How to 3D Print in Color- from SOLIDWORKS

This tutorial shows an 'easier' workflow for applying full-color textures to CAD parts for 3D printing, if you are using SOLIDWORKS. It applies for anyone who has SOLIDWORKS Professional or Premium (2017+) since we'll be using the new SOLIDWORKS Visualize tool to map the textures.

  1. Step 1: Overview

    [EDIT 7-6-2020: Many of the issues below dealing with color files exporting from SOLIDWORKS have been addressed with the new 3MF format export in GrabCAD Print. You may want to check out that NEW information about 3MF before proceeding, in my new tutorial here:]

    In my first tutorial about color 3D printing, we talked about how decals applied in SOLIDWORKS files don't transfer over to GrabCAD Print:

    We also talked about a fix that used Photoshop as a middleman:

    But some users started asking if there wasn't a way to avoid STL exports, to stay inside SOLIDWORKS more, and complaining that some types of texture mappings are hard to do in Photoshop (it's a 2D program trying to do 3D operations after all).

    So after extensive research we've found a workflow that makes things easier in certain use cases and lets you stay in the SOLIDWORKS eco-system a little bit longer for texture mapping:

    To the untrained eye this may look like MORE steps (4 instead of 3) but it does have the benefits of using a more 3D program to apply the textures to 3D shapes (SW Visualize vs. Photoshop) and simplifying what you're doing in Photoshop (all you're doing is importing an OBJ and saving it right out as a VRML, with no changes).

    I've done this workflow a few times and found it useful for certain shapes, especially where people know SOLIDWORKS a lot and Photoshop only a little.

    Let's get started.

  2. Step 2: Turning on the Visualize Add-in and exporting the file

    The first thing to do is turn on your Visualize Add-in.

    This is available for any SOLIDWORKS Premium or Professional user, in versions 2017+.

    In your SOLIDWORKS application, go to "Tools...Add-ins" and turn on "Visualize"

    If you don't see Visualize in the list of add-ins, you may have to 'Change' your SOLIDWORKS installation to include it, under Windows "Program and Features":

    If that still doesn't work, call your local SOLIDWORKS reseller to ask why you don't have a Visualize license.

    After the add-in is loaded, you'll see a new toolbar in the Command Manager when you have a part open:

    With your part open in SOLIDWORKS, hit that "Export Advanced" button and Visualize will open as a separate window, with your part already loaded:

    Next we're going to do the hardest step: applying the texture in Visualize.

  3. Step 3: Applying the texture in Visualize

    There are a lot of great tutorials on SOLIDWORKS Visualize already (you'll need to be a member to see that one) but we'll focus on just what you need to do to make a good 3D print.

    Obviously we're using my 2 inch sphere again, to print a transparent globe like in my previous Clear + Texture tutorial.

    What you're going to do is double-click your part and then hit the big "+" button to apply a "Color" texture:

    Choosing that PNG for my sphere, the preview looks pretty good, but the real power of this approach lies if we click on the "Texture Mapping" tab:

    This tab is what separates this workflow from applying textures in Photoshop. In that workflow, for a sphere, you had to manually lay a 2D image over a strange, cut-up UV map of your unfolded shape.

    Here, there are a few pre-defined mapping "Modes" which will make a lot of difference:

    Also the scale boxes are great once you get a hang of them. There's no handles, you left click inside the box and drag to the right or left to scale, rotate, position, etc. It's a very powerful system, once you've used it a few times.

    But getting back to the modes, they make a BIG difference how your image lays across your shape:

    Not surprisingly, "Sphere Mode" works really well for our shape.

    And that's the key takeaway in my short time using this workflow:

    If you're mapping over a 3D shape close to one of the modes, texture mapping in SOLIDWORKS Visualize works really well. If not, it might be better to use Photoshop or artistic CAD (Rhino, Maya, etc).

    So for example, mapping textures over boxes, spheres, cylinders are super easy and controllable in Visualize. However, the moment I tried to map over a hollow half-cylinder (think of a cut in half soda can), Visualize gave me a lot of trouble, since "Half Cylinder" wasn't one of the modes. (It had bad seams no matter which mode I used.)

    Texture mapping is hard even for the experts using expert programs, so this is definitely a learning curve area, but if you've got something close to a sphere, cylinder or cube, Visualize does make it faster and easier for SOLIDWORKS users.

    Now let's export that shape and prepare it for printing.

  4. Step 4: Exporting for Printing

    With your model selected in Visualize, go to "File... Export..." and choose selected model:

    This lets you save as an .OBJ or .FBX file. Readers of my previous tutorials will know that GrabCAD Print can't read in textured OBJ files, but Photoshop CAN.

    So we use Photoshop as a quick converter. To quickly recap the steps in that previous tutorial, you're going to:

    1. Open a new Photoshop document (it doesn't matter what size it is)
    2. Create a new 3D layer, importing your .OBJ file (picture below)
    3. Export that 3D layer as a VRML (second picture below)
    4. Import that fully textured VRML into GrabCAD Print (last pic below)

    To control the infill color (the black seas above), you have to edit the solid bodies properties in Photoshop, but for simple textures that cover your entire model, you won't need to and this workflow should work fine!

  5. Step 5: Final Thoughts

    After some experimentation with colors, below is an image I've wanted to put together for a long time:

    So you can see there are many ways things don't work, a few ways they do, and in this age of new color printers and CAD softwares being added everyday, I think the job of the printer operator/engineer is to test, create and keep track of charts like the one above, for whatever software their customers use, so that we can most efficiently help them get to their final, printed product.

    So if anyone else has data for a chart like that for other CAD softwares and workflows, feel free to share it in the comments or GrabCAD Groups.

    Hope this helped!

    And to learn more about Stratasys color 3D printing and the full-color, office-friendly printers you can use to MAKE any of the models above, check out information about our new, affordable J55 printer here!