Getting to the bottom of which CAD software tool is the right one for the job can be a tedious task. With this in mind, we’ve trawled the wide web so you don’t have to and compiled this list of sophisticated CAD tools. Below you’ll find notes on the compatible file types, operating systems, modes of design, top-line features and, most importantly, the price.
If you reach the bottom and burn with the fires of injustice that we’ve missed your favorite CAD tool, let us know in the comments and we’ll consider it for future updates. With that said, on to the list…
Cash-strapped? Check out the 30 Best Free CAD Software Tools 2018 (2D/3D CAD Programs) instead.
SolidWorks, is a solid modeling computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided engineering (CAE) 3D CAD software that runs on Microsoft Windows. SolidWorks is developed and published by Dassault Systèmes.
In contrast to 3DS’s other product CATIA, Solidworks was designed with a broader of industries in mind: It is applied in fields like industrial design and mechanical engineering; specifically aerospace, automotive, shipbuilding, industrial equipment, architecture as well as the medical and energy sector.
Just like its competitor Autodesk Inventor, this 3D CAD software has its place among the best industrial 3D modeling software. Nevertheless, not only does it require extensive training to make the most its potential, but also advanced knowledge in engineering.
Best CAD Software for: Industrial users in a broad spectrum of fields.
CATIA is an acronym for Computer Aided Three-Dimensional Interactive Application. This multi-platform application wears three hats: firstly as 3D CAD software, secondly as computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software, and thirdly as a computer-aided engineering (CAE) software suite. The CAD software is developed by the French company Dassault Systèmes. It is applied in fields like industrial design and mechanical engineering. To be specific, it was designed for automotive, shipbuilding, industrial equipment, and architecture.
Similar to its competitor Autodesk Inventor, CATIA not only requires extensive training to make the most its potential, but also specialized knowledge in the field of engineering. Still, it is a highly advanced engineering tool and definitely one of the best CAD software on the market.
Best CAD Software for: Industrial users in automotive, shipbuilding, industrial equipment, and architecture engineering.
Devleoped by the industrial manufacturing giant Siemens, NX is one of the best CAD software tools on the market. For one, it supports state-of-the-art parametric and direct solid/surface modeling. While the modeling history of other CAD software tools can box your freedom to develop your design into certain narrow avenues, NX’s a-synchronous modeling, on the other hand, opens exciting new perspectives on design. It is also an invaluable PLM (product life management) software that covers the entire process of industrial design from beginning to end. As such users can check draft angles to ascertain that parts are in fact tolerable.
Moreover, NX features comprehensive capabilities for analyzing a design’s structural integrity to ascertain the functional capacity of the finished product and its durability. With a feature-set like this, the applications of NX go beyond what many other CAD software tools can offer. For example, it can be used to create a proof-of-concept of complex designs. Furthermore, it also lets users create animations of complex machinery to facilitate its understanding when presenting to prospective customers.
Best CAD Software for: Large engineering teams.
If you are looking for a CAD software tool that is primarily geared towards architecture and engineering you should take a close look at MicroStation by Bentley Systems. Its broad range of modeling tools enables you to model almost any geometric shape. What is more, MicroStation is a fully fledged parametric modeler, allowing to reshape your design simply by changing the values that control the dimensions of its key components. Hence, you can re-use designs from earlier projects with the project’s parameters.
MicroStation also brings considerable analytical tools to the table. Analyze your models to understand where interferences might occur to reduce cost. Furthermore,, this CAD software tool allows you to perform precise solar exposure analysis in order to optimize your projects topography. Due to its sophisticated collaborative features, MicroStation is suitable for larger projects. ProjectWise enables teams to exchange project information quickly and safely. In addition, it integrates well with other CAD software tools, like AutoCAD thanks to the built-in RealD WG support.
Communicate with stakeholders by producing animations and renderings that bring the project to life before a single part is manufactured. The necessary tools include a library of realistic materials, lighting. Lastly, you can choose between keyframe and time-based animation.
Best CAD Software for: City planners and engineers.
Houdini is a procedural CAD software that is designed around a node-based workflow. Similar to parametric modeling, this allows you to alter the entire model by changing individual parameters (nodes). This feature enables users to reuse objects and makes the program stand out from competitors like 3DS Max.
But, another reason why this program is an industry favorite, is that it includes complex particle effects for fluids etc. The procedural modeling approach of Houdini allows you to quickly generate complex geometries at a constant level of quality. From carefully sculpted terrain maps to varied spaceship corridors – almost everything can be generated efficiently. Hence, Houdini’s parametric magic is a popular tool for game development and 3D animation apart from being one of the best CAD software tools.
Although a free version of Houdini is available that has all the features of the commercial product, it has some limitations that you should be aware of: You can only render up to a resolution of 1280 ✕ 720 px, third-party renderers are not enabled and every rendered image will feature a small Houdini logo.
Best CAD Software for: Professional video game designers.
Autodesk Alias is a Class A surface modeler. That is to say, it is aimed at designing the surfaces of products that characterize the specific look and feel that consumers associate with brand products. As such, this CAD software tool is a staple in industries that produce aesthetically pleasing goods, such as automotive design, product design and aerospace design.
Furthermore, Alias’s standout features include fast concept modeling that eases the design workflow. Meaning it helps to transform 2D sketches into accurate three-dimensional interpretations.
Its super-surface tools are invaluable for creating surfaces that are hard to built manually, hence making your work more productive. However, you cannot only design surfaces with mathematical precision but also analyze them with painstaking accuracy to raise the quality bar of your designs. Also, Alias lets you project isophotes to check the smoothness of surface connections optically.
This CAD software tool also comes with a built-in rendering tool so that designers and engineers can quickly understand how the current version of their product would look to the consumer. What is more, clay models can be scanned and imported as point cloud data into Alias as a basis for refined class A surfaces.
Like many other products from Autodesk, Alias is developed with an eye on interoperability. Therefore, it connects to down-stream tools so that designs made in Alias can be tested and subjected to simulations in programs like Fusion 360. This helps to decide which ideas should be implemented into the next stage of the workflow and avoid unnecessary cost resulting from unsuitable designs.
Best CAD Software for: Industrial designers in automotive, product, and aerospace industries.
If you are looking for ease of use, Cinema 4D may be the right program for you, as it is famously intuitive to pick up. Powered by OpenGL, real-time viewport of this 3D CAD software baffles with depth of field and screen space reflections making it easier to control these effects efficiently. Because this view looks so good, Cinema 4D lets you export preview renders so you can submit them to clients for approval. To increase the overall rendering speed, Cinema 4D features an LOD tool that simplifies objects based on their distance to the camera and other factors.
There are multiple ways to tackle animation in this 3D CAD software. It comes with a large array of intuitive tools for character animation. For instance, record your mouse movement as position data. You can choose between forward and inverse kinematics You can also set up cyclical movements, such as walking, with a parametric tool. Lastly, add a muscle system to create naturally flowing movements.
The newest releases of this 3D CAD software improve the weight painting workflow significantly by adding it possible to mirror the work from one side of a character to the other. In addition, it has become easier to integrate live footage seamlessly with 3D animated objects. A feature called Scene Reconstruction creates colored point clouds and geometry based on tracked features enabling you to marry both components precisely.
Best CAD software for: Professionals in the visual effects and video game industries.
Onshape is a mighty enterprise-grade CAD software suite that is free for open-source projects. With this in mind, Onshape’s paid version is specifically aimed at professional level users, who want version control, and even collaborative tools to work in large teams.
Conveniently, Onshape is delivered over the cloud as a service, so there is no need to download and install anything. It works on pretty much every system you can imagine – even on iOS, and Android phones.
One of the most interesting features of this is CAD software is its collaborative mode. Unlike installed CAD and PDM, Onshape gives everyone on the team instant access to the same CAD workspace and same CAD data in one central place in the cloud. Another nifty feature is the ability to manage a master design without the need to save copies or keep track of numerous different file versions.
Best CAD software for: Professional, and industrial users, especially if they work in teams.
Alibre is an easy-to-learn yet powerful parametric CAM/CAD software tool. “Parametric” means that changes made to one value (e.g. the diameter of a pipe) will transform the entire design. Alternatively, you can import mesh data into the program and then convert it into a solid body. This way you can use scan date from real-life objects as a reference for your designs.
The parts designed with Alibre can then be combined into an assembly. This is made easy by Alibre’s ability to intelligently snap mechanical components together. By placing constraints onto the assembly, even the interaction of the different parts can be simulated. This way interfering components can be detected before they are physically made, saving money on material and man-hours.
Alibre is also a great tool for creating documentation of complex designs. Both assemblies and parts can be placed with measurements and annotations into 2D drawing sheets to create hard copies to communicate design intent to craftsmen. Similarly, you can create picture perfect renderings of your designs. Furthermore, its material library includes 640 textures. So, it is easy to imagine that this alone will help you both decide on the final look and feel of your product and provide beauty shots for marketing campaigns.
Another essential feature found in this CAD software tool is the automatic generation of a BOM (bill of material). Lastly, this CAD program is available in two versions. Among the advanced features found in the expert version of Alibre, is a comprehensive sheet metal design module that is capable of generating even complex transition parts.
Best CAD Software for: Engineering hobbyists and students.
Autodesk Inventor is a CAD software developed by Autodesk to create digital mechanical solid prototypes. It is used for 3D mechanical design, design communication, tooling creation and product simulation. Furthermore, it enables users to produce accurate 3D models to aid in designing, visualizing and simulating products before they are built.
Like its competitors Solidworks and CATIA, Inventor is a highly advanced piece of CAD software that requires extensive training to unlock its full potential, and also advanced knowledge in engineering. If you bring both to the table, then Autodesk Inventor is among the best CAD software tools for you.
Best CAD Software for: Industrial users that require 3D design, visualization and simulation capabilities.
The classic among 3D CAD software suites by Autodesk. It is particularly popular among video game developers, visual effects artists, and architectural visualization studios. Sophisticated particle and light simulation, cloth-simulation engine, and its own scripting language (MAXScript) are just a few key features besides its 3D modeling capabilities. If that is not sufficient for you, 3ds Max comes with a plugin architecture that is continuously fed by a vibrant community of developers. Until recently, this CAD software was split into a version for engineers and designers (3ds Max Design) and a version for visual artists (3ds Max), which shared only the core functionalities. So, now with the unified version, you get two software packages for the price of one.
Regarding 3D modeling capabilities, 3ds Max features parametric and organic objects with polygon, subdivision surface, and spline-based modeling features. Features interesting (for designers in particular) are the NURBS-based modeling tools in this CAD software that allows for both organic and mathematically precise meshes. Among the other state-of-the-art techniques is the ability to create models from point cloud data.
3ds Max it is one the best CAD software solutions out there that can be used by professionals in host of applications.
Best CAD Software for: Professional 3D designers and 3D modelers in many fields.
AutoCAD is commercial software for 2D and 3D computer-aided design (CAD). It is considered by many as the granddaddy of CAD software since the desktop application is available since 1982. To supplement this version of AutoCAD, a mobile app came out in 2010. Its wide array of features makes it a versatile tool. Moreover, it is used across a wide range of industries: architecture, engineering, graphic design, management, and others.
As can be expected from a cutting-edge CAD program, this CAD software brings supports parametric modeling. Simply put, this enables users to make substantial changes to their designs by applying rules, or constraints, that govern their structure. Whenever the numerical value of such a constraint is changed, the entire design is modified.
Please note that the feature set of Windows and macOS versions differ somewhat before acquiring the AutoCAD. To learn more take a look at this table on Autodesk’s website.
Best CAD Software for: Professionals in all industries.
Rhino3D is a 3D CAD software used in processes of computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), rapid prototyping, 3D printing, and reverse engineering in industries including architecture, industrial design (e.g. automotive design, watercraft design), product design (e.g. jewelry design), as well as for multimedia and graphic design.
The geometry of this 3D CAD software is based on the NURBS model, which focuses on producing a mathematically correct representation of curves and freeform surfaces in computer graphics (as opposed to polygon mesh-based applications). You may recognize many tools in MoI, which is in fact based on the same principles as Rhino3D. In comparison, during the 3D design process, you will often enter numbers in order to exactly place and shape models. On the one hand, this makes Rhino3D the perfect tool for creating mechanical designs, on the other, it can also slow down the workflow.
While Rhino3D has no dedicated tools for 3D printing the built in features are more than sufficient for this purpose. For instance, to make your model printable, great care has to be given to the meshing of the NURBS model. Which can be minutely controlled from within Rhino3D itself. In addition, some online printing services offer plugins that facilitate the necessary preparations for printing and the upload from within the 3D CAD software.
So, if your heart is bent on NURBS modeling, Rhino3D is probably the best 3D CAD software tools for you. In case you prefer a more intuitive approach, give MoI a try.
Best CAD Software for: Professional designers who appreciate mathematically sound designs.
DesignSpark is tailored to the needs of 3D modelers on a budget. In terms of functionality, the program keeps to the conventions of CAD software. This CAD software features the usual CAD modeling tools. Also, the user interface is clearly inspired by AutoCAD. So, in case you’re looking for a free alternative to that program, it’s worth to take a closer look.
Like some other programs, DesignSpark taps into online services. This allows you download 3D models directly into the CAD software, and have your designs printed and sent to you.
While the core features are free, additional functionality has to be bought. Specifically, this concerns extended import/export options and rendering. The Mechanical Exchange Plugin enables support for industry standards like the IGES and STEP format. The Mechanical Drawing Plugin, on the other hand, adds rendering and layout features that are useful for presentations in front of stakeholders.
Best CAD software for: Professionals looking for an alternative to AutoCAD.
What strikes first-time users of SketchUp at once is the neat, and tidy interface. There are not many buttons that can boggle beginners trying to understand the CAD software. Thanks to the intuitive tools that allow navigating, and sculpting accurately in the 3D view, it is possible to create simple 3D models from scratch within the first few hours of learning.
Which is not say that SketchUp is only capable of simple 3D modeling. The Pro version of this CAD software is match for many other sophisticated programs of this kind, as you can import, edit and export CAD designs. In addition to fanciful renderings, you can also generate technical plans, lists and reports that are necessary for planing and executing buildings projects. Last but not least, the editing toolbox is also greatly expanded, including more advanced tools like solid modeling.
SketchUp comes with its exchange repository integrated into the CAD software itself: 3D Warehouse – a library where approximately 2.2 million SketchUp models can be downloaded directly into the program.
Best CAD software for: Architecture visualization.
Developed by Dassault Systèmes, the publisher of industry giants such as CATIA and Solidworks, DraftSight is a CAD software that comes in a free and a paid version. Thanks to its clear user interface, anyone can learn the program quickly. DraftSight has all the necessary tools to create 2D technical drawings. The elements of designs are stored in layers, enabling accurate revisions. In addition, designs can be exported to PDF for use as construction sheets.
It goes without saying that Dassault Systèmes offers excellent support for users of the CAD software. Among many other features, the professional version of DraftSight can compare designs, and display the differences, append PDFs to the project file, and even add hardware symbols to your design.
In conclusion, the paid version of Draftsight adds a host of additional features to your toolbox. For instance, you can reuse assets from earlier projects via the design library. Most of all, Draftsight lets you create G-Code directly in the program.
Best CAD software for: Intermediate to advanced users focused on technical designs.
MoI (short for “Moment of Inspiration”) is a CAD software that has been specifically developed with the needs of artists and designers in mind. The explicit goal of the developer was to create a program that has the full functionality of a 3D CAD software, such as NURBS surfaces, but without the technical complexities of other programs. Instead, the mathematical aspects are processed under the hood, therefore leaving users the freedom to focus on their 3D designs.
Whereas conventional 3D CAD software tend to be quite right-click heavy, MoI sports a simple user interface. One of the distinctive features of MoI is the user interface that is completely compatible with pen tablets – in fact, this 3D CAD software can be operated without typing the keyboard at all.
On the right-hand side, you can choose between drawing lines or solids. The 3D designs can be worked with essential tools that are focused on the essentials like extrusion, fillet, offset loft and a handful others. The transformations tools include rotate, scale, array, align, deform and a few others. For precise work, there are windows to enter exact measurements. In case you need additional tools, take a look at the scripts developed by the MoI community.
The developers take pride in the low learning curve of their product. This allows artists without any background in 3D modeling or CAD to quickly create mechanical or organic meshes ready for 3D printing.
In sum, if you need a tool that emphasizes the creative process over technical gimmicks, MoI is the best 3D CAD software for you. For a more technical NURBS tool, we suggest Rhino3D.
Best CAD Software for: 3D designers who like NURBS, but shy away from its technical complexities.
In its basic version, nanoCAD is a free CAD software, but its paid version makes it also a valuable tool for professional users. Its user interface takes its cues from Autodesk’s AutoCAD. Hence, it is another example that shows how one company did something right and inspired others to follow in its tracks. So switching from one CAD software to the other won’t be a problem.
nanoCAD supports parametric modeling, which is handy as you can revisit older designs, and adapt them to new tasks in a breeze. Moreover, it can automate a great many routine tasks. As AutoCAD, it comes with a useful spreadsheet editor. The program is uncluttered, making it suitable for hobbyists, and beginners. Still, users have a rich feature set at their disposal.
Furthermore, this CAD software’s functionality can be extended by various plugins. In case your projects are more demanding, you should take a look at the Plus version of nanoCAD. In general, this version adds many features you would expect from professional grade CAD software like AutoCAD. Notably, the toolbox even includes solid-modeling.
Best CAD software for: Advanced users looking for a free alternative to AutoCAD.
In case you don’t want to install new software, then you should give Vectary a try since it is a browser-based CAD software that is currently in beta mode. Still, for its innovative UI and approach to collaboration, it is definetely worth your attention.
As the API is expected to be published in the near future, the functionality can be constantly expanded using plugins. For instance, this CAD software already includes parametric modeling. A feature that allows for quick adaptions of the mesh using sliders and selections that is moSTLy found in professional engineering suites like Fusion 360. But this doesn’t make Vectary an engineering program for the web since the program doesn’t rely on precise measurements. Instead, designs are created in a 3D viewport using subdivision modeling and then transformed using various tools. Making it better equipped for the needs of designers. Also, Vectary emphasizes user collaboration as all models are saved in the cloud and can be easily shared.
Although the range of features is amazing for a 3D modeling program that runs in the browser, this comes at a price. Don’t underestimate how much memory this CAD software takes up. Vectary’s free plan includes 5 private projects and unlimited public projects. Business options will be available soon.
Best Free CAD Software for: Intermediate to advanced users who need quick reiterations of their designs.
License: The text of "The Best CAD Software of 2018 (For Pros Only!)" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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