CAD on the Cheap or Free (Updated 1-12-15)

I’ve had several customers ask me what they should use for 3D modeling and/or drafting.  I spent some time playing with various packages and decided to put the list up on this site for customer reference.  This list will be amended as new software is brought to my attention.

2D Drafting

Draftsight:  AutoCAD LT clone (copies the classic UI) from Dassault systems.  Free for commercial and personal use after registration.  Only feature I’ve found lacking compared to AutoCAD LT is the Mass Properties command.  In AutoCAD it will bring up several engineering properties, in Draftsight all you get is the perimeter and area. Update (3-31-14):  Dassault now offers a Professional package for $299 that addresses mass properties deficiency I sighted above.

Solidedge 2D:  Once again it is free for commercial and personal use.  Interface is similar to Autocad’s ribbon.

3D CAD and Modelers

Blender:  Open source modeler, not a true CAD package.  I found the learning curve to be steep.

Sketchup:  Probably the easiest package for a beginner to pick up.  An addon is required to export .stl files; it can be found here.  After exporting the .stl please use Netfabb cloud to repair your files.  Sketchup has problems with creating watertight .stl files.  If a file is not water tight there can be problems printing it and I will have to charge you drafting time to fix your file.  Free for personal use, commercial use requires a license.

Creo Elements:  Haven’t found anything that limits this to personal use, but I haven’t seen anything that says it can be used for commercial either.  This is a stripped down version of PTC Creo which was formerly known as Pro/Engineer.

FreeCAD:  Open source CAD software.  Parametric CAD with a python based scripting language in addition to a traditional GUI interface.

OpenSCAD:  Open source script based CAD.  If you are comfortable with programming languages this package is for you.  Popular in the 3D printing community, many things on Thingiverse and its counterparts are created in this software.

ViaCAD:  Starts at $99. I actually like this software, easy to use and powerful for the price.  Solid modeler, based on the ACIS kernel, direct modeling with some parametric-like features.  Some online reviews claim it is buggy, the only time I have problems with it is when I’m trying to stich a large mesh into a solid.  2D drafting leaves a lot to be desired.  Not in the same class as Solidworks but you get a lot for your money.  Update (4-25-14): Found a new bug, when I extrude text the number 8 will not extrude properly.  Not a huge deal but it is annoying nonetheless.

Designspark Mechanical: Rebranded and de-featured version of Spaceclaim brought to you by RS Components.  Free for commercial and personal use after registration.  Powerful package for free.

Autodesk123D:  Online browser based modeler.  Haven’t used this, know of its existence and thought I’d mention it.

GeoMagic:  Formerly known as Alibre.  It gets good reviews online, more expensive than ViaCAD but still more affordable for the hobbyist than top tier CAD software.

AutoDesk Fusion 360:  Online CAD suite based on Inventor.  Free for students and enthusiast, starts at $40/month for professional use with quarterly and yearly licensing options also availiable. Update (1-12-15) Autodesk is now offering startups Fusion 360 for free for one year!

Meshmixer: Experimental software from Autodesk, advertised as being an easy to use modeler. More art driven than CAD, this package would appeal to sculpters.

Tinkercad:  A free easy to use browser based CAD system.  Aimed towards beginners, you design by combining premade shapes on the drawing and adjusting their dimensions as you work.

Sculptris:  Free digital sculpting program.  Another package I have not used but am aware about.  Made by the company that produces ZBrush.  The Sculptris page says skills learned in Sculptris are transferable to Zbrush.

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