers may not have accounted for.
Continue reading to discover the best 3D printing softwares available and what makes them different.
What is the Best 3D Printing Software?
The best 3D printing software is the software that works best for your needs, as such there is a wide variety of products on the market that may have features you desperately require while others can only be used for basic printing needs.
Keep in mind that some of these may be able to support an 3D printing project from start to finish while others might only perform one function later in the pipeline and need to be used in conjunction with one or more other programs.
These are our picks for the best 3D printing software:
1. Fusion 360
Fusion 360 can handle 3D modeling, simulation, and documentation easily. It is also able to handle manufacturing processes and electronic design automation features.
Essentially, this means that you can combine computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) applications into one single software with Fusion 360.
That way, you never have to leave the platform while you are designing and printing your product.
Fusion 360 is used professionally throughout the industry and it’s easy to see why even if you ignore its technical capabilities.
Being able to have multiple people collaborating on a single project saved to a central database in the clouds is something that seems like it would be a common feature but it isn’t.
The ability to then render out the product of a team effort in the same application to see a photo-realistic depiction of the end result is also something that not many 3D printing softwares offer.
The best, and worst, part about Fusion 360 is how you get access to the program. There are multiple versions available depending on your needs including a free but limited version just for your small projects if you’re just getting into 3D printing.
Fusion 360 Key Features:
- Collaboration and centralized through the cloud
- 16-layer PCB system
- In-application rendering of photo-realistic models
Fusion 360 User Experience:
The learning curve is pretty simple, making it easy to pick up. Also, the full features are free, so you can learn to use the whole program, even before you pay for the upgraded options.
There are a lot of options and settings that are adjustable. Once you get a hang of the software, this is a great feature to have, in the meantime it can be overwhelming.
We did notice that when it comes down to details, it tends to not do as well as other softwares, so you might need a second software you constantly use to get down into the nitty-gritty.
While the user interface is better than most CAD programs out there, it still could do with being a little more to improve. In particular, we found layouts of tabs, the size of icons, and overall orientation lacking in some areas.
In the grand scheme, though, these are pretty minor details and are more up to personal opinion than anything else.
Fusion 360 Cost:
Autodesk demonstrates once again that it is a champion of pricing options. Depending on your uses and needs, a limited version of the program is available for free while there are options for education and collaboration as well.
Otherwise, the program is on a software-as-a-service payment plan for $60 per month, $495 once a year, or $1410 every three years.
What We Like/Dislike About Fusion 360 :
- Can use a lot of the features for free
- Basics have an easy learning curve
- Lots of details and features
- Adjustable settings
- Doesn’t do small details well
- Doesn’t have a one-and-done purchase price
Fusion 360 Scoring:
For its robust capabilities alone, Fusion 360 earns an 8 out of 10. The main downfalls of Fusion 360 are its price (although it isn’t as insane as some 3D modeling applications) and the level of detail is not as fine as you might need.
We love that Autodesk does try to be more accommodating with its prices and provides alternate versions of the program that allow a wider subset of users to at least experiment with software they may need to learn for a career in 3D modeling and printing or to see if it is an exciting hobby they wish to pursue.
Ultimaker’s Cura program is one of the easiest programs to use for beginners at 3D printing. The application is relatively barebones which makes it easy to learn and use but has over 400 printing settings that can accommodate almost any skill level.
Cura is available for all three of the main computer systems (Windows, macOS, and Linux) and is compatible with most filament-type 3D printers.
Even though the program is regularly updated and improved thanks to the dedicated team and community surrounding the open-source software, it is unclear if compatibility with other types of 3D printing and manufacturing is on the horizon.
The application also boasts a large selection of file types that it can accept and convert into G-code, the language spoken by 3D printers telling them how a model will be constructed in a three-dimensional space.
This is another neat benefit of Cura because not all 3D modeling programs can or will export models in the same file type despite having a standardized file type for 3D printing.
Ultimaker Cura is free to use for the public because it has open-source code. This also means that if you are a skilled programmer in C++, Python, or QML, you are free to write and share your own plugins to the base code of Cura to suit a more specialized need.
Everything sounds great, but are there any drawbacks aside from Cura being limited to filament-type 3D printers? Only if you don’t have the patience.
The software is somewhat infamous for not being a highly optimized, well-oiled machine which means that it can run and load pretty slow in comparison to some other 3D printing solutions.
This is especially apparent on low-end or older computers that might not be able to handle the newest release of Cura.
Cura Key Features:
- Remote printing
- Compatible with a wide array of file types
- Preconfigured printing profiles with 400+ settings to customize printing needs
Cura User Experience:
Though there are a lot of features, the user interface is pretty minimal to make it both visually appealing and easy to use. A lot of the settings come ready to set up and print as well, so you don’t have to do much right out off of the bat.
Some people found that they could just set print quality and be ready to go. We find that this works well for those that are newer to 3D printing and don’t have a lot of personal preferences as of yet.
Cura is also incredibly interactive, clearly displaying where any improvement may be needed and including a layer-by-layer visualization of the printing sequence so you can see what is happening.
Similar to Blender, Ultimaker’s Cura software is free to use thanks to its open-source licensing. This means that all features are available to the public without any kind of paywalls.
What We Like/Dislike About Cura :
- Regularly updated
- Open-source code
- Can work with pretty much any filament 3D printer
- Not always optimized for lower-end PCs
- Could do with an improved plastics support
- Software can be slow to load at times
We’re big fans of getting the tools needed to be creative and expressive into the people’s hands, and for that Cura is great. We think a 7 out of 10 is the best we can do for Cura even with all of the praise we showered it with earlier.
Objectively, you need to have a responsive and relatively quick program even if it means sacrificing just a few of the 400+ settings during the printing process.
The lower score also reflects the inability of the program to communicate and print from more than just the cheapest filament-type 3D printers but this may change as Cura continues to be upgraded through the years.
You may have guessed from the name that AutoCAD is another product offered by Autodesk among their full range of 3D modeling and printing services.
AutoCAD is a professional solution for speeding up a project’s timeline by allowing users to customize and then automate the mundane parts of drafting ideas for a 3D model ready for printing.
Not only that, but a whole team of users can collaborate in real-time across a slew of platforms (desktop app, browser, mobile app) thanks to secure connections to where the project is stored in the cloud.
By taking advantage of these two huge proponents for the software, you may even be able to increase the efficiency of your workflow by up to 48% according to some research.
The proprietary but open file format DWG (originally designated as an abbreviation for the word “drawing”) is the native file format of AutoCAD which means that you may need a slicer that can accept and convert the DWG file into G-code before it can be accepted by a 3D printer.
This may not be an issue in the future because the team that works on AutoCAD is already looking for feedback and areas of improvement.
They may eventually develop an integrated slicer and printer communication program to round out the final parts of the computer-aided manufacturing process.
Depending on how you want to look at it, the Autodesk app store can be a blessing or a curse. On one hand, the app store offers plugins for very specific types of 3D printing that might not be available on any other platform that can help you with designs.
On the other hand, Autodesk is expecting you to shell out even more money on top of what you paid for the program as well as any 3D printer you may have purchased.
AutoCAD Key Features:
- Autodesk App Store to purchase extensions for specific designs
- Browser and mobile applications allow you to design wherever
- Cloud storage connectivity
- Multiple toolsets (architecture, mechanical, electrical, MEP, Raster, and more)
AutoCAD User Experience:
AutoCAD has a lot of keyboard shortcuts that make learning the ideal ways to use this software a little overwhelming. AutoCAD can handle a lot of different needs, so it is easy to get lost in all of the different functions and settings.
For example, while this can also be used for 3D printing, a lot of people use it for geotechnical and mechanical engineering.
However, AutoCAD is always looking to improve and grow. They even have forums dedicated to learning more about users’ experiences and where it is and isn’t working for people.
They already are planning out new updates and changes up to two years in the future and are requesting the help of their users to make these features functional.
Unfortunately, there is no one-time payment option for AutoCAD nor are there alternative options for hobbyists who only use it for personal projects. There is, however, the option to purchase access for 24 hours at a time thanks to the use of Flex tokens.
If you’re wanting a recurring payment that you don’t have to think about, it’s $235 monthly, $1,865 annually, or $5,315 every third year.
What We Like/Dislike About AutoCAD:
- Lots of shortcut keys
- Can be used for a variety of purposes from construction to manufacturing to 3D printing
- Works well for both professionals and beginners
- Can handle heavy designs and import and export easily.
- Some of the menus could be organized better
- Some of the outdated features don’t get removed with upgrades
- Files can sometimes get big and crash the computer
AutoCAD scores a 6 out of 10 for us for several reasons. The high cost and specialized workspace means that users of this program are usually limited to professionals in the industry whose employer will absorb many of the costs for them.
These restrictions lower the score because only a small pool of the larger community may ever be able to access the program.
We had to mark down AutoCAD further because a program of this caliber and price tag should be better optimized as well so that the application handles large file sizes without crashing the application or even the whole computer.
And the finally demerit is that some of the plugins and features of the Autodesk app store should really be included with the full version of AutoCAD (not the limited AutoCAD LT version) since there is apparently enough demand for these highly specialized 3D printing functions that there are products just waiting to be purchased.
Not to be confused with Autodesk’s Meshmixer, MeshLab is an open-source STL editing and repairing software available on all major computer competitors.
Interestingly, the software’s developers are not a company looking to profit, nor a group of dedicated individuals with the goal of getting creative tools into the hands of the people.
Instead, the program is developed by the Visual Computing Laboratory as part of the National Research Council of Italy’s (CNR) Institute of Information Science and Technologies (ISTI) through the Department of Engineering, Information, Communication, Energy and Transportation Technologies (DIITET).
What this means is that the program is meant and developed primarily for the purpose of furthering academic research rather than being a practical tool with end-users in mind.
The software had stagnated for several years with a single version being available back in 2016 but has been receiving some updates throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some of these updates tackle stability issues and tweaks to the user interface but they largely focus on adding new features and filters to varying degrees of success.
If you aren’t sure how you are wanting or needing your 3D model to be printed yet, MeshLab has your back because the cleaning and editing of your STL file means you still have the flexibility to print on any kind of 3D printer down the line.
MeshLab Key Features:
- Automatically cleans bad geometry from a 3D model using interactive filters for a clean print
- In-app rendering allows you to change perspective and view imported 3D models more different angles
- Distinct color information projected onto a 3D model allows for high-quality mapping of textures
- Can reconstruct polygonal 3D model meshes into single, solid surfaces using several methods for an optimal and successful print
MeshLab User Experience:
Programs like MeshLab need to feel intuitive and responsive to have a generally positive user experience, which MeshLab achieves for the most part.
In our personal experiences, we didn’t encounter any frustrating errors or bugs that made the software crash or render it unuseable but this doesn’t mean this is always the case.
Many users report being unable to do virtually anything within the application because of how often bugs in the code pop up making it hang for an unreasonable amount of time or crashing the program altogether.
The user interface is not exactly the greatest either, especially since the almost universal “undo” function has been missing for over six years.
We can only imagine that this is because the program is meant to be used more for academic and research purposes on how these computer algorithms are implemented in a real-world scenario as opposed to being a piece of software meant for everyday use by a user of average skill and knowledge.
The most glaring problem of the program actually isn’t the program itself. The thing that MeshLab needs the most is more documentation and support.
The community itself can only go so far when trying to help others with video tutorials and subjective understandings of how some of the more complex filters operate.
It seems that a growing number of software developers are opting to make their products free and open-source through licenses like the GPL 3.0 which is exactly what the Visual Computing Lab team has done for MeshLab.
All features are available from the start once you have gone through with the free download and installation process, and all future updates will also come free of charge with no paywalls or subscription plans to mention.
What We Like/Dislike About MeshLab:
- When it works, automatic cleaning filters do a beautiful job
- Extensive features for almost any project
- Poor user interface that is not intuitive and is missing some very common functions
- Program can crash unexpectedly when performing almost any action
- Lack of any meaningful documentation
When it comes to scoring, MeshLab earns a 6 out of 10 in our eyes. It is a powerful and incredibly useful tool for automatically cleaning up 3D models that have poor geometry for 3D printing or even converting a polygonal mesh into solid surfaces for a successful print but has some major downsides that we just can’t overlook.
New version releases are few and far between, especially when it comes to bugs and hotfixes that the program could really use to improve the user experience.
Speaking of the user experience, the learning curve is exceptionally steep after a relatively straightforward introduction to the basics of the program.
The problem is only further exacerbated by the lack of detailed documentation and how-to guides which leaves the typical user guessing and sticking to default settings at best.
Best 3D Printing Software FAQ
What is 3D printing software?
3D printing software in its simplest terms is software that can take a 3D printable file, convert it into G-code (the language that 3D printers communicate in), and send it to a compatible printer to make a physical representation of a digital model made in a 3D sculpting/modeling software.
Why is Blender not listed here?
Blender is a 100% free, open-source 3D modeling solution and has many other useful industry features like animations for a complete 3D creative pipeline and workflow.
It even handles 3D printing file formats like the STL file (STL stands for STereoLitography, Standard Triangle Language, or Standard Tessellation Language depending on who you ask) so why is it not recommended on our list of best 3D printing software?
It’s because of how Blender goes about its 3D modeling. Blender uses polygon modeling, an intuitive way for individuals to create and manipulate models which is great for visualization and animation, but has a fair share of problems when it comes to 3D printing.
The level of precision of a polygon model is not usually a high enough level when it comes to 3D printing while the amount of human error in the design is too high which can make printer errors.
A successful 3D print needs stable and predictable geometry free of human error thanks to computer-aided design.
Because polygon meshes can also be two-dimensional, 3D printing isn’t always able to recreate a model if there isn’t enough thickness for an accurate print.
So while Blender can sculpt models and then have them printed from the same project and program it is not the preferred method by enthusiasts and professionals, even when using plugins like the “3D Printing Toolbox” made to solve the above problems.
Can I use one 3D printing software for all 3D printers?
It depends on the software that you use. While there are some options out there that are suitable for all types of 3D printers, not every software is compatible with every kind of 3D printer.
For example, Cura can only be used with filament-based printers for any model that needs to be made by additive manufacturing. This means that printers that heat and extrude filaments (typically plastic) to make a 3D print will work with Cura.
Other printers like digital light processing (DLP) printers may not be able to communicate with a printing software even after an STL file has been translated into G-code for printing.
How much does a 3D printer cost?
This question is difficult to answer because of the many options available to consumers these days. The cost of a 3D printer varies greatly on how many uses you want to be able to get out of your 3D printer as well as the functions it can perform.
Other factors that can affect the cost of a 3D printer include:
- Overall performance
- Where the printer was manufactured
The average entry-level 3D printer that hobbyists use for small pet projects and fun ideas generally costs between $300 and $500 but can be more expensive.
If you were wanting to run a small business based on 3D printing items, you may need multiple high-end printers that can easily be $1,500 to $20,000 each.
Best 3D Printing Software Final Verdict
While there are some softwares that do better than others when it comes to 3D printing, a lot of it comes down to personal preferences.
Each software has a different user layout, features that might fit your preference better, and even ones that work a little better with your printer.
When you are choosing a printing software for you, it is also important to take cost and frequency of use into account.
If you might use it frequently one year, but only a couple of times another, finding one that allows you to purchase the license outright is great, whereas an annual pass may not be so useful.
We prefer ones that we can test out for free first, to make sure we like the style of it before making the final purchase.
If you are testing one out before purchasing, remember to give it time. Each software is different and you may find that you don’t like one at first just because you don’t understand the layout, or it feels different than your other one, but it might be better once you get the idea and hang of it a little more.
Now that you know some of the best 3D printing softwares in 2022, you are ready to test them out to find the one that works best for you and your needs.