SOLIDWORKS 2016 Makes 3D Printing Easier
SOLIDWORKS incorporated a 3D printing feature in 2015, allowing you to print directly to a 3D printer. At this year’s SOLIDWORKS World 2016, enhancements to that feature were announced to help improve 3D print workflow from part to print. The new tools allow you to review and evaluate 3D print jobs. SOLIDWORKS aim is to make it as easy for 3D CAD users to 3D print their CAD model, as it would be to print out a PDF on an office printer.
Screenshot of 3D print preview from MakerBot’s slicing software MakerBot Desktop. (Image courtesy of Advanced Technical Services.)
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing (AM), has become fairly well known. The industry, however, is still young and evolving. New methods and uses are still being discovered. Improvements in both hardware and software have increased accuracy, resolution and speed in 3D prints. This also has helped broaden the market in both the commercial and private sectors, making it easier to 3D print. Having tools within CAD software to quicken and simplify the 3D printing process definitely gives designers, engineers and architects an advantage when it comes to seeing their vision and designs come to life.
The 3D Print Workflow
To get a better understanding of how the incorporation of a 3D print feature within a 3D CAD program can affect the traditional 3D print workflow, let’s look at what a traditional 3D CAD program does and doesn’t do. Through the modeling process, CAD software stores a lot of data about your model. It knows the shape and size of the object. It knows where corners, fillets, holes and other features are. It knows where those features should be in relation to other features and even how those features interact if you modify the object. It can even tell you the weight of your part if you have assigned a material property to it. While the CAD software contains all the data needed to represent your part accurately in a visual representation on screen, it normally does not know how to tell a 3D printer how to print that part. A 3D printer needs specific instructions to do that. Typically, to 3D print a part, you would model it in your CAD software as mentioned above and then export that model to an STL (stereolithography) file. Most of your major 3D CAD packages will allow an export to STL.
A slicing preview from MakerBot’s slicing software MakerBot Desktop. (Image courtesy of Advanced Technical Services.)
Once you have your STL file, it still needs to be prepared for your specific 3D printer. This is typically done with add-on software separate from your CAD software and is often referred to as post-processing or slicing. This is the part of the workflow that gives your 3D printer the specific instructions it needs to print your part. Many 3D printer manufactures include their own slicing or post-processing software with the purchase of a 3D printer, but there are also third-party STL file processors out there. This part of the process is important. Most experienced 3D print users would agree that the post-processing or slicing process has the biggest impact on your print quality, so even though it’s an entirely additional step, it is accepted.
New File Formats
The STL file format strains to keep up with advancements in both hardware and software. An STL file only contains information on the surface geometry of an object. There are new file formats that can provide additional information or instructions to your 3D printer about the part you are trying to print, including the position of your model relative to the print bed for your specific 3D printer, orientation, color and material. New file formats can mean no post-processing or slicing is needed.
- 3MF — If you have SOLIDWORKS and Microsoft Windows 8.1, you can print directly to a 3D printer using the 3MF format included. You can set your desired print options in the Print3D PropertyManager. A preview of the print bed and the model’s location within the print bed lets you modify settings before starting your 3D print job.
SOLIDWORKS 3D print dialog box. (Image courtesy of Advanced Technical Services.)
- AMF — SOLIDWORKS also lets you export part and assembly files using the Additive Manufacturing File Format (AMF), an XML-based format designed to support additive manufacturing processes like 3D printing. In addition to the model geometry, an AMF file can contain information about the color and material of objects for 3D printing.
SOLIDWORKS 2016 Print Enhancements
Photo of support material on a 3D-printed bottle. (Image courtesy of Advanced Technical Services.)
A couple of enhancements to 3D printing in SOLIDWORKS 2016 include being able to use the Preview tab to give you a preview to evaluate the current print job. You can display striation lines to see if your print resolution is correct and if you have the minimal layer thickness required for your desired output.
A preview within SOLIDWORKS showing striation lines for a 3D print. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes SOLIDWORKS.)
It will help you identify which parts of your print may require supports. 3D printers need something to print on. All 3D printers start printing on some sort of platform, often referred to as the print bed. However, a lot of prints have parts that need to be printed above the print bed. In this event, support material is printed that will build up to the actual elevation of the part. The support material is much more delicate than the actual print and is then removed after the print is complete. The ability to review these areas and control where you need support structure and where you don’t will greatly enhance your final print output.
3D Print Partners
Sindoh 3Dwox 3D printer, being called the first 3D printer to be integrated into SOLIDWORKS. (Image courtesy of Sindoh.)
An example of the company’s commitment to the 3D print industry and improving the 3D print process workflow was evidenced at SOLIDWORKS World 2016 by announcing Sinhoh as a Solution Partner working toward becoming a Gold Product partner. A Certified Gold Product partner is the top level of the SOLIDWORKS Partner Product Program for software companies. Only products that offer fully-integrated “single-window” functionality within SOLIDWORKS can attain Certified Gold Product status. It also means that SOLIDWORKS has tested and certified the solution.
Sindoh is a South Korean 3D printer manufacturer that has been using SOLIDWORKS since 1996, so the partnership makes sense. The 3Dwox DP200 3D printer from Sindoh has been labeled as the first 3D printer to be integrated into the SOLIDWORKS software, allowing you to send prints directly to the printer. It also allows you to monitor your print after you’ve sent it to the 3D printer. You’re able to do so from your computer, which is huge if the printer is in a different room, or you can monitor it from the comfort of your smartphone. You can even check the amount of filament remaining before you send your print to ensure there is enough to complete the print job. All this can be done directly within the SOLIDWORKS user interface. This is great news for those of us who have to weigh the spool of filament when it nears the end and “guess-timate” if there will be enough to print the actual finished part.
Stratasys is a Minnesota-based manufacturer of 3D printers and 3D production systems. Stratasys was founded in 1989, so they definitely have some experience under their belt. They have been a SOLIDWORKS partner for several years now, and have continued to work on making the workflow from design to 3D print more seamless within SOLIDWORKS.
As with any workflow, being able to simplify or even eliminate steps without compromising the end result, gives you a big advantage. Not having to run an exported STL file though post-processing or slicing means that one can get from modeled part to print quicker. Being able to orient your model on the print bed, scale it up or down and add support structures all right there within SOLIDWORKS, is a game changer. Giving you the correct tools within your CAD software gives you more control over the print process and final output. One argument against this advancement is that users may have to worry about things that a post-processing or slicing program would take care of for you, taking the focus away from true design intent. SOLIDWORKS seems to be ahead of the curve in the implementation of “push button” printing. I’m confident that by evolving with the industry and listening to consumer feedback, SOLIDWORKS 3D print features will allow users to 3D print easier, faster and with more control.
About the Author