Learn 3D Modeling in Your Browser

If you have a 3D printer, it is a good bet you’ve at least seen or heard of Tinkercad. There’s pros and cons to doing your design in a Web browser, but Tinkercad is very easy to use and great for making simple objects. However, there are other 3D object designers you can use in your browser, too. Tinkercad is just the one that everyone seems to know about.

I won’t talk much about Tinkercad, but if you haven’t tried it, it is well worth a look. It has a simple system of drawing things and holes. When you merge holes with things you can make lots of shapes. The alignment tools are good, and since Autodesk acquired them (part of its 123d app suite), it isn’t likely they will go under any time soon (which, as you may remember, almost happened).

If you are designing some great new secret invention you may shy away from cloud-based design programs. But if you are printing out key chains with your coworker’s cat’s name on it, do you really care? Most of these cloud-based programs will work from any computer so you can quickly do a design in a coffee shop and then go home and print it.

Programs that generate 3D objects tend to fall into two categories: visual and parametric. Visual tools emphasize drawing shapes with a mouse while parametric tools tend to make you describe what you want numerically. This is one of those things where your intuition may lead you astray. It seems like visual drawing is the way to go, right? People are visual. But most people are also inexact. If you want to lay out, for example, a front panel for a piece of custom test equipment, it is hard to get everything lined up perfectly and spaced evenly.

Sure, tools like Tinkercad have alignment and spacing tools and that’s great. But for complex designs, making a change can cause a flurry of mouse activity. Professional CAD programs often combat this by allowing you to set constraints, but that’s generally not easy to learn and, as far as I can tell, is unheard of in a browser-based tool (except for Onshape, as you’ll see below).

The opposite of the pure visual approach is a program like OpenSCAD. You don’t draw anything. You describe your shapes using something that looks like a programming language and then you can see a visual representation of it that you can’t edit graphically. You might think OpenSCAD isn’t a browser-based program. You’d be right, but there are several versions of it on the web. One is the aptly-named openscad.net, and it is probably the closest to the desktop experience.

If you write OpenSCAD code correctly, it is nothing to make an adjustment here or there. Need another hole in that front panel? Add it and all the other holes move to adjust. However, not everyone writes flexible code. If you just hardcode all the numbers, the result is even worse than using visual tools.

Many visual tools (including Tinkercad) give you some way to do at least some parametric inputs (hint: use the ruler and click on a dimension) which may help if you need to make, for example, holes that are exactly the same size. But setting X and Y coordinates of a set of holes so they line up and space out is still something you have to do either by eyeing it, using a one-time alignment tool, or directly entering numbers.

I wanted to gather up some of the web-based 3D design tools I know about. The list is not exhaustive, and I’m sure the comments will point out some that I don’t know about.

OpenSCAD and Related

I already mentioned that a few sites provide OpenSCAD in your browser. If you are already using OpenSCAD, this is really handy when you aren’t at your own computer. If you are squarely in the visual camp, though, you won’t be impressed. The OpenSCAD language isn’t quite a full programming language (although the newest release is getting closer). If you are a more traditional programmer, there are options like OpenJSCad or CoffeeSCAD, both of which offer OpenSCAD-like capabilities aimed more at people who actually program.

If you ever have the urge to host your own private copy of OpenSCAD on a web server, have a look at cloudscad. It hasn’t been updated lately, though.

The Best of Both?

cad1I have been very impressed with Shapesmith which is open source and runs well in the browser. What’s nice is that while it is visual, there is an inspector window that lets you do direct entry of parameters easily. If you don’t like creating accounts, you can try the site with no sign up at all, although you’ll lose your work later if you don’t create an account.
Like Tinkercad, Shapesmith lets you set a workplane. However, if it has tools to align or space objects, I couldn’t find them. The picture to the left shows an STL file imported into Shapesmith and tweaked.

3dtin

cad3I first learned about 3D Tin because it shows up in the Chrome store. It looks really nice and it is capable of drawing items for 3D printing or just doing general purpose 3D modelling. It has a bit of a quirky user interface that tries to bridge the visual and the parametric.
When you create a shape, you can enter sizes, for example, numerically. When resizing, you use a slider instead of grabbing object handles. It takes some getting used to, but it works. it does offer alignment and grouping tools, which are handy. The picture to the right shows a simple 3Dtin object.

The Full Monty: Onshape

While most of the tools in this roundup are simple to use, Onshape (currently in Beta) is a full-blown professional CAD package in your browser. If you need that kind of power, it is great. But if the term “padding a sketch” doesn’t mean much to you, prepare for a steep learning curve.

cad2I mentioned earlier that professional CAD tools use constraints and parameters to get the same kind of effect you can get in a properly written OpenSCAD script. Onshape supports constraints and parameters. Watching their tutorial video might give you an idea of the learning curve you’d face to use this design technique. Of course, if you are accustomed to this type of modelling from other packages, you’ll find Onshape very impressive for a browser-based application.
Although you can use Onshape for 3D printing, it is fully capable. The free plan gives you a limited number of private drawings but a virtually unlimited amount of public ones. The picture to the left shows a complex part in Onshape.

Breaking the Desktop

Are any of these tools up to par with a desktop solution? Depends. Onshape is pretty powerful if you are willing to take the time to learn it. OpenSCAD in the browser is pretty much like OpenSCAD on your desktop.

Perhaps the other tools do lack a few features. However, for things you commonly 3D print, any of these tools will get the job done. I know there are others out there too. Feel free to call out your favorite (or, even, your least favorite) in the comments.

Would I use online CAD for a real project? Maybe. I use online mail applications now. I also occasionally use online office applications like word processing. I think it mainly comes down to how much I trust the back end. If I own the back end (a possibility with some of these tools) or a company I trust (perhaps foolishly) owns it, and there are reasonable privacy controls in place, why shouldn’t I use online tools? Besides, I don’t think there’s much chance of Mr. Buttons’ key chain falling into the wrong hands.

41 thoughts on “Learn 3D Modeling in Your Browser

  1. If you ask me it’s worth learning Onshape – don’t be discouraged. There may be a little bit a of a learning curve but the tutorials are there. Especially for students out there – take the time and learn CAD design the right way. Unless you think you’ll never use it again and just want to get something done fast, I wouldn’t bother with the hacky CAD programs. Onshape lets you design with parametric modelling so you can go back and make changes without starting your design over from scratch. If you learn Onshape you will easily pickup Solidworks later which is the industry standard pro CAD package. Compared with learning electronics or learning to code the learning curve for Onshape will not be bad.

    1. At a previous job I really learned to hate SolidWorks. Despite what it’s capable of, its one of the most horribly written pieces of professional software I’ve seen. Complex models could literally take an hour to open/save on high-end performance desktops. And we just built wood cabinets for crying out loud! I always just assumed those jet engines they put on the disk art were fake. From the software side, I was tasked with automating some of our workflows. The API literally had ‘versioned’ functions that ended in numbers, with documentation like, don’t use 1 use 4. Not to mention the app would crash constantly for no reason at random points.

      1. I have never messed with the API, you’re right it is not well supported from what I can see. I have been using SW for many years and have found it is an awesome program if you work within it. Just like writing code, you can paint yourself into a corner that will cause headaches. In recent years they have worked on making it faster/lighter weight. I design curvy parts all the time that have over 500 features and they open in 10-15 seconds. My CAD station is nice but 5 years old so nowhere near state of the art.

        1. That’s a good sign that its improved. We eventually switched to Architecural Desktop, as it just made much more sense for what we were doing. We really didn’t even touch 99% of what the SolidWorks can do, we just needed nice elevation drawings to send to the customer. I’m sure it depened alot on how the drawing was organized, features, parts, sub-assemblies. We had lots of sub-assemblies across lots of external files.

      2. I have seen other APIs with ‘versioned’ functions as you describe in extremely expensive automation hardware/software systems. It does not instill a huge amount of confidence.

      3. This sounds fascinating. I’m a Sysadmin so I manage Solidworks installations & I occasionally get to see engineers use it. I’ve designed one or two simple things in it, but how does the API work? I agree with you regarding performance. Do you have any writing about it? I’d like to learn more about your experience with that. :)

        1. The API allows you do create a DLL that can add new features or custom commands to the interface. We used .Net as the development language.

          So basically what the main people did was insert products into various configurations and arrangements into an assembly in order to generate drawings for the customers. Our add in interface created a dialog which allowed the user to enter our model numbers, and then automatically insert the sub assembly in the specified configuration. When they were done, the code would scan all the sub-assemblies in the drawing and export a high level BOM that we would import into our other software.

          SolidWorks really wasn’t the right tool for what we were doing, and we scrapped all that and re implemented it in AutoCad (allows the same add-in functionality)

          It worked pretty well when it worked (could have been code issues on our side as well), but its great for automation or common tasks. It allows you to programatically do almost anything you can do from the interface, insert objects, set configurations, add features, move stuff, save, open, etc. You can also add custom forms, dialogs, I believe you can add commands to right click menus too.

          Support is OK, the guy that did the original implementation at our office was self taught VB with no SolidWorks experience, so there is enough in the examples to get you started.

          http://www.solidworks.com/sw/support/api-support.htm

  2. +1 for OnShape. I started with FreeCAD and loved the concept, but was frustrated with how buggy and rigid it could be. OnShape is very similar, except that it actually works, has more features, and they have some good training videos.

    I found the parametric constraint concepts to be pretty intuitive, although it can take a while to really learn what tools you have available and what non-obvious uses they might have. It’s definitely a much better way to go than the ‘visual’ approaches described. I love changing one parameter pretty deep in the tree and watching the whole model automatically update itself perfectly.

  3. The easiest 3D modeling I’ve used was plain AutoCad. Real working object snaps, measuring tools, command line input for exact distances and angles, fully featured 2d drawing for precise extrusion profiles. Most of the free options I’ve tried have almost everything, such that it seems the one thing you want to do is nearly impossible or so time consuming to do you want to throw your computer out the window.

  4. Every tool is learnable imho, you just need a bit of time and the will to do it. Especially today, where you can basically get video tutorials, user forums and a lot of other sources of information at your finger tip and most of the tools have a manual that at least covers each function in some way. Back in the days when i started with 3D CAD on Unigraphics NX it was way harder to find some useful information in the web and you basically had to get (and pay) a professional trainer to show you how the software was intended to be used. And i think that with all the competition the tools improved quite a bit on the user interface and workflow-logic too.
    Right now, i really like Spaceclaim for all my 3D-printing work. It can import pretty much every standard file format you can find (and you can buy expansion packs to support even the more exotic files). The license is not cheap (>1000$) but not too extreme either. The Designspark Mechanical Tool that is available for free uses the same core, just with cut down functionality.
    I tryed OnShape earlyer this year, but for me, too much stuff was still missing at that time. After all, it’s still in beta. If they change the file management interface and add some more announced but not yet implemented features, i’ll probably give them another try as it looks to have a solid code base (pun intended) and developer team behind it.

  5. Onshape = Very yes

    I’m a former SOLIDWORKS application engineer, and I must say, the first time I saw Onshape, I was blown away. It has 90% of the features you need in 10% of the package.

    Plus, if you know one system, you know the other. Onshape is a great, free method to add SOLIDWORKS skills to your resume.

      1. It’s not really free and it’s cloud based so if the “software” goes offline, even temporarily, you cannot use it. Also, you are forced to upgrade and cannot revert back so if a new update breaks things for you, you can’t fix it.

        1. You could apply the same logic about electricity to your house, but I’m sure you’d agree that it would be daft to be worried about your electricity supply so long as you had 99.9% uptime or better. Regarding upgrades – I’m pretty sure they will be taking care that nothing breaks, otherwise they’ll lose their entire customer base.

  6. “If you are designing some great new secret invention you may shy away from cloud-based design programs. But if you are printing out key chains with your coworker’s cat’s name on it, do you really care? ”

    Absolutely!

    A problem I see with cloud based solutions is that most of us will always have far more work where we don’t have to care than work where we do. Learning a new CAD package or anything else for that matter is an investment of time and energy that could be used for something else. Beyond learning something getting actually good at it takes practice. So.. after completing a hundred projects in some cloud based tool when you find yourself needing to do something that you don’t want to or cannot share where are you going to turn? Are you going to just use the tool you are already intimitely familiar with and hope nobody notices or are you going to go find some other software package where you get to be a newbie again? I would rather start my learning with a tool that I can use 100% of the time.

    Besides all that.. as the cloud fad continues to rage on and grow what is going to become of non-cloud applications? If you go to work on something that cannot be shared online in 2025 are you going to have to find an old computer on which to use a tool that was last updated in 2016?

    Or maybe non-cloud applications will live on as something only marketed to businesses. I still remember as a kid I wanted to try my hand at writing programs someone besides myself might actually want to use. In other words, I wanted a compiler, no more interpereted BASIC. Even shareware C++ compilers were going for $200+ and that was in 1980 something money!

    I do like the convenience of using ‘the cloud’. I’m all for solutions similar to that schematic and pcb design tool that got featured recently [forgot the name already :-( ]. It was a free, open source tool which you could install on your own server to use your own ‘cloud’.

    1. OnShape is virtually identical to SolidWorks in both UI and process. Switching between the two is like changing between a petrol and a diesel version of the same car. Most BRep solid modelling programs work in much the same way and the main skill is the general skill of making well constrained parametric 3D models, which applies equally to all solid modelling packages. Changing from one packages UI to another can slow you down for a bit, is no great issue.

      Regarding the issue of cloud based software – most folks and companies (here in the UK, at least) do their banking online with no issues. If that can be done securely, then it follows that any other cloud app can be sufficiently secure and private. Calling the cloud a fad implies you think that it might be going away sometime soon; it probably won’t.

  7. “But if the term “padding a sketch” doesn’t mean much to you, prepare for a steep learning curve.”

    I’m a professional industrial designer who’s been using SolidWorks, Rhino and Alias for over a decade, but I have never heard the phrase “padding a sketch”. According to Google it seems to be a FreeCAD synonym for creating an extruded object? Does OnShape borrow heavily from FreeCAD?

    1. Well maybe that was a poor choice of analog but my point was it isn’t just stacking shapes in the typical low end csg tool. Catia uses pad and pocket and I think at least a few others use similar nomenclature.

    1. What part are you having trouble with? I recall that making fully constrained sketches was the hardest part to get right when we were learning CAD at university.

      Stick with it! Once you get it, it’s pretty easy.

  8. Sketchup lets me design things with 0.00001 mm precision. I can 3D print stuff with 0.01mm precision. You can just play with it and it works or you can study it and it becomes a powerful tool. The inference mechanics… you can’t imagine how easy it is to do complicated things after you wrap your head around it. I’ll look at OnShape and Shapesmith but I think I’m taken.

  9. As a very non-graphically-minded person I use TinkerCad quite a lot, with a bit of logical thought you can knock together half decent stuff with various groupings of solids and holes.

    I just wish they’d put some development time into it again and come up with at least 3 things – the ability to split the model along a plane, the ability to easily bevel and chamfer edges, and the ability to be able to edit one of the models which is already in a group (ie, temporarily ungroup to some specific model, make some change, and regroup everything in the same order again).

    Those 3 features would make it massively easier to work with and save a lot of time.

    1. problem with tinkercad is that it’s a cloud based proprietary service. they can (and have) snatch away your entire work history at a moments notice. I couple of years back they pulled their service very suddenly for business reasons and left users the option of downloading read only stl files and no way to edit them for months. Then returned their service months later as if nothing happened, like they deserved a medal for letting their userbase access their work.

      For me it was sobering proof of a fundamental problem with the SaaS model, it undoes the freedom enjoyed by computer users since the emergence of the personal computer in the late 70s, and puts all of the power in the hands of often volatile service providers. Even Google pulled hundreds of services that they ran under google labs and the like, If Google can’t pull off consistent cloud services, there’s not much hope for nobodies to do the same.

  10. Based on this post, I tried out OnShape this weekend. It was incredibly easy to use (looking at you, FreeCAD) and a LOT more powerful than most of the free stuff I find out there, especially for Linux.

    That said, it’s not “full-blown”. It doesn’t understand screw threads or gears, for instance. You can “depict” them, but there’s no builder or standards incorporated.

  11. I am the mythical unicorn of a user- native linux user, also machinist/watchmaker- need to do a lot of thread & gear work modeling NATIVELY in linux. None of that wine stuff- it never works for complex CAD programs.

    Trained professionally in Inventor 2010, very familiar with parametric modeling from it. Want to learn Solidworks through day job as machinist- for night use as watchmaker, doing spiral achimedian spring modeling, accurate involute & cycloidal gear modeling, using equation path modeling constraints, as I recently learned Solidworks can do (and inventor too, i’m sure, just haven’t tried it). Motion simulation is a big plus.

    Willing to buy something serious and dedicated- ultimately powerful. But nothing CAD that’s powerful and does the exotic stuff I need exists to work natively without any issues in any build of Linux. Why, why why this is, I don’t know. Maybe I’m missing something- but I’ve been looking for over 10 years! Anyone, please? I’m going to look up OnShape now…but don’t think it will handle me.

  12. WARNING: I just got a real life phone call, at work, from OnShape. They googled my name, I guess found my resume, looked me up on the company phonebook or something and called me. Super creepy.

  13. I do have an invention which I realized would get the best prototype in 3D printing. I’m trying to learn Tinkercad to prepare the digital design, but am struggling. I’m destitute from involuntary unemployment and can barely afford mass transit fare. I did take an introductory class at my public library, which also has 3D printers. But getting video instruction once and following it doesn’t consolidate the instructions for “core functionality tools” into my long-term memory. I need written notes, and can’t write them down legibly fast enough. I sent a letter to someone at Autodesk pleading for help with my education. I just found that there is a book out which probably has what I need; I put a hold on it at my library. Tinkercad’s website isn’t helpful with my solid education, hasn’t replied to my email, gives mouse button numbers assuming everyone is right-handed; It’s not as if I’m stupid, but the last times I learned to do complex activities without written notes of the instructions, it was riding a bicycle and riding a horse – many many repetitions were required to become skilled. Not everyone is a single-pass video learner.

  14. Interesting post! You may also want to check out Morphi, a 3D design app for all available on iPad and coming soon for Android, Mac and Windows. http://www.morphiapp.com Morphi is not browser based so you can use it anywhere without wifi. In Morphi, people of all skill levels can create 3D models by drawing and/or using images or 3D shapes. The app is integrated with Adobe Creative Cloud and you can quickly go from 2D to 3D. You can export the files for 3D printing, animation or further remixing in other 3D programs. FREE download (with in app purchases) is available at: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/morphi/id833530351?mt=8 Volume purchasing on 20+ devices is available through Morphi Edu (identical to Morphi): https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/morphi-edu/id1003747185?mt=8

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