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Geting Started with CAD for 3D Printing

If you've picked yourself up a 3D printer, you've no doubt printed yourself a heap of models from Thingiverse by now. It's great fun and the best way to learn how to control the options you have available through Cura; scaling, rotating and tweaking layer heights for optimal prints. Eventually, though, you're going to want to step into the world of 3D design to build upon your 3D printing skills and make some unique models to print. To do so, you'll need to get your hands onto some decent CAD software and learn the ropes when it comes to operating the software.

CAD means Computer-Aided Design, and it encompasses an entire range of software packages that allow you to create 3D models using your PC. We're going to take a look at Fusion 360 as our CAD software of choice; we'll look at why we like it and some of the basic user interface options that you'll need to create a simple model. First off, we will download, install and register Autodesk's Fusion 360.

fusion360-logoFusion 360: Free CAD for Hobbyists and Educators

Fusion 360 is one of many CAD programs made by Autodesk, and it is designed to be a powerful 3D modelling suite that assists in parametric modelling along with animation, simulation and manufacturing analysis. What does that mouthful mean? You can create a model, animate it, simulate it using preset material profiles and forces, and finally simulate the manufacturing process for CNC/CAM applications.

What does any of that have to do with 3D printing?

It means we can create 3D models and export them to our printer software (If you haven't yet, get familiar with Cura). As long as we design around a few basic constraints associated with 3D printing (minimum nozzle width, wall thicknesses, etc.), we can make almost any idea or prototypes come to life. In fact, 3D printing is the core technology of rapid prototyping!

Our favourite part of this powerful product from Autodesk is that it is free for hobbyists, students, educators and businesses earning less than $100k/year. All you'll need to do is follow the prompts at the set-up of your application, and you'll be on your way to your licensed CAD program. So what? When other CAD software packages are retailing for upwards of $4000, the non-existent price tag associated with Fusion will make you sing! Not to mention the license attaches to your Autodesk account and comes with a tonne of cloud storage for managing all of your projects. This cloud-based projects manager enables you to add other users to your projects too, making collaboration dead-easy but also making an internet connection essential (which is noteworthy but not a negative in most cases).

Our...other...favorite part of Fusion is that Autodesk takes a community-driven approach, which seems to be the norm these days. If you ask for a feature on the Autodesk forum and the tech support staff can't help you, it will likely be included in the three-month update. It's a fantastic approach to any product and CAD software is not an exception! PLUS there's a tonne of community made python scripts that are accessible through the GUI that allow you to create all sorts of components easily, but that's a conversation for another day! So go ahead and download and register for a free account now, we will jump right into how to get around inside of Fusion.

The Basics of Fusion 360: The User Interface

Don't get too overwhelmed at the interface when you first load up Fusion; there is a tonne of tools, but we're only going to be using a select few today. The Vertical bar on the left of the screen is your library/project collection that displays all the project you are working on under your Autodesk account; you can navigate through here just as you would expect. But we won't need it just yet, so go ahead and close it with the x in the top right of the bar.

The three most important control mechanisms we need to get familiar with are the Toolbar (at the top of your screen), the camera controls (using SHIFT, CTRL and Mouse as well as the Cube in the Top Right of the workspace) and the browser. These are the cornerstone elements of your journey into CAD. Let's start with moving around the 3D workspace.

Viewing Controls and Movement

In the Top right of your workspace, there is a cube. If you mouse over this cube it will become active, and you can interact with it. The cube represents the origin point of your workspace (the point in the centre of all three dimensions) and clicking on different sides of the cube will orient your view in the indicated way around that point. Note there is also little house icon that appears beside the cube; it represents the home view or default view and can be a great way for you to regain perspective of your project. Clicking and holding your middle mouse button will allow you to Pan your view, dragging your camera around in the horizontal viewing plane. SHIFT + Middle Mouse will allow you to rotate your view around the current central point on your screen too! Finally, mouse wheel scroll will allow you to zoom in and out of the centre point of your view!


These viewing controls are also present at the bottom of the workspace on the navigation bar if you need them. Make sure you have a go at moving your view around with these tools. Being comfortable with them will help a lot later on!


The Browser

The project browser is the floating menu on the left-hand side of your workspace. Under this menu, you can select the units your workspace is operating in, save specific views, rename/navigate and manipulate any of the elements you create and export models to other programs! It's all managed automatically for you too, with new sketches and bodies being set up with generic names. It mightn't be a big deal for a simple calibration cube or temperature tower, but if you were making a multiple-bodied component, keeping on top of renaming them will be a time-saver!


Beside each folder is an arrow that can be clicked to display all of the files in that folder and you can just click it again to minimise the options.

The Toolbar

The toolbar is the basis of (almost) every operation you will do to generate or modify an element into your workspace. We will be sticking to the MODEL tool set for our purposes, but there are a few other options that you might eventually skill-up into including CAM, Simulation, Animation, Patch and Render tool sets.


The Model toolbar is broken up into the following categories:

  • Sketch - Using the tools in this drop down menu will prompt you to select a plane to draw in. A sketch is a 2D element that you can create in any of the default axis, or on the faces of any models in the workspace.
  • Create - This tool set will allow you to perform a variety of actions on a 2D sketch profile, this includes pressing/pulling 2D profiles into 3D models, revolving them around an axis or sweeping them along a path.
  • Modify - The tools in this sub-menu will allow you to modify your 3D model, from filleting edges to splitting existing bodies. This menu is the go to for editing your 3D model.
  • Assembly - Assemble tools allow you to combine multiple bodies into a group in your browser, called a component. You can also construct joints and movement rules for joined parts.
  • Construct - The Construct tools allows you to place additional anchor points, axes and planes in your workspace. Particularly handy to sketch a profile offset from a body or component.
  • Inspect - Inspect tools allow you to measure things inside your workspace. Angles, Distances, model collisions and more!
  • Insert - The insert menu allows you to add a variety of CAD file types into your workspace, like vector-based images, etc.
  • Make - This is one way we can export our component as a .stl model for printing. The menu also has some options to have your body professionally printed through a couple of vendors.
  • Add-ins - This is where you manage your scripts. add-ons and third party applications that tack onto your Fusion setup.
  • Select - The default mode you will be in that allows you to select any element on your workspace.

That's all there is to Fusion 360 as far as your tools and controls go. This was only the first part in our multi-part Fusion 360 tutorial series. Our next tutorial will look at creating a Temperature tower and printing it on our Lulzbot Mini with some ABS Filament. Let us know how you liked this introductory tutorial in the comments below!

If you've picked yourself up a 3D printer, you've no doubt printed yourself a heap of models from Thingiverse by now. It's gr...

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