A SOLIDWORKS User’s Introduction to 3D Printing

SOLIDWORKS and 3D printing are a modern symphony of prototyping. They play in perfect harmony to make your concepts a reality. The centuries-old two-step process of getting an idea and bringing it to life has changed over the recent decades. The concept design phase once done with pencils, drafting tables and slide rules can now be done with computer-aided design (CAD) software such as SOLIDWORKS.

Likewise, making designs a reality was once accomplished with traditional manufacturing and machining methods. Now it can be done with additive manufacturing technologies.

It took a long time to get here, but what was once time-consuming, tedious and requiring expert knowledge is now quick and easy. When it comes to engineering and design, we’re living in the era of the democratization of prototyping.

In this article, you’ll see how you can make the most of tools like SOLIDWORKS combined with 3D printing.

A 3D printer making a model of the Stanley Cup.

Concept to Reality 101

Before you can make a prototype, you need a concept. As you already know, a go-to tool for the industry is SOLIDWORKS. So, once you have the conceptual model, what’s next?  There is a crossroads in your prototyping process where you have a choice to use additive or subtractive manufacturing.

Traditional machining is subtractive, where modern 3D printing is additive. Think of it as a comparison between the starting point and the finished product. Did you remove material from something larger than what you created, or did you add material to something smaller or nonexistent? Traditional machining methods with a mill or lathe remove material, while a 3D printer adds material to build the prototype.

By leveraging 3D printing, you can hold your prototype in your hand within minutes or hours, rather than weeks or months. This speed is where we get the term “rapid prototyping.” Think about the process of making the physical part illustrated below. How long would it take for you to create the prototype? Being completely honest, it would probably take me two weeks. I’d spend the first week trying to remember how to use a lathe and then realize I’m not good enough at it to make the part. I’d then spend the next week waiting for a machinist to make the part for me.

A CAD model of the Stanley Cup.

SOLIDWORKS to 3D Printing 101

Here is a summary of the CAD to 3D printing process:

  • Step 1: Create a CAD model in software such as SOLIDWORKS.
  • Step 2:  Use 3D printer software to create a printable model.
  • Step 3: Printing your prototype.

To start, create a CAD model of your concept as you normally do. In other words, make a parametric solid model using features such as extrude, revolve and cut. For 3D printing, however, your model doesn’t have to be solid. In fact, it can be a surface or graphics body.

Once you have the SOLIDWORKS model created, you’re ready to turn it into a 3D print model. This is actually quite simple: exporting the model as a .3mf or .STL file. In SOLIDWORKS terms, exporting is just a fancy way to say “save as.”

The only additional things to look out for are the file options. Default values can be selected, but user defined options can also be used during the export process. Here you can change things like the file resolution as well as additional settings like properties to include in the file. These options are shown in the images below.

Most of the additional settings are defined using the slicing software, which is used to define the tool path for the 3D printer. The software is often machine, or vendor, specific. Though this process is quick it requires a large amount of user input.

As you can see, the printer does all the work for you in Step 3. While it’s printing, feel free to go grab some food or watch a show.

Lucky for you, as a SOLIDWORKS user, you’re already great at doing the most difficult and time-consuming step (preparing the CAD model). That leaves Step 2, preparing the 3D printing model, as the missing piece in your prototyping puzzle.

Creating 3D Printing Models 101

Slicing is the process of breaking down the model into layers and tool paths. As you can see in the video below, the 3D printer creates parts one layer at a time.

The thickness of each layer depends on each machine’s settings and capabilities. But layer thicknesses tend to range around 0.08 mm (0.003 in) to 0.28mm (0.011 in). The smaller the layer thickness, the more layers it takes to create the part. You can think of layer thickness as resolution: the more layers, the greater the resolution, but this comes with a print time cost.

You can see in the table and images below that there is nearly an hour, or 120%, increase in print time between the two different layer thicknesses. The time increases because decreasing the layer thickness requires more layers to print the model. Notice the layers increase from 456 to 1132 while moving from a 0.28mm layer thickness to 0.08mm.

Introduction to 3D Printing Technology, Machines and Materials

When it comes time to make your physical part, you’ll need to consider the available 3D printing options for technology and materials. In this section, we’ll introduce at a very high level what you have available.

3D Printing Technologies

The 3D printing space is dominated by two types of additive technology, FDM and SLA.

FDM, or Fused Deposition Modeling, prints the model by melting material and depositing it on the build plate one drop at a time.

SLA, or Stereolithography, is a 3D printing technology that uses a UV light to cure liquid material.

Both technologies have their strengths and weaknesses. For most engineering applications, FDM is more popular where strength is important. STL, however, is more popular for applications where surface quality and finish are more important. Note that the example images and videos in this article featuring the Stanley Cup model are done using an FDM machine.

3D Printing Materials

The most common materials used for 3D printing are in the plastics family. Although there are some machines on the market capable of printing metals and rubbers, the most common budget-friendly machines are using plastic. Some examples of these materials are:

  • PLA
  • PETG
  • ABS
  • PC
  • Carbon Reinforced Nylon

3D Printing Machines

There is no shortage of machines out there on the market. Today, you can buy a 3D printer from an authorized distributor or Amazon. They range in price from a few hundred bucks to upwards of six figures. The biggest differences between machines are the size, build volume, quality, resolution and ease of use. The price will increase with any of these factors.

The biggest difference in families of machines is the enclosed build chamber or the open build chamber. You can see this illustrated in the image above. The left is an open build chamber, and the right is enclosed. You’ll notice that more budget-friendly machines have an open chamber and they typically require a lot more user input and tinkering to produce consistently high-quality parts.

Are you ready to get started printing your parts and holding a prototype in your hands in a matter of hours, not days? As a SOLIDWORKS user, you’re already doing the hardest and most time-consuming step in this process. All that’s left is to pick a machine based on your needs (quality or strength) and budget. You’ll be printing in no time.

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