Yesterday, I learned that ZBrush (my 3D design program) now has an extension that lets it directly export files I can use with my Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) programs. I spent most of my work time today testing the output of various designs to see how they looked.
ZBrush has this 'built-in' since version 4R6 came out, it was available as a plug-in before, but since it calls itself a 3D printing plug-in, I ignored it, assuming it was software to sent object data to one or more of the commercial 3D printing services, like Shapeways. Turns out it's an exporter for standard 3D object file formats like .stl.
This is a huge improvement for my workflow of going from design to a finished part prototype in the real world. Before I had to use a very complex conversion program. Its control panel makes the flight deck of a 747 look simple. And if I didn't get the settings just right, I could get some really nasty effects in the final machining. Using the same settlings over again doesn't work, I had to adjust things based on the size of the object, the scale of features on it, the size of the material it would be cut out of, the relative size of the tool, etc., etc.
Now that difficult & frightening step is gone. I do a couple of passes to simplify the 3D object design as much as possible without losing detail (which I was doing anyway, it speeds up everything later), set a couple of simple settings in the exporter, like the real-world size the final object will be, then export.
The resulting files load just fine into the two different programs I use that create the list of instructions for my CNC machine to cut the 3D object out of a solid block of some material (usually a polyurethane plastic). I did a dry run to set up two test files tonight--doing everything short of actually making the parts. Tomorrow I plan to make an actual part from a new file as a final test. Probably something fun.
For those interested in trying this at home, I use both MeshCAM and Vectric's Cut3D for CAM. Cut3D is my usual preference, though I'm using an older version of MeshCAM (4). I prefer Cut3D's interface for setting tabs, and its included machining preview.
Both produce excellent GCode for my CNC (a MicroCarve A4 driven by EMC2 and a Gecko G540 controller.)
For doing image depth maps, I use EMC2's built in facility, though if you want to bypass the copious experimentation & two pages of notes I use to get it looking good, you might want to look into one of the dedicated commercial programs for this.