Design Software can come in many shapes and forms: from simple to complex, from 2D to 3D, from drawings to 3D scans. The most important thing about design software is that it exports to STL, which almost all the software options export to. The STL is often called your design “mesh”. You can think of it like a wire mesh that defines your object’s structure like a parade float or papier-mâché creation. Let’s take a quick minute to get acquainted with STL files.
STL or STereoLithography
This file format is used in rapid prototyping to describe only the surface of the three-dimensional object. It does not include any information about texture or the color of the object. The file format includes an ASCII and binary version. Binary files are more compact (smaller file size) and I haven’t run into any issues saving in either format yet. There are some other file formats, but STL is by far the most popular at the current desktop printer level.
A slicer takes your design and like a deli counter slicer, it slices it into individual 2D layers that your printer will receive as commands. The slices can be thick or thin depending on your settings.
Mesh Repair Software
Sometimes, meshes contain errors that will prevent them from being sliced. Two common errors are “non-manifold” or “mixed normals”. I’m not going to go into detail on what these are because, quite honestly, I don’t know enough about them to explain them to someone else. Instead, when I see these errors I know that I need to repair my model. The easiest way to do that has been using a software tool called netfabb. The basic version is free and does a pretty good job repairing most models. They have even started a web service where you can upload an STL and it will repair it for you and you can download the fixed model: http://cloud.netfabb.com (also for free).
This is the software that actually controls your printer by sending commands to it. Most often, you will load a GCODE file to your printer software and the software sends each line of the GCODE file to the printer. If you are curious, you can open a GCODE file in any text editor and see the actual commands that create your design master piece. This has been one of the areas that I think 3D printing has been lacking for a while now but there are finally 1 or 2 printer controller software applications that I can recommend. More about Printer Controller Software.