By Ron Scopelliti
For several years I’ve been wanting to try 3-D printing, but I’ve been uncertain about how to get involved without a major investment. So when I heard about a free, browser-based 3-D design and printing app from one of the most respected names in design software, it piqued my interest.
Tinkercad is made by Autodesk, publishers of the pioneering AutoCAD computer-aided design software. It requires no download to get started, just a quick account sign-up. It allows you to create original pieces or modify existing designs, and from there you can either download them for local 3-D printing, or place an online printing order.
Opening your Tinkercad account for the first time immediately sends you into a hands-on tutorial. From that point, there’s a whole series of available tutorials, though the interface is simple enough that you can pretty easily jump into a project right after the intro.
If you’d like a bit more guided learning, there are step-by-step projects like dice, buttons, toys, and jewelry. Many of the projects align with national STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) teaching standards, and there are resources on the website to help teachers bring Tinkercad into the classroom.
I went into my first Tinkercad project with a few simple goals. I wanted to take two or three pre-formed shapes from the Tinkercad library, resize them, and combine them into one unique object. I also wanted to create a hole in the object, because knowing how to make holes is one of the most useful skills in any type of fabrication.
When you start a Tinkercad project, it automatically assigns a randomly-generated name. In the case of this project, it was “Terrific Habbi-Robo.” Being that I had no idea what I was making, and therefore no idea what to call it, I decided to stick with the nonsensical-but-catchy name.
First, I took a diamond shape and flipped it upside down. Then I made a cubic base, stretched it out to the size I wanted, and embedded the diamond into it. Tinkercad’s “align” tool helped me precisely arrange the pieces.
Having done that, I decided to hollow out the base by placing a cylinder inside the cube, then designating it as a hole with the click of a button. Once I got everything positioned the way I liked, I selected all the objects, and used the “group” command to bind them together.
Before grouping them, each item could be resized, reshaped, or moved independently. Grouping them allowed me to treat them as one unit, stretching or shrinking the whole object as needed. If I had to go back and work on them independently, however, there’s an “ungroup” option.
Despite occasional internet lag, the design of the object went quickly and smoothly. Completed projects, as well as in-progress work, can be saved and shared in your Tinkercad account, and can also be downloaded.
The next step in my experiment was to prove to myself that the object was actually printable. Tinkercad gives users some very convenient ways to get pieces printed and shipped to you, but to save time I decided on a more local approach, printing my test piece at the Greenville Public Library. The library’s MakerBot 3-D printer will accept files in THING, STL, or OBJ formats. Cost for printing is 20 cents per gram of plastic.
The piece, which has a volume of around seven cubic inches, took four hours to print, and came out just as I expected. While I chose a green plastic that I felt would show up well in photos, the plastic is paintable, and can also be filed and sanded to refine the shape.
I found the Tinkercad process to be a quick and easy way to go from reading about 3-D printing to experiencing it. To learn more, visit www.tinkercad.com, or check out one of the many tutorials available on YouTube.