Time to read: 8 min
Designing 3D parts is tough, but with good software it become easier. Everyone has their favorite tool, and below we outline some of the most popular CAD programs. Or, prototyping on a budget, or have a quick fix to make? There’s lots of great free tools out there for creating and editing 3D models too.
Paid CAD software programs
3D Studio Max (3DS Max) was developed by Autodesk, is one of the gold standard programs for 3D modeling, animation, and graphical rendering. It is used frequently in the movie industry and in the creation of video games, and is especially useful for creating lifelike representations of living things and environments. Its tools are arguably more robust than necessary for modeling engineering parts; that is, its tool-set may be better suited for figure modeling and artistic projects – while a program like Rhino, Pro-E, or Inventor is better suited for machine components – especially when scale matters.
3DS Max comes equipped with a wide range of tools capable of adding impressive textures and skins to 3D models. When it comes to 3D printing, these tools are much less useful than in the world of rendering and computer graphics / simulation. An exported 3D printing file will rarely, if ever, maintain visually-relevant surface data.
The considerable cost for a 3DS Max license can be seen as a relatively high barrier for entry. A single license costs 3,675 USD in 2014. A short-run free trial is also available. It should also be noted, however, that a free 3-year license is available for students.
Adobe Suite harnesses the power of Photoshop in the Creative Cloud to enable editing and creating 3D models. This relatively new set of features may seem lacking to advanced modelers who are more familiar with other premium software, however it is comparatively easy to use and easy to learn for those who are already experienced with Photoshop and the Adobe Suite. Adobe’s effort to enable quick export of 3D printable files should not be overlooked. Expect them to add additional functionality and features in the future.
Autodesk Inventor was created with mechanical design in mind, is an incredibly robust piece of software capable of 3D mechanical design, documentation, and product simulation. Digital prototyping of the highest quality can be achieved with Autodesk Inventor. It is especially suited for mechanical engineering applications.
The program has two flavors: Autodesk Inventor and Autodesk Inventor Professional. The vanilla version allows users to created detailed drawings, assemblies, and CAD models. The professional version adds simulation, routed systems, and tooling capabilities. A full professional license costs $7,295 USD. A free 3-year license is available for students.
CATIA was created by the same company as SolidWorks, purports to be “the World’s Leading Solution for Product Design and Innovation”. Beyond mere 3D modeling, CATIA offers tools for clear design, mechanical engineering, electrical and fluid systems design, as well as systems engineering. After producing models, CATIA enables developers to piece together parts and view models interacting in realistic simulations with impressive quality. These almost-real digital constructions are of such high quality that they are often used in advertising or for display purposes on their own.
Beyond its surface-level offerings, CATIA is capable of advanced surface modeling, industrial design concept engineering, reverse engineering and surface reuse, systems simulation, embedded systems modeling, systems safety analysis, tooling design, electronics engineering, electrical design, structural part and assembly design, style-to-surface comparative modeling, mechanical systems design, and more. As with other software of its kind, CATIA is used in almost every major industry where it can be used – including aerospace, automotive, shipping, energy, medical, and high-tech electronics.
CATIA has the highest barrier to entry for any 3D modeling program in the world. Like elite enterprises themselves, CATIA is a broad, deep ocean of capabilities and knowledge. An unprepared user could easily drown. Nonetheless, CATIA is behind some of the most advanced engineering projects on the planet and for some enterprises, the high cost is justified.
Although CATIA representatives will discourage people from posting the real price of the software suite, information posted by designers seeking quotes has tagged the price for a recent release (as of 2012-2013) at anywhere between 9,000 and 65,000 USD per unit, depending upon the number of modules included. An annual maintenance fee of 18% is also levied on the buyer, which can easily bring the lifetime cost of the product over 100,000 USD.
PTC Creo (formerly known as Pro/Engineer or Pro-E) features productivity tools that can be used in a number of industries. It is a scalable, interoperable suite of design software that enables concept development, prototype modeling, advanced 3D rendering, and dozens of additional functionalities. For 3D CAD modeling, PTC Creo Parametric is the go-to part of the suite. Like SolidWorks and Autodesk Inventor, its interface will be familiar to those familiar with engineering-focused 3D modeling programs. Producing 2D sketches and 3D extrusions helps build objects in a virtual environment. The novel part of PTC Creo comes from the sheer number of extendable, interactive add-ons that can work together with the core programs and share files easily. Bright, colorful models come to life quickly on the screen – giving a more intuitive sense of models and more intuitive editing tools than some comparatively priced software.
PTC Creo provides in-depth control of complex geometries and parametric objects. Crucially, it enables the generation of complete digital representations of products or parts being designed – something that few similar programs profess to offer. Its capabilities can generally be split into three sections: engineering design, analysis, and manufacturing. Data can be represented as renderings or as 2D drawings.
Free 30 day trials and a free academic edition are available. The full version and its elements have a pricing structure that is difficult to find without requesting a quote; however, Creo Parametric is reported to cost 3,500 USD.
Rhinoceros (Rhino) and its associated products (named after other animals) are relatively enduring tools in the 3D modeling space. Development of the initial version occurred more than two decades ago. Rhino is currently in its fifth version.
More focused than 3DS Max, Rhino offers a broad range of tools for modeling, editing, drafting, 3D capture, analysis, and rendering. The suite is used mainly for modeling mechanical designs and managing engineering projects, although it can be used for virtually any 3D task. The interface is relatively simple, setting the barrier for entry comparatively low. While not as robust as Autodesk Inventor, a full license for Rhino 5 costs only 995 USD. Multi-month free trials are also available.
Maya is another advanced offering from Autodesk, including tools for 3D animation, modeling, simulation, rendering, and compositing. The program is immensely capable, able to easily integrate 3D motion, 3D modeling, and cinematic-quality interactions. It is arguably more capable than necessary for 3D modeling of components to print with 3D printers, but the functionality is all present at its core.
A single license costs 3,675 USD, while a free 3-year license is available for students. Short-run free trials are also available.
SolidWorks is built from the ground up for mechanical design. It has a broad and robust feature set perfect for 3D CAD, product data management and consolidation, simulation, technical communication, and electrical design. Solidworks is used in virtually every industry that could have need for custom-designed parts, including but not limited to: aerospace, automotive, construction, energy, manufacturing, medical, industrial equipment, and high-tech electronics.
Along with dedicated archives, live support, forums, blogs, user groups, individualized programs, extensive documentation, and a host of other resources, SolidWorks is equipped to deal with enterprise-level institutions and individuals alike.
The software itself is complex, but very responsive. Interfaces in Autodesk Inventor and extremely similar and users familiar with one will find picking up the other takes only moments.
A single-user license for SolidWorks costs 3,995 USD, while a professional license costs 5490 USD. Free trials are not guaranteed and must be requested. They are not available for students at any time.
Free CAD software programs
123D is a suite of software developed by AutoDesk. Including tools for sculpting, modeling, drawing, creating circuit projects, 3D file manipulation, and much more, the suite is geared for beginning users and enables them to produce compelling models with relatively simple tools. TinkerCAD, although hosted separately, was added to the suite in 2013.
Programs within the suite can be downloaded to computers and mobile devices, or launched live on the web on supported browsers. Simple design and responsive tools enable users of any skill level to produce quality 3D models which can then be exported for 3D printing. As with most freeware, 123D suite programs lack robust tools and detailed attention given to units – making them inadequate for complex mechanical assemblies or printed parts whose accuracy is crucial to their operation.
Blender is a free and open source 3D animation and modeling program. It supports a broad array of 3D processes, including: modeling, rigging, animation, simulation, rendering, compositing, and motion tracking. It even enables video editing and video game creation. Open scripts enable further customization. Since the entire project is community-driven and free, frequent updates and changes to the original source code are released – giving Blender more responsiveness than some larger, more tightly-controlled programs.
Even with its fully-featured 3D environment, Blender lacks some of the more robust and powerful tools present in paid/premium software – such as those specifically designed for prototyping and mechanical engineering reducing the number or severity of sharp intersections between surfaces.
FreeCAD is a parametric 3D modeler. Parametric modeling allows you to easily modify your design by going back into your model history and changing its parameters. FreeCAD is open source (LGPL license) and completely modular, allowing for very advanced extension and customization. It also lends itself very well for scripting since nearly every feature can be accessed through its Python API.
OpenSCAD is free software for creating solid 3D models. Unlike Blender or TinkerCAD, OpenSCAD focuses specifically on the mechanical dimensions and properties of CAD models instead of their artistic properties. It is ideal for creating machine parts and detailed mechanical models. It is not, however, useful for creating animated movies or graphical renderings.
OpenSCAD enables a user to build models from 2D outlines or by compositing solid geometry, as in many premium programs. It enables export in common file formats and supports STLs for 3D printing.
SketchUp is a free 3D design program curated by Trimble. It includes a library full of free 3D models which anyone can use and to which anyone can contribute. Its Layout feature enables 3D models to be converted into realistic drawings easily – these can then be exported in a variety of file types, in addition to the ordinary export options afforded to its 3D modeling suite.
A Sketchup Pro License costs many hundreds of USD and adds additional features and functionalities. Its low barrier to entry and the ease with which a user can create or import models makes SketchUp an appealing tool for beginning 3D modelers. As with other free software, it lacks the robust features and complex assembly features that premium programs often contain. Advanced users may find its simple interfaces lacking, but this is precisely why it appeals to beginner users.
TinkerCAD Unlike standalone 3D modeling software, exists only online and functions on a variety of browsers (although Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox are recommended). TinkerCAD has a low barrier to entry and is free to use. Beginning users are guided through the 3D design process with lessons, teaching basics before allowing users to move on to more advanced techniques. Founded in 2011, the software package was acquired by AutoDesk in 2013 and was rolled into the 123D family of products.