Models go through two software processes on their way to becoming finished prints: slicing and sending. Slicing divides a model into printable layers and plots the toolpaths to fill them in. The printer client then sends these movements to the hardware and provides a control interface for its other functions.
Among slicing engines used in our printer roundups, the trend away from Skeinforge continues in 2014, and Alessandro Ranellucci’s Slic3r continues to be the most popular slicing engine. Slic3r is open-source, cross-platform, and faster and easier to use than Skeinforge. Many vendors provided Slic3r INI files preconfigured for their machines.
Underdog KISSlicer saw increased use and discussion. Though closed-source and proprietary, KISSlicer is the work of one man — Californian Jonathan Dummer — and is available in a fully functional free version as well as a $42 “pro” tool that adds support for multiple extruders, auto-packing of parts, and other advanced features.
Among this year’s printer clients, German offering Repetier-Host overtook Kliment Yanev’s Printrun suite (best known by its GUI, Pronterface) as the most popular open-source choice. Printrun features an extensive macro language for command-line control, while Repetier-Host boasts a more graphical interface showing rotatable 3D views of models in the build area, plus a toolpath visualizer showing exactly what the printer will be doing during a build. Both programs smoothly integrate Slic3r to provide all-in-one printer frontends.
This integration of slicing engines into printer clients is an ongoing trend. Though open-source tools still dominate the scene, we also saw an increased incidence of closed, proprietary, all-in-one model slicing/sending programs from various manufacturers.
David Braam’s Cura is an interesting exception. Though it’s fully open source and can run many different printers, Braam works for Ultimaker, and Cura is largely associated with their brand. As of version 13.06, Cura introduced a custom slicing engine written in C++ that’s probably the fastest available at the moment. In Cura, there is no slicing “button” — any time you make a change, the engine reslices automatically in the background. It usually takes only 5–10 seconds even on modest laptop hardware and looks, for the moment, like the shape of things to come.
This summer, Microsoft announced that Windows 8.1, due out in October, will have native 3D printing support. The official Windows blog summarized their goal “to make 3D printing on Windows more like 2D printing on Windows.” Whether these features land with a fanfare or a fizzle, no doubt the printer software landscape will look very different in 12 months.