Getting Started

Please familiarize yourself with our policies before getting started!  You can also browse our brochure (PDF).


So you want to design something for 3D printing, but you’re not sure where to start?  Here are some application suggestions:

Tinkercad is a free web-based tool (by Autodesk) which provides the simplest, fastest user experience for 3D modeling.  Follow their tutorials and you’ll be designing in minutes.  Helper functions such as the Ruler can help you design with some degree of precision, but as you become more skilled, you might quickly outgrow this application.

123d Design is another Autodesk application which is free to download for PC or Mac (as well as iPads).  Once you’ve started to feel limited by Tinkercad’s basic features, moving to 123d Design is a logical next step since it builds on much of the knowledge you’ve picked up so far, with a familiar interface.

OpenSCAD is also free, and it’s “designing for coders” — rather than using Tinkercad’s drag-and-drop logic, you’ll be designing objects using the OpenSCAD language.  The more exacting approach to computer-aided design afforded by OpenSCAD means it can be a good choice for projects requiring more mathematical rigor; but some might miss the ability to manipulate on-screen objects by using the mouse, and the overall interface is somewhat less than intuitive.

If you want to move up to the big leagues, the Digital Science Center has SolidWorks, Autodesk Inventor and for the engineers, PTC Creo.  These are professional-grade applications and will require a little more time to get up to speed; fortunately, the Library has many different resources for the dedicated self-learner for both SolidWorks and Inventor.  In addition, Autodesk provides a free 3-year Inventor license for students, so this is a great option if you’d like a program you can install in your own computer and spend more time with.  Another fast growing offering from Autodesk is Fusion 360, also available under a free license to students.


All of these programs are able to export your designs in STL format, which is the file type we accept for printing submissions.  When you’re ready to submit a model, or if you have questions about the process, or anything else related to 3D printing, please email us at

These applications are examples of “solid modelers”; these are generally the best tools to get started with 3D modeling intended for 3D printing.  Other types of modelers may require you to perform troubleshooting steps before your model can be exported for printing.  Future posts on this site will explore these cases; for now, explore one (or all) of these programs and see what you can create!


If you want a more comprehensive overview of the 3D printing process (for example, if you decide to get your hands dirty at the Columbia Makerspace), the good folks at 3dhubs have created an in-depth guide covering all aspects of the technology.  Make sure to check it out!

What Is 3D Printing?