When it comes to 3D printing an object, a few things have to happen.
First of all, you have to design the object you would like to print using CAD software, otherwise known as 3D modelling software. It is with this software you will create your object to the specifications you require.
Next up, that CAD drawing you have created needs to be sliced. For that, you need dedicated slicing software.
What is slicing software?
Slicing a 3D drawing translates the 3D drawing into a language that a 3D printer can understand and print.
If you want a slightly more technical explanation, slicing turns digital 3D models into G-codes (a generic name for a control language) that a 3D printer can understand.
G-codes contain instructions for the 3D printer. In other words, G-code tells the 3D printer how to print the model. Without G-code, a 3D printer is useless!
Slicing software is a necessary element of 3D printing, because 3D printers cannot translate a CAD drawing by themselves. 3D printers need the specifications of the object you design to be translated into a language that they can interpret.
How are g-codes built?
G-code is automatically generated by slicing software. If you know G-code, you could do it yourself, but the code would be hundreds of pages long.
You see, G-code is an extensive language. With a 3D print, it contains hundreds and sometimes thousands of instructions. It isn't worth your time writing these manually, even if you know how to do it.
If you want to learn G-code, there are tutorials online. For most people, it's best just to use slicing software.
Slicing software in more detail
Basic slicing software – in fact, all slicing software – will create paths for a 3D printer to follow when printing. These paths are instructions for geometry, and they tell a 3D printer what speed to print at for various points and what layer thicknesses to adopt, if applicable (sometimes it is best to do this manually).
More advanced slicing programs also take into account GD&T (Geometric Dimensioning and Tolerancing). With this, it is possible to not only create slicer information about the geometry of a part but to create information about that part’s design intent so that the finished part is suitable for longer-term end-use.
Hobbyists can use basic slicing software but professional applications might call for something more advanced.
Now that you know what slicing software is, let's take a look at some options.
Top Rated Slicing Software
Whichever way you feel about slicing software and its relationship with 3D printing, the fact is this - you need it to get the job done.
Now, there are several hundred slicing programs out there to choose from. They range in price from free to thousands of pounds. Some 3D printer manufacturers, such as Ultimaker and Markforged, ship their 3D printers with slicing software in the box (Cura and Eiger). However, unless explicitly noted, you are actually free to choose whichever slicing software you like - so feel free to test plenty out!
Here's a list of some of the most respected slicing software programs:
- Eiger (Markforged)
- PreForm (Formlabs)
- SLICER 4.0 (3DGence)
- Cura (Ultimaker)
- Simplify3D (Builder Extreme & Essentium)
It’s important to note that we are a partner to Markforged, Formlabs, 3DGence, Ultimaker, Builder Extreme and Essentium. These companies have their own software or have partnered with a third-party, open-source software. You can download some of the above software for a free trial before purchasing your printer to see the features and learn how it works. Try Eiger from Markforged here
It’s also important to note that some slicing programs work better with certain 3D printer manufacturers. For instance, sometimes a slice file will crash a program or it won’t export to G-code. If this happens, we recommend you try a new slicer.
What slicing tool is best for 3D printing?
Looking at what people recommend on forums, the top-rated free slicers are Cura, Simplify3D and Slic3r.
Cura is free and it is an excellent fully-featured slicer. Simplify3D and Slic3r are also very, very good. KISSlicer is a good choice for domed surfaces.
Which slicing software is best for you depends on your level of experience. Here are some things to consider:
- Slicing software can underestimate and overestimate print times.
- Some slicing software has a free version but you have to upgrade to unlock certain features.
- Some slicing software has limited file support (e.g. STL, 3MF, and OBJ).
- Print quality differs between slicing software. For example, the owl image above contains two identical designs sliced with different software.
- Some 3D printer manufacturers have proprietary slicing software. If this is the case, stick to the official software for the best print results.
If you enjoyed this article, check out our Back to Basics guide where we lift the lid on some of the most frequently used terms in the 3D printing industry - or if you would like to find out more about how 3D printing works, contact our team.