To introduce a new series of Tech Tuesdays, Tom Hazzard reviews some CAD software, starting with the free ones. In this episode, he looks into Trimble SketchUp. The app may have initially collected bad reviews, but it’s actually one of the easiest to use for those who are starting it – especially when sending out the design for others to view, comment on, and edit or collaborate. Tom also touches on the pros, cons, and other details of the software, even going out to say you don’t even need the Pro version if you’re only doing simple projects. How about you, what’s your go-to CAD design software?
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Trimble SketchUp 3D Printing Software Review
This is a review of another CAD software program. We’re doing a series of CAD software and it is time for a review of Google SketchUp. What we decided to do is to start our series with some of the free software that are out there. We will get into some of the other more comprehensive paid programs as well. Since many readers are starting out in CAD or starting out in 3D printing and working on what CAD program they want to use, we thought starting out with some of the free ones would be a good idea. For this episode, it’s Google SketchUp. Let’s talk about that.
Google SketchUp gets a bad rap a lot of the time for being an inferior program. I’ve even done interviews in 2015, especially when we were down at the UPS Store in San Diego talking about their services, they have a CAD technician who operates their machine. He was telling us how when he gets a model that was exported from SketchUp, it usually has a lot of errors they have to clean up. I haven’t personally had that experience. I’ve used SketchUp in earlier versions in the past more for making compatible drawings that my patent attorney or somebody could read. SketchUp is a pretty universal tool for them to load a file for free and rotate it around understand it but I have not tried to export files in the past.
For this review, I downloaded the most recent version of SketchUp for Mac in my case. It works for Mac or PC and as I understand, it is the same for both. One of the things I want to talk about is initially SketchUp. They have SketchUp Make, which is their entry-level version that’s completely free and it can be free forever. If you want to go a bit deeper, you can then upgrade to SketchUp Pro and there is a cost for that. They let you download and use SketchUp Pro for 30 days for free so you can check it out. If you want to go pro, if you’re a prototype user, they have additional features of an accurate scale drawings that can produce as well as generate presentation documents and create compelling walkthroughs of your 3D model. It’s like an animation of sorts, flyovers and things like that. To do those levels of functions, you might want to upgrade to Pro. At that point, if you’re going to pay for a program, there are other paid programs to consider. If you started learning Google SketchUp, maybe you don’t want to change. For now, creating models for 3D printing and starting in CAD, there’s certainly no need to pay for the pro version if you won’t need those features.
Let’s talk about some details now of the software. I’ve been impressed. This program has been improved quite a bit since I last played with it. Let’s say I was never a big user of Google SketchUp but I got into it now for this review and checked it out. For especially home users or light users who might be redesigning their kitchen for their house or wanting to build a new deck on the house and want to build something in CAD and visualize it, Google SketchUp is a good tool for that. It’s intuitive when you’re getting into building CAD models for 3D printing. It similarly has a lot of good tools. They have some specific templates.
When you get started, you can install it on your computer. You can create a new file and it gives you a bunch of templates like an architectural template. They also have a 3D printing template, which is in millimeters. It’s what you probably want to work in because that’s how CAD slicing software is all metric. It has an appropriate three-dimensional worlds to work within that’s the size of a build platform for a typical 3D printer. You can increase that environment and make it whatever you need to if you’re making a part that’s in pieces that’s bigger than the single build volume you’re going to put it together. It has an appropriate environment and it’s thinking about us, 3D print users as well.
Getting into how SketchUp works. It’s got a lot of useful tools starting with drawing lines and shapes. What some of us might think about in other programs as extruding shapes to make them into three dimensions. They have different kinds of tools that are in my mind if you’ve never done any CAD work before, they are little more intuitive tools. I’m impressed with how they’ve done this. Instead of extruding things, they call it a push-pull tool. You can, in an intuitive way, create shapes and push or pull them to whatever dimension you want. While you can do this simply without being terribly accurate about your size, you can also enter the exact size or distance that you want to push or pull something and enter and it make that exact size. It seems, on its phase, to be accurate.
Let’s say you extrude and you pull on a certain shape. You want to draw another shape on the top surface and pull it down into it to make a negative cavity. It is so simple and intuitive to do it in this program. It’s impressive to me. Without using a whole bunch of different commands like you would need to do and some other programs, you can quickly create a pretty complex object with a lot of positive and negative spaces. Instead of them being made as a bunch of different parts and adding them or subtracting them, this software is made that you can go and essentially create all sorts of different shapes on the fly. You can push and pull them, either stretching protrusions or recessing other shapes and it’s fast. That’s impressive.
Another thing that I like is some of their tools for creating references. Let’s say you make a rectangular volume shape and you want hollow it out and make it like a box from the top surface down. You have a bottom, four sides, and an open-top. You can either offset that top shape and do it. If you want it to be accurate on a more complex object, it has reference guides. I know Tracy has often talked about when they make CAD as easy to use as something like Photoshop. I never thought Photoshop was a terribly easy program to use, but certain aspects of it certainly are.
There are conventions that people that use Photoshop are used to. One of those are the guides. You can drag a guide from the edge of an object a certain distance. Let’s say you have to be three millimeters in from the edge. You can drag a guide, type in three mm and enter. It will go there and do that for all four sides. It will either draw a new shape and pull it down into it or you can offset the shape and reference those guides. It’s an intuitive tool if you’re a user of other kinds of programs to have guides for measuring and referencing. That’s something I wanted to point out about Google SketchUp that I was impressed with. Also, the speed. Once you understand some of these tools, the speed with which you can create certain forms if they’re not terribly complex, Google SketchUp appears to behave somewhere in between a solid modeling program and a surface modeling program.
It’s not a program where you can do serious sculptings like a ZBrush or something like that. For creating hard geometry for anything else, it’s got a lot of similarities to other similar programs like Rhinoceros. That’s my CAD program of choice. I’m going to review that in a future episode. Rhinoceros has a lot of references. When you’re drawing new geometry, move your drawing tool over existing parts of the model, it will tell you, “You’re going to snap to the endpoint, the midpoint of this area, or the tangent point if you click here,” and things like that. Google SketchUp doesn’t have as many of those geometry reference points like nodes, near and tangents. They probably have tangents but there are some more comprehensive ones in Rhinoceros but Google SketchUp has a lot of them. I find that helpful when you’re drawing something. They also made it clear. One thing I liked that seems to be unique to Google SketchUp is their X, Y and Z planes that they’ve referenced with red, green and blue in terms of those planar lines. You can reference things parallel or perpendicular to them. Having those colors go all throughout that 3D environment makes it easy to do so that was pretty cool.
They’ve also got another interesting tool called the Follow Me tool. This is again another good example of how SketchUp is creating commands and processes that you can do that are more intuitive. In another program, you might use a revolving tool or extrude one curve type of tool. They’ve made this a little simpler. If you’ve got an existing object and you’re drawing a shape that’s meant to follow a path around the perimeter or around the midsection or any part of your geometry, they’ve got this tool called the Follow Me tool. It allows you to select a shape and drag it all the way around the part wherever you want to or select some reference lines or shapes that it’s to follow and it will do it all at once. Conceptually, the terms of a Follow Me tool instead of explaining some other complex way to create geometry, they’re being user-friendly and thinking about beginners.
I’m impressed with this software. They also have a 3D warehouse available. If you’re doing something larger in scale, not necessarily for 3D printing, but you wanted some existing objects to put in like if you’re doing that kitchen project or an outdoor porch or patio project and you wanted some basic furnishings to populate in your model and do some coloring, it’s basic rendering. It’s not in any way photorealistic rendering but you can do some basic coloring and rendering of your environment within Google SketchUp. It’s comprehensive in that regard.
If you’re doing an object that has multiple parts and components or something that’s being built of many smaller pieces that you’re making, they have a good system of grouping things. It’s calling different groups of objects either groups or components. I know that other programs do this as well but to have this built into a free program is pretty powerful. A group is an independent group of either a single object or objects within SketchUp. Let’s say you were doing this, let’s say you’re making the desktop accessory dish that’s going to hold a bunch of your SD cards and flash drives or something. It’s like a cavity of a surface but has four legs to it to stand up on your desk a bit. You want each of those four legs to be made with a certain shape and a certain maybe taper or something like that. You make one leg and you can copy that leg and it becomes an instance of the other.
As a component, it thinks of something that is a part you’re going to use multiple times in a piece. If you mirror it or copy it, you get it all done. You get all four of them underneath your cavity. Your container is going to hold these objects and you want to make a change to it because it doesn’t quite look right. You want to change the angle of the tape or you want to add some shape to it and make it pointy on one side. If you do that to one component, it will automatically update all three of the four legs, all three of the other ones, or however many components you have. If you make a change to the first one, it’s going to update all of them. First of all, it saves you time in going around and changing all four of them on other programs like Rhinoceros, I would have to do that. It also makes it so that you can do some quick changes and visualize that and see, “Does it look the way I want it to?” You can make changes and do it quickly.
There are many different aspects to a CAD program that it’s hard to go into all of them in an episode. I can’t cover every single tool and function but one of the things that I want to highlight here with this program is that Google has created a comprehensive tutorial program. There are a couple of different kinds of them. One of them I want to tell you about is, they have this thing called the instructor which is a pop-up window on your CAD program on your desktop. Whatever tool you have selected up on the side, it tells you what that tool does, how that tool works, and what kind of options there are like if you hit the shift key, and click on it, what does that do? If you use the arrow keys, what does that do?
They have a place where you can click to learn about more advanced options for that tool. That’s helpful. They have a video tutorial series too. When you download SketchUp, it will show you. That video tutorial series is available to you. I went through about half a dozen or more of those videos not only to update myself on what the latest functions and options are with Google SketchUp but also to evaluate that to see how good this program is and what it can do. Is it the same program it used to be or is it a lot more advanced? I have to say I’m impressed.
If you’re going to use Google SketchUp, you definitely want to go through all those tutorial videos. Not that you have to go through six of them before you start doing anything. You can watch one and start doing some things. I’d recommend at least the first 3 or 4. It gives a good overview of the things that you can do. All you’ve got to do is go Google SketchUp and you’ll see the links to the page where you can find it and download it for free. You’ve got to give them your email address and what you’re intended to use it for. It will let you download it and install it. It’s quick and painless. That is probably going to do it for a good overview of Google SketchUp.
It’s definitely a consideration of a starter program. If you have any issues with exporting files that have errors, I’ve found that there are a lot of good programs like Netfabb among others that can easily fix any errors that may exist in an STL file for 3D printing. If you’re building careful geometry, that’s the key. Those tutorials are it. We will be back with a review of another 3D printer. We’re going to have third in our series of CAD software reviews. We have a great interview for you in the next episode as well. Thanks for reading, everybody. We’ll talk to you next time.
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