Discover Which CAD Tool is Best for You

Discover Which CAD Tool is Best for You

As 3D printers become increasingly common and easy to use, the main barrier for new adopters is learning to create their own models. The know-how to make your own designs significantly expands your capabilities as a maker, but it can be intimidating to get started given the variety of different programs available.

In this post, you’ll learn about the 3 main types of 3D design programs. We’ll give recommendations for today’s top products which vary in price and difficulty. By the end, you’ll be equipped to decide which design software is best for your application and be prepared to dive in and learn more about your specific program.

Software For Engineers

Engineers use a variety of different CAD programs (Computer Aided Design), and most of these applications are similar in how they work. Designs typically start as a two dimensional sketch which is then extruded or revolved to create a three dimensional surface. These new surfaces can then serve as new bases for further sketches which either add or subtract from existing geometry. For an example of this workflow, check out this post which teaches you to create your own custom stamps.

Strengths

  • Designs are defined by strict dimensions which allows for ease of modelling and iteration
  • Modifying a dimension requires adjusting as little as one parameter
  • Most programs are suited for creating error free models without users having to be experienced with common pitfalls of 3D design

Weaknesses

  • Poor for creating organic shapes
  • Many different operations much be learned to create complex geometries

Recommendations

Image Source: Onshape.com

Onshape (free for public and educational use)
Onshape is a free browser-based CAD program that has much of the functionality of installed applications like Fusion360 and SolidWorks. For public and educational use, Onshape is free and excellent for both those who are just starting out and those who are more seasoned designers.

Image Source: Autodesk.com

Fusion360 (free for hobbyist use)
Fusion360 is a full featured CAD/CAM suite meaning that it can be used both for 3D design and for generating things like toolpaths for CNC machines. The free hobbyist version has all of the capabilities of the paid professional version and is an excellent option for those using a variety of digital manufacturing techniques.

Image Source: Solidworks.com

SolidWorks (paid)
SolidWorks is the most popular option among professional engineers though can come with a hefty price tag depending on the configuration. With the most full-featured design toolset, an expansive texture library, and a wide variety of different plug-ins, this is the go to for many individuals and companies working on professional 3D modelling.

Organic and Vertex Based Modelling

This set of programs encompases a wide variety of different industries from product design, to art, to character modelling and animation. Generally, these programs start with an array of interconnected points which are moved and manipulated to create 3D objects. Many of them include advanced tools for lighting, animation, and design texturing. They’re the go to for those looking to edit STL files, though tend to be poor for working with models that require a high degree of precision and dimensioning. To get a sense for how these applications work, check out the tutorial on adding interlocking parts to any 3D design.

Strengths

  • Allows for rapid design of basic shapes and mockups
  • Many programs include advanced lighting, texturing, and animation tools
  • Expansive library of different tools and many programs include importers for add-ons
  • Compatible with a variety of different file formats including STLs

Weaknesses

  • Very high learning curve depending on the application
  • Poor for geometries that require strict dimensions 

Recommendations

Image Source: Blender.org

Blender (free)
Blender is fully open-sourced with a massive selection of different tools and a sizable community to contribute additional plug-ins and techniques. Its impressive capabilities also means that blender has among the steepest learning curves of any 3D modelling program. Its toolset and community is unparalleled and this makes it a top pick for both hobbyists and professional users.

Image Source: Autodesk.com

3DSMax (paid)
3DSMax is developed by Autodesk and a top pick for those working in both the product design and animation industries. Its toolset competes with that of Blender and is developed by the full time and experienced team at Autodesk. With professional texture libraries and rendering tools like Vray, 3DSMax is a top pick for industry professionals working on polished products and visualizations.

Sculpting Tools

Sculpting enables users to create 3D models with intricate details and uses an approach similar to drawing or painting. Users select brushes which serve a variety of different functions such as pinching and pulling to create highly intricate 3D designs. When used in parallel with a design tablet like the Wacom Intuos, sculpting programs are powerful means of creating highly detailed designs. To learn how to quickly create your own designs with little up front learning required, check out the 3 steps to modelling in Sculptris.

Strengths

  • Enables unparalleled levels of detail in 3D designs
  • Modest learning curve depending on the application
  • Natural workflow similar to painting or drawing

Weaknesses

  • Poor for creating designs with strict dimensions
  • Difficult to do hard surface modelling

Recommendations

Image Source: Pinshape.com

Sculptris (free)

For those getting started with modelling or looking to add detail to their existing designs, Sculptris is a great choice. It requires the least up front learning compared to almost all other design programs and enables you to quickly bring your ideas to life. It features only the main tools used for 3D sculpting which allows users to get started quickly without getting lost in the interface.

Image Source: Pixologic.com

Zbrush (paid)

Zbrush is the most full-featured and capable sculpting program though this also makes the learning curve intimidating to some. Although the user interface can be described as unconventional, once learned, Zbrush becomes a powerful tool for creating highly detailed 3D designs. It features a massive selection of ‘brushes’ as well as the ability to design your own. This is a top pick among professional sculptors and is the software of choice for those in gaming and movie industries.

We hope you’ve found this post on the different types of 3D design programs valuable! You’re now equipped to more confidently decide which program is best suited for your specific application. For those needing to bring their highly detailed or precise models to life, having a printer that’s up to the task is essential. SLA printing allows for the highest detail and dimensional accuracy of any of the 3D printing technologies and is necessary to ensure that your models are being printed as you designed. Order a free sample part from Formlabs to get a sense for the quality of SLA printing yourself!

Pinshape

Pinshape is a 3D printing community and marketplace where makers from all over the world can find and share their next great 3D print and help each other get the best results from their 3D printers.

  • Gordon Andrews

    Unfortunately, I’ve found a few weaknesses with Fusion360 (such as the copy command) , issues with upload, issues with software conflicts, support etc. For a “hobby” application and creating 3D printer files it might suffice but some futures such as those mentioned above make it somewhat of a bother. I also suspect that the “free” status is to let the “free folks” do the testing and troubleshooting.

  • Nice article useful for the model designing

  • Jonathan Gross

    hey why did http://www.selfcad.com get mentioned, free for students and teachers and paid ($39 a year)

  • Canneddirt

    I think Tinkercad should always be included in any 3D printing CAD programs. It is free and has an incredibly low barrier to entry. You can literally go from opening the program to a printable .stl within minutes. It also has the added benefit of being able to repair a good number of non-manifold files that I often encounter on Thingiverse and the like. Merely importing and then exporting a file repairs it and makes it printable.

  • Great article! But I think SelfCAD https://www.selfcad.com should also be included in the list. This is a new CAD program that is easy to learn yet powerful. You can model, sculpt and print all under one program and Slicer is also part of the program.