Making a maker: It’s all about the software

I’ve been quite pleased with how much better I’ve gotten at using design software 123D Design since my first attempts at creating a 3D printable part. But it has become clear to me that I’m using the iPhoto of 3D design software when there are a whole lot of Photoshops out there.

Pamela Pascual, an Autodesk artist in residence, has been showing me her design process step-by-step as she creates and 3D prints a pair of nature-designed glasses. Much more time has gone into designing the glasses than printing them, and I can see why: Pascual uses a range of software, and each one has different strengths.

Pascual’s task is a bit more complicated than creating, say, a cup. Aside from their gorgeous, moth wing-inspired design, they also need to fit her head. 3D printing provides the benefit of being able to print glasses that are exactly fitted to your head without costing more than printing a generic fit, but you need to know how to create that perfect fit.

Pascual's 3D model of herself created with 123D Catch. Photo courtesy of Pamela Pascual.

Pascual’s 3D model of herself created with 123D Catch. Photo courtesy of Pamela Pascual.

Pascual started with 123D Catch, an app that stitches together pictures to create a 3D model of any physical object. Catch outputted a 3D model of her head. She fed the model into Rhinoceros, a professional modeling program, where she plotted the points where the glasses should contact her face. Then she had Rhino generate the shape the glasses should take to rest on those points.

Rhino model

She had already created the moth-inspired shapes with a Rhino plugin called T-Splines. T-Splines doesn’t require you to tweak each minute detail by hand; instead, you can input restrictions and have the software automatically generate a design. From there, you can make further overall tweaks that apply themselves to the object as a whole. It is called parametric design.


The software fits into Pascual’s mission as an artist nicely. Biomimicry means emulating nature, and nature is excellent at building efficiencies into structures. Moth wings are an example of that; they require as little material as possible. By using T-Splines, Pascual can find the most efficient way to create her design.

A pair of 3D printed prototype glasses, featuring Pascual's organic moth wing-inspired design. Photo by Signe Brewster

A pair of 3D printed prototype glasses, featuring one of Pascual’s organic moth wing-inspired designs. Photo by Signe Brewster

Just learning the range of software programs available to a 3D designer is overwhelming. I’ve come across Blender, OpenSCAD and Meshmixer, and there are plenty more emerging to make modeling more accessible to the average user.

Two weeks ago, I went through the exercise of turning a 2D drawing into a 3D shape (while I successfully created the 3D digital file, it was unprintable, and I have no idea why). The process took me through four different software programs and conversions to three different types of files. A big part of becoming an expert 3D printer will be knowing how to work with all of these programs.