Prepare your model for 3D printing with SolidWorks

This tutorial is for 3D printing enthusiasts who are already familiar with SolidWorks and would like to know the tricks for making a 3D printable model with SolidWorks.

Throughout this tutorial, you will learn the best practices for modeling, correcting and exporting an object to be 3D printed. By the end of this tutorial, you’ll have mastered:

SolidWorks is a modeling program geared toward the modeling of industrial objects, but it can be used for much more than just that.

Its function relies on the use of waves and nurbs for the base of its functions. Unlike many other programs, SolidWorks does not rely on a single function of meshing, which relies entirely on flat surfaces giving the impression of curves, instead it relies on a system of nurbs which take the average of those edges for a truly smooth surface. The system allows for a higher level of precision than other methods. Instead of polygonal modeling, SolidWorks relies on dimensional sketches which make measuring and resizing the object much more accurate. With a system based on these on these parameters, exporting becomes quick, easy, and surprisingly light as each individual file understands a large number of nurbs. Though this type of system can make the creation of specific and organic forms (like a face) somewhat complicated. It also limits importable files to only other wave-based files (.iges and .step most specifically).

Fortunately, it's possible to export directly from SolidWorks in .stl with a high level of control and precision. That gives users the opportunity to model for a 3D printing directly from the program, assuming a couple of rules are respected.

You do not need to be an expert or know all of the minute details of SolidWorks to understand this tutorial. However, it is important to be comfortable with the basic elements of the program as this tutorial focuses specifically on the best practices for creating a 3D printable model. Thus this tutorial does not go into the basic principles of the program.

For more information on beginner SolidWorks tutorials, feel free to stop by the SolidWorks tutorials page. There are also numerous tutorials on YouTube, which will also help.

SolidWorks is a paid program designed for professionals. It is possible to obtain a licence through Dassault Systemes, SolidWorks’ creator. There are also student and educator’s edition, which can be downloaded for free if your school/university works is a part of the SolidWorks education program, or, finally, it can be downloaded at a reduced price with your student ID.

Modelling for 3D Printing

A couple of good practices must be followed in order to create an effective 3D model. New limits arise with new materials and its important to keep in mind that what you’re creating on the screen will become a physical object, limited by a different set of physics, namely gravity. In this part of the tutorial, you will learn the key notions for creating a model that can be 3D printed through SolidWorks.

SolidWorks modeling relies on a system splines (spline modeling), which allows for extreme precision. That coupled with SolidWorks’ body volumization system, a system in which classic constraints are automatically treated, make for even further precision. SolidWorks only generates coherent solids which are thus easily translated into a physical object.

It is also important to follow the following rules:

  • The various bodies in your model cannot intersect
  • All of the elements in your model must have a thickness
  • The object must have a clear interior and exterior (this is generated automatically in SolidWorks)
  • The file’s optimal size must be less than 50Mb after the export. This limit is generally enough for a file that does not lose any detail or information. The tutorial will go into further detail about exporting and file restrictions in a later chapter dedicated to mesh exportation.
  • Finally, as previously iterated, you must not forget that the digital object will become a physical one: a small and thin structure can not support a top-heavy design. Keep the materials restrictions (minimum thicknesses, resistance, etc.) in consideration when designing. To do so, you can check our Materials page.

With the exception of assembled folders, mobile pieces, and other designs that are physically separated, its essential that your file has only one body within it. Files which have more than one body will be covered in a later chapter dedicated to moving and assembled pieces).

Modeling at a correct and closed volume

SolidWorks proposes two principle types of modeling: Solid and Surface. Each object within the program is called a body. It is possible within SolidWorks to create a body through one of the two types of modeling, or by merging two existing bodies together.

You can see the total number of solid and surface bodies at the top of the scroll down menu on the left of the interface.

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Surface modeling allows for particular advantages when creating surfaces, such as car bodies, waves, or other specific forms, however for a 3D print, its better to export a file that only has solid bodies. This is because surface bodies do not have a recorded virtual weight and thus cannot be translated into a physical form. It is necessary that your 3D model has a minimum weight corresponding with the limits of the material to be used in the printer so that the printer can correctly interpret the information.

It is possible to work with surface bodies only, and that will be covered in a later chapter, however it is simpler to begin working solely with solid bodies

Solid Modeling

To create a file with a single body in solid modeling mode, check the “Merge Result” option in the scroll down menu that appears with the function, then check “Selected Bodies”.

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If you are unable to check this option when running the function or if you prefer not to immediately merge the bodies, it is always possible to merge multiple bodies with SolidWorks’ boolean tool. You can find this tool under Insertion>Functions>Combine and use the “Add” option until you arrive at a single solid body.

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Every function applied through SolidWorks generates a volume that adheres to 3D printing conditions, assuming they align with the anticipated material of the print.

You can verify whether or not your model is fully merged when looking at a cut view. Merged bodies will produce a solid color blue, whereas intersecting bodies will not.

Note in the two photos below the bodies are not merged and the cut section of the objects produces a gap in the blue coloring.

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After using the “Combine” tool, a cut section of the two bodies produces a solid color blue, meaning the bodies were successfully merged.

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If your design can be created without surface functions we highly recommend using only solid functions for your 3D print. The majority of functions (extruded boss/base, revolved boss/base, swept boss/base, loft boss/base) are the same in both modes. However, it is possible to use surface functions if necessary. In the following section you will learn how to render printable model using surface tools.

Surface Modeling: generating the right envelopes for 3D printing

To create printable surface model, it must be converted into a solid before exporting. So its important to keep in mind that the surface bodies you create will eventually be converted into solid bodies.

To accomplish this, your surface bodies must be closed with continuous, common, and finite borders - in other words it must be watertight. This allows for an easy conversion of the surface ‘skin’ into a solid body.

To accomplish this, your surface bodies must be closed with continuous, common, and finite borders - in other words it must be watertight. This allows for an easy conversion of the surface ‘skin’ into a solid body.

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Another option, is to use the “Thicken” tool, which allows you to determine the thickness of your surface and that of the physical print. If you decide to use this option, keep in mind the minimum requirements for the material you plan on printing with.

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Also note that the “Thicken” tool can be found in the “Boss/base” menu, which is usually associated with solid functions - in short, performing this task will convert your object into a solid body.

Hollowing Your Model

Creating a hollow model is important for 3D printing as it limits the amount of material used to create the object. A hollow object will greatly reduce the cost of the production, and some materials require specific sizes to ensure a successful print.

There are a couple options for hollowing a model.

You can upload your file to our website where the object can be automatically hollowed through a Hollowing function. The function will also place a small hole on the object to allow the excess printing material to drain during the printing process.

If you would like hollow your object directly in SolidWorks, the “Shell” function can accomplish this. Though keep in mind that you will have to choose the surface on which you will place you draining hole, and the thickness of the walls.

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Not all pieces need to be hollowed, however. Sometimes more fragile parts and ought not be hollowed. And in other cases, basic engineering designs can reduce the total about of material used, while maintaining structural properties. Note the examples below where material can be reduced, and where it ought not to be:

  • Structural cut
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  • Shell cut: in the following example, shell hollowing was used. Note that the fragile, extruding parts are also hollowed.
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  • Classic removal of extruding material: the fragile parts remain filled, and less likely to break after printing.
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If you select the the “Hollow” function without selecting a face to allow the object to empty, be sure to allow a hole in order to allow excess material to drain. Without a hole to allow the excess material to drain, the object will be interpreted as a solid object and will be printed and priced as such! For more information about how big the holes should be, please check our Materials page.

Relief Text and Motifs

It is possible to add relief text or motifs on your objects using online Sculpteo tools, but you can accomplish the same thing using SolidWorks. If you would like to integrate text on your model, you can either:

  • Use the text tool in SolidWorks
  • Import an existing text or image

To use the text tool in SolidWorks, you must first select the orientation of the text and after that you can add your text and modify the typography as you see fit. You can then use the outline like any other sketch in the program and can apply functions to it.

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If you would like to import a text, drawing, graphic, or any other sort of vectorised graphic into SolidWorks, it must be a .dwg or .dxf file. To import one of the files, click on “Open a file” > “Import into a new part as” > “2D Sketch” .

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The following window will allow you get a preview of your file and to select the layers you plan on including.

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The screen following allows you to merge points of the drawing under a certain threshold. This is particularly helpful if a file is complex, where the automatic vectorization of the file may create performance and size issues in the resulting file.

It is also possible change certain characteristics of the file on this screen (rotation, positioning, etc.) - though it is not particularly useful as we are not sure how it will look on the model itself.

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When you click “Finish” your vector file will open in a standalone draw file. The easiest way to transfer it from there is by copy and pasting.

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All that is left to be done is to adjust the size and positioning of the drawing with the traditional draw tools (size, placement, rotation, etc.).

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We advise leaving a point of reference on your piece so you will be able to quickly view your drawing with the “Go to” tool.

Any SolidWorks function can then be able to be applied to your trace.

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Moving and assembled pieces

With 3D printing you are able to print moving and articulated pieces in a single print. Your piece can be fully assembled and functional straight out of the printer, though there are certain rules that must be followed in order for it to come out correctly.

A plastic piece, for example, must have a clearance of 0.5 mm between surfaces - if not the heat created during the printing process will fuse the objects together. If you’re interested in the particular restrictions Sculpteo’s materials, visit our materials page. We will cover how to measure dimensions in the next chapter.

To measure objects to an exact distance, following SolidWorks’tools will be especially useful.

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  • Smart dimension solidworks
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  • Linear or circular pattern solidworks
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      Coloring and Texturing for a mulitcolored 3D print

      SolidWorks has a system to prepare the model for different materials which can also be integrated into 3D (photoview 360), however the colors and materials generated are not exportable. It is impossible to directly export a SolidWorks file with textures.

      There is an indirect way of exporting, which involves exporting the textures in a separate file, importing them into another program (such as Blender), assigning your textures in that program, and exporting it from there - though it is particularly laborious and there are many possible risks. We do not recommend it. If textures are an important part of your design we recommend designing them directly in another program.

      Creating textures with SolidWorks with the intention of exporting them for a 3D print is not an effective way to spend your time.

      Analyzing and Exporting Your 3D File

      Measuring Elements and Distances

      A best practice is to begin making your model at the correct dimensions, but at times you’ll have to measure exact thicknesses, distances, and volumes.

      SolidWorks offers an aptly named tool for this, the “Measure” tool.

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      In the options, select the edge(s) and/or surface(s) you plan to measure and the measurement you’re looking for (length, volume, angle, etc.).

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      The “Information” tab can also give you information as to global size, volume, and weight estimations.

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      It is important to note that the dimensions given by the SolidWorks program are native to SolidWorks (.sldprt) and the units will not be inherently transferred. They are simply scaleable distances which can then be used with another program, or in our case the Sculpteo interface.

      Creating a Mesh

      SolidWorks functions with a system of Nurbs and doesn't have the ability to create meshes. However, it is still possible to convert your model into a mesh (.stl) when exporting. When exporting in .stl, which we are going to cover in the next part, we are also able to create a preview of the model before saving the file.

      Analyse et export

      Despite the fact SolidWorks does not directly create a mesh it is still able to produce one during the export, and that type of file is particularly useful for 3D printing. Mesh files are the most widespread and common type of files used with 3D printing, particularly .stl files, and SolidWorks as the ability to export directly in that format.

      To export your model select “Save as…” and .stl under “Type”.

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      Before clicking save you can refine the default options if you’d like further precision.

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      The two characteristics that most greatly affect the precision of your model are the deviation and the angle. These characteristics determine the angles and distances that SolidWorks will generate for the triangles that will make up the object’s mesh.

      The “Fine” level of precision is usually acceptable, though you are able to define that yourself - but keep in mind that the printers themselves have an accuracy of up to .01mm so anything smaller than that will not be regarded. Not to mention the smaller that number the larger the file will be.

      Also, before the final export, SolidWorks will show you a final rendering of the mesh, an estimation of the file size and the number of faces it will create. The estimated file size will give you an indication as to whether or not the file can be uploaded.

      These precision parameters must be adjusted according to the final size of the folder and of the object you plan on printing. It is quite rare to create an object that requires anything less than .05 mm or that an angle will need to be less than 2 degrees.

      To give you an example, if you’re looking to create a cylinder and you define a level of precision of .5 degrees, your cylinder will be defined by 720 edges when a circle only has 360 degrees. If a cylinder is 5 cm in diameter, the differences in edges would be invisible to the naked eye.

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      Particular Case: Multiple Bodies and Assemblies

      There are a couple of export possibilities if you are working with SolidWorks for a piece that will be assembled. You can, under the “Options” menu choose to save the model in a singular .stl file, which will place all of the moving pieces in a single file, otherwise they will each have their own .stl file.

      Some files would be too large and precise to exported in a single .stl file, if that is the case you must re-adjust the particular precision values. If this still does not produce the required effect, or if too much precision is lost, it may be preferable to export in a vectorial format, which is based off of a system of nurbs (similar to SolidWorks) not a mesh. The Sculpteo website is also able to accept the vectorial formats .iges or .step.

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      Repairing Common Errors

      File too large

      The size of your mesh file depends directly on your exporting parameters (and the complexity of your model).

      Certain functions, namely text, increase the size of a file quickly.

      If your file is too large to import to the Sculpteo website, try reducing the level of precision in the SolidWorks export. If your file has quite a bit of text and multiple ondulations, try exporting the file as a vector. Vector files are more appropriate for extremely complex files. Try .iges or .step.

      Merging Volumes

      To merge your bodies together you must use the boolean tool, which allows multiple solid bodies to be merged together.

      To merge surface bodies, you must use the “Surface Stitch” tool which merges bodies in a sewing-type technique. The “Combine” function will also easily merge multiple solid bodies.

      To more easily make a surface body into a solid, check the “Merge entities”, this will a solid valid for 3D printing.

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      Orienting Volume

      As was covered in the beginning of this tutorial, orientation is particularly important when it comes to 3D printing in order to determine the interior and exterior of an object.

      If you have a solid body in SolidWorks, there will not be a problem with orientation, this is done automatically. If there is a discretion of orientation, the Sculpteo program will correct it.

      Inverted Triangles

      As SolidWorks functions on a system of nurbs, inverted triangles would only occur at the time of export, and this would have been done automatically - as the inverting of the triangles would be universal they would not present a problem when imported into the Sculpteo site.

      Holes

      SolidWorks is unable to create holes when working with solid bodies. It would be a hole created during exporting meshing process.

      Multi-bodied Files

      Multishell files are not possible with SolidWorks. Your file would actually be a mobile assembly, which require multiple bodies but which also need to be printed at the same time; it is thus normal that your file has multiple shells.

      To repeat files (multiple copies of the same model), the most economical technique, is to use the online Sculpteo tool which creates a series (of at least 20 pieces), which would optimise the positioning and price of production.

      Repairing Volume

      If you export a solid body, you will not have a problem with a mesh export.

      It is not possible to repair defective meshes with SolidWorks as the program does not support mesh files, with the exception of extremely light .stl files.

      Mesh Modification

      It is not possible to import a mesh into SolidWorks, with the exception of extremely light .stl files. Mesh reduction is possible using the precision parameters during the export process.

      Solid Cutting and Fragmenting

      The “Cut” tool can be managed classically in the solid body tools, it can also be done with “Surface Restraint” in surface mode.

      It is also possible to work with surface tools in solid mode. You can subtract one solid from another, using the combine tool but instead choosing subtract from the menu.

      When dealing with shells, the number of bodies indicated in SolidWorks can sometimes produce a “noise shell”, which in other words is an unexpected body. These are often generated by an error in the symmetry function.

      Volume Selection

      When working with SolidWorks, you are able to work on an assembly out of a sole piece. Then, if you want, you can export your .stl file as one edge, one surface, or (most commonly) all at once. For 3D printing it is important that you export a file that includes your entire object, as an file made of a single face will not print correctly. Exporting single parts of an object can make creating an object of multiple other objects more simple when working in SolidWorks directly.

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