Getting Started With 3D Printing: Engineering a Snowflake

iD Tech in action

Not long ago I was presented with a challenge: create a 3D-printed iD Tech snowflake that could be sent to hundreds of people. On the surface, you might think that I would start designing right away, but in reality I was about to use something called the engineering design process to create the perfect snowflake for our needs.

What does engineering have to do with modeling a snowflake? The engineering design process is a series of steps that are used when solving a problem. This process can vary depending on what you need to accomplish, but it usually boils down to a few key steps:

  • Identify
  • Research
  • Plan
  • Create
  • Test
  • Improve

Now, let's see these steps in action as I walk you through the engineering design process for creating a snowflake.

1. Identify A Problem

The identify part of the engineering design process helps you better understand your problem. In my case, the problem was this: how could I design a snowflake that looked great, prominently featured the iD Tech logo, and could be produced relatively quickly and inexpensively for a large group of people?

Whatever I designed had to have a high success rate once it got to the 3D printer. I didn’t want someone to have to closely monitor the item being printed in case it failed. Knowing your problem helps you understand what challenges you'll have to account for in the design process.

2. Research

Everyone is a genius on how a snowflake looks, right up until you need to make one from scratch! The research phase of the engineering design process might just be the most important one. While it may only take a few minutes, it could save you a lot of time later on. For instance, if you just jumped into designing your 3D model, you may find out that your creation doesn’t turn out looking anything like a snowflake.

I needed good examples of a snowflake that I could use as inspiration to create my 3D model. My first stop was to check out some images of snowflakes. I did this by searching for “snowflakes” on Google. Simple enough, right? Well, as I looked for inspiration and ideas, I also had to consider how complicated each design was, and whether it would have room for a logo in the center. 

I usually save a few images for inspiration so that I can go back and reference them as needed during the actual design process. While you want to create something unique, it's helpful to see how other people have tackled specific challenges when creating a 3D model or object. Once I have at least three or four images and references, I move on to the next step.

3. Imagine and Plan

The snowflake I wanted to make was going to have a few key features, and these played a role in how I wanted it to look. Since I knew that I wanted a logo to be in the snowflake, that also narrowed down how the center would have to be. I also wanted cut outs throughout the snowflake to show off the 3D printed aspect, but also so you could put a string through the snowflake and hang it up.

The end result was a snowflake that had a solid center featuring a logo on both sides. I wanted it to have 8 sections coming out of the center, which would alternate in size (big/small/big/small) to give it a more complex feel. The bigger parts would be hollowed out to really show the difference and create a nice fractals look. (Fractals are never-ending patterns that continue on in an endless loop; check out more 3D printing terms.) At this stage in the engineering design process, think about how you want your final product to look. It can be helpful to draw your design before you start creating the object with 3D design software.

4. Create In 3D

Now that I had a solid plan, it was time to put it to work and dive into actually creating this snowflake in a 3D software. My software of choice for this project was Autodesk Maya, since I was already working on curriculum for one of our 3D modeling and printed courses. There are many free 3D modeling products that you can download (such as Autodesk Tinkercad or Autodesk 123D design) to create a 3D design. Check out the list of free resources at the bottom of this post to find more free tools.

3D-Printable Design

I started out by making the center with a cylinder, and then adjusting it to have the number of sides I needed. Next I created one of the longer ends of the snowflake and cut out some holes in it using Boolean logic. I duplicated and rotated this end section of the snowflake to the other sides of the snowflake so that the long, hollow tip was duplicated around the snowflake.

Then, I needed to create the small ends so that the snowflake would have alternating edges to give it a more complex feel. I wanted to keep these smaller sections solid to add strength to the design. Finally, I added the iD Tech logo to the center on both sides.

View Our 3D Modeling & Printing Courses for Ages 10-18 >

5. Testing The Print

As simple as the 3D snowflake design looks, it actually took a few tries to get this print to work successfully. The thinness in the walls around the outer edges led to it breaking often or not forming a good first layer. So while I designed a snowflake that looked really nice, it didn’t achieve my goal of being easy to print. Remember, I wanted anyone to be able to print the 3D design without worrying that it would fail at any point.

After realizing that the flimsiness could be an issue, I knew that I was going to have to adjust my design to better suite my original goals (think: identify a problem stage). The first and most important fix was creating a stronger model for printing. The snowflake you see above was too fragile, but I could fix this by increasing the width around the edges to make a stronger base.

6. Improve

I went back to Autodesk Maya knowing that I needed to improve the thickness of certain areas. As I made certain parts of the design sturdier, it became clear that I needed to re-imagine how other parts of the design were going to look to make it much more fail-proof. Whenever you make changes to a design, even small changes, you have to think about how they affect the overall design.

I ended up going with a simpler design, which helped in a few ways. It made it much more sturdy for shipping; I wasn’t worried anymore about any parts snapping off. It also was much easier to print without having to monitor it all the time.

3D Printing Getting Started 

So there you have it! I engineered a snowflake. This is just one example of how you could apply the engineering design process to design in 3D. Remember, the engineering design process is also a circular process, meaning it is never really done. For instance, as you create in 3D, you may realize that you haven't researched enough, meaning you'd have to go back and spend more time on that step before moving forward. Or you made need to identify new problems once you get started and see that aspects of your design aren't going as smoothly as you expected.

Free 3D Printing & 3D Modeling Resources

No 3D modeling experience? Not a problem. There are many free 3D modeling and 3D printing resources and software online. Here are a list of sites we recommend you visit as you start designing your 3D Minecraft-inspired model. For personalized instruction on these topics, be sure to check out our new 3D modeling and printing courses, which are held at prestigious universities across the country.

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