Computers and 3D Printing: What You Need to Know.

Curtis Satterfield, Ph.D.

Curtis Satterfield, Ph.D.

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When discussing 3D printers, the question of do you need a computer often comes up. An alternative question I often get is “do I need a good computer for 3D printing?” In this article I plan to answer both of those questions in detail.

You do need a computer for 3D printing; however, it does not need to be top of the line. You need the computer to store the models you want to print, use the slicing software to prepare the models for printing, and to configure the printer itself.

You will need to download and install software to your computer in order to use your 3D printer. Each piece of software you will use for 3D printing has minimum and recommended specifications that your computer will need to meet. We will examine the software needed and the specifications needed in the rest of this article.

Why Do I Need a Computer for 3D Printing?

In order to 3D print there are a couple steps you need to take before actually pressing print. The first step is to find a model that you would like to print. There are many freely available 3D models that you can download from online. Most models will be saved as an STL file. In order to download the models and the software for 3D printing your computer will need high-speed Internet access.

If you want to create your own 3D models using Blender or a CAD program such as AutoDesk Fusion360 you will need a computer to run the software. After you create the model or part in your CAD program you will need to save it as an STL and import it into your slicer.

Regardless of the method used to get your 3D models you will need to import them into your slicer to process. Ultimaker Cura is a popular free slicing program that you can download and install on your computer. You will need to generate a profile for your printer so Cura can generate G-Code that will work on your printer. Luckily, most software slicers come with a large collection of printer profiles that you can import. As you get more experience with your printer you will want to tweak the settings in your slicer to get the best prints.

Once you have sliced the model you will need to transfer the G-Code file from your computer to the printer. The most common method is to copy the G-Code to an SD card and insert it into the printer. The printer will read the G-Code file on the SD card and use the file to print your model.  

After working with the printer for a while you may find areas where the prints need improvement. Most users will want to calibrate their printer to get the best print quality. Calibration will require you to connect your computer to the printer via USB cable so you can send G-Code commands directly to the printer. These commands will be saved to the printer’s firmware affecting how the printer performs certain functions.

You may need to upgrade or reflash the firmware on your printer for various reasons. In order to flash the firmware on your printer you will need to connect the printer to your computer with a USB cable as you did for calibration. The steps to flashing firmware will vary from printer to printer but you will still need a computer to connect to the printer for this process.

Now that we have talked about what part a computer plays in 3D printing lets discuss computer specifications.

What specifications does my computer need for 3D printing?

Before we dive into the exact specifications your computer will need, I want to offer an analogy for those of you who may not have a background in computer hardware. If you are computer savvy feel to skip to the computer specifications section. The main components we are concerned with for 3D printing are the processor, RAM, video card, and hard drive. To clarify what each of those are I want you to imagine that you are in a kitchen about to bake a cake.

Discussing Computer Components

In order to bake the cake, you need the recipe, so you get the recipe book out and lay it on the counter to follow. Next, you’re going to need some ingredients and utensils. No problem, you have them all in your kitchen cabinets, so you go around the kitchen pulling out all the ingredients and utensils. You place everything you need on the counter and now you can begin mixing the cake batter.

The process of reading the recipe, preparing, and then mixing the ingredients is similar to how a computer works. When a user wants to open a program, the processor looks at the program or recipe and begins to gather the ingredients it needs. Except it’s not sugar and flour the processor pulls out, it’s information from files on the hard drive. Then is loads all that information into RAM and begins executing the program.

In our cake baking example you represent the processor gathering all the necessary items to bake the cake. You pull these items from your kitchen cabinets which represents the hard drive of the computer. The counter represents the computer RAM, a place where the items can be quickly accessed. When you are done you will put the items back into their cabinets clearing off the counter for the next task you need to perform. Like a computer most kitchens have much more cabinet space than counter space.

Now imagine if instead of getting all the items out you went to the cabinet each time you needed an ingredient. And when you were done with it you put it back in the cabinet even if you need it for another step later. It would take you much longer to complete the recipe. This concept is the same for computers.

Hard drive access is much slower than RAM access, so we load things into RAM to speed up the process. In a kitchen it costs much more to add counter space than it does to add cabinet space. In the computer RAM is much more expensive than hard drive storage.

In order to keep costs down computers will have large hard drive space and less RAM. Hard drives are also considered long term storage that retains the data even when the computer is turned off. On the other hand, RAM is temporary or volatile memory. The contents of the RAM are lost when you shut down the computer. Any files you want to keep need to be saved to the hard drive.

Computer Specifications for 3D Printing

Alright, lengthy analogy out of the way lets discuss specifications of a computer for 3D printing. First off you will need a PC or Mac running Windows, Mac OS, or Linux. Chromebooks will not work as you can’t install the software you need to a Chromebook.

As we look at the specifications in the following section there will be two terms I use, minimum specifications, and recommended specifications. While a computer that meets the minimum specifications may run the software it will be slow. You should aim for your computer to meet or exceed the recommended specifications.

In order to check your computer specifications on a Windows PC press the windows key and Pause/Break Key at the same time. This will bring up the system information dialog box. In that Window you will see your Processor type/speed and installed RAM. On a MAC Click the apple menu and select “About this MAC.” Your system information will show in the overview window.

Modeling Software

Let’s start with modeling software for those of you who may want to venture down this road. Blender is a good choice of software if you plan to model organic shapes such as sculpts or miniatures.

Blender 3D modelling Software
Courtesy of Blender.org

The following lists the specifications for a computer to run Blender:

Blender Minimum Specifications:

  • 64-bit dual core 2Ghz CPU with SSE2 support
  • 4 GB RAM
  • 1280×768 display
  • Mouse, trackpad or pen+tablet
  • Graphics card with 1 GB RAM, OpenGL 3.3

Blender Recommended Specifications:

  • 64-bit quad core CPU
  • 16 GB RAM
  • Full HD display
  • Three button mouse or pen + tablet
  • Graphics card with 4 GB RAM

Blender Optimal Specifications:

  • 64-bit eight core CPU
  • 32 GB RAM
  • Full HD displays
  • Three button mouse and pen + tablet
  • Graphics card with +12 GB RAM

The good news for blender is most computers from the past five years will meet or exceed the minimum specifications.

Let’s look at Autodesk Fusion360 a popular CAD program. Fusion360 is the choice if you plan to make functional prints that need precise measurements and tolerances.

3D Object Modeled in AutoDesk Fusion360

Fusion360 Minimum Requirements:

  • 64-bit processor, 4 cores, 1.7 GHz Intel Core i3, AMD Ryzen 3 or greater
  • 4 GB of RAM (integrated graphics recommend 6 GB or more)
  • Graphics card – Supported for DirectX 11 or greater. Dedicated GPU with 1 GB or more of VRAM. Integrated graphics with 6 GB or more of RAM
  • Display Resolution: 1366 x 768 (1920 x 1080 or greater at 100% scale strongly recommended)
  • Internet: 2.5 Mbps or faster download; 500 Kbps or faster upload. You must have an Internet connection to use Fusion360.

Fusion360 Recommended for complex modeling:

  • CPU – 3 GHz or greater, 6 or more cores
  • Memory – 8 GB RAM or greater
  • Graphics – Dedicated GPU with 4GB or more VRAM. DirectX 12 supported.

Fusion360 has some higher system requirements than Blender. I can say from experience I am able to run Fusion360 on a Laptop that is about 7 years old. It doesn’t run as smoothly as it does on my newer PCs, but it can still be done.

Slicing Program Requirements

Let’s talk about requirements for the all-important slicing programs. We will review requirements for Cura a popular slicer for FDM printing and for Chitubox a common slicer for resin printing.

Cura Slicing Program

Cura Minimum system requirements

  • OpenGL 2 compatible graphics card, OpenGL 4.1 for 3D layer view
  • Display resolution 1024 x 768
  • Intel Core 2 or AMD Athlon 64
  • 550 MB available hard disk space
  • 4GB RAM memory

Cura Recommended system requirements

  • OpenGL 4.1 compatible graphics card for 3D layer view
  • Display resolution 1920 x 1080
  • Intel Core i3 or AMD Athlon 64
  • 600 MB available hard disk space
  • 8GB RAM memory

Cura will run on older computers, like Fusion360 I tested it on an old Laptop I have. It still runs fine, although it can take much longer to slice a complex file than a newer computer.

Chitubox slicing software for 3D resin printing

Chitubox Minimum Requirements

  • Intel® Pentium® 4 CPU
  • 4GB of RAM
  • OpenGL 2.0 capable system
  • 2GB of available hard-disk space

Chitubox Recommended Requirements

  • Intel® Core i7 CPU
  • 8GB or more of RAM

Chitubox can run on older systems however, when slicing if you have it calculate the volume of the model, it will take a long time even on a fast PC. I want to point that out because it can take a few minutes to slice a complex print. You will need some patience if you are using Chitubox on an older computer.

Hard Drive Space

For hard drives the bigger the better. However, not all hard drives are created equal. A major speed advantage can be gained by installing and using a Solid-State Hard Drive (SSD). Because SSDs have no moving parts they are much faster than their mechanical counterparts. The main drawback to SSDs is that they are more expensive than mechanical drives. If you are looking to buy a new computer, I highly recommend getting a PC with an SSD.

If you already have a PC and need more space to store your STLs  I recommend an SSD USB 3.0 external hard drive like this SanDisk (Amazon link).

If you already have a PC or Mac that is only a few years old, you should have no problem running the software needed for 3D printing. As I stated previously, I can run all the above programs on an old laptop. If you have an older PC chances are you can still run the software needed. All the software discussed in this section is free to download and use so you can test it on your computer. If you are worried about your computer running the software needed download and test it first!

If you are looking to purchase a new computer I recommend this ASUS ROG Strix G512 (Amazon Link) as it exceeds the necessary requirements. It will also serve you well for several years.

What Software Will I need to 3D Print?

We covered most of the software and specifications in the previous section. At a minimum you will need a PC with Internet access to download STLs and a slicer such as Cura or Chitubox. If you want to create your own models and parts you will need programs like Blender or Fusion360.

Finally, if you want an easy way to store or view your STLs I recommend installing an extension for Windows called Papas-Best STL Thumbnails. This extension will automatically show you a model view of your STL right in Windows Explorer.

Papas Best STL viewer software

Another option for STL viewing is STL Vault. This program is in alpha while I am writing this article and so far, it looks like a great resource for searching and viewing your 3D models. A feature I like about this program is the ability to rotate a model for viewing without the need to open your slicer.

STL Vault STL viewing software

Do I need to Leave my Computer On while 3D Printing?

If you are printing from the SD card inserted in your 3D printer you will not need to leave the computer on. If you have directly connected your computer to the printer and are using the computer to control the printer you will need to leave the computer on while printing.

An option I highly recommend is installing Octoprint on a raspberry Pi to run and manage your 3D printer. You can read about Octoprint in the article I wrote here.

How do I store all my 3D Files?

How you store your STL files is a matter of preference. I recommend creating a folder on your computer for your 3D models and then creating sub folders inside of the main folder to keep them sorted. As mentioned in the software section I highly recommend two additional programs to help with your STL library. Papas Best STL Viewer and STL Vault. The ability to see your models without the need to open them in a slicer is a huge time saver. Trust me, you will eventually end up with gigabytes of STLs and keeping them organized will be a necessity!

If you are downloading lots of models you will need ample hard drive space in order to store them all. Currently my collection takes up 96GB of storage space and it grows daily. I do go through the collection from time to time and remove models that I no longer need or have interest in printing. In addition to the storage space requirement I recommend backing up your STL files. If you have a hard drive failure you may not be able to find all the models again.

The easiest method for backing up is to get a USB hard drive and copy your collection to the hard driveI recommend an SSD USB 3.0 external hard drive like this SanDisk (Amazon link). Be sure to update the collection every week or daily if you’re doing a lot of downloading. Do not work directly off this hard drive! Do all your editing and slicing from your computers main drive and backup to the external hard drive!

Another option for backup is using a cloud storage service. I use Dropbox as a cloud storage solution. I pay around $12 a month for 2TB of cloud storage that automatically syncs with my computer. They offer a free basic plan with 2GB, but if you want a free solution, I recommend Google Drive who offers 15GB for free. Microsoft OneDrive is another reliable storage solution. Each provider offers paid subscriptions with more storage space than the basic free plans. If you have a hard drive failure your STLs will be waiting for you. I would also highly suggest using a cloud storage service for backup of ALL your important files! As an IT instructor and consultant, I can’t begin to explain how costly hard drive failure is when you don’t have proper backups