SolidWorks is the industry gold standard for 3D modeling. It uses numeric parameters to create relationships between sections of the design to keep the geometries relative to each other. This makes it a great way for designers to keep the big picture in mind while building and adjusting details of their designs.
If you want to try SolidWorks for yourself or interact with anyone who’s made a design with it, you’ll need the right tools on your own computer. Looking at a SolidWorks file requires a specific type of viewing program that can open all the components of a 3D solid modeling drawing in one comprehensive picture for review. SolidWorks uses the Microsoft Structured Storage file type for this. These are labeled as SLDDRW (drawing files), SLDPRT (parts files), and SLDASM (assembly files), depending on their use.
Fortunately, viewing them is neither difficult nor expensive. We’ve got the details on the five best free SolidWorks viewers you can download and keep on your computer for whatever SolidWorks projects you have going.
eDrawings is SolidWorks’ own viewing platform, so it has the best compatibility out there. But there’s more to it than just the brand name.
Unlike other free CAD viewers, SolidWorks’ eDrawings gives you two tiers of free usage to choose from, both of which give you different areas of detail. If you need to view and understand but not publish or mark up SolidWorks files, the eDrawings Viewer is your best bet. If you need to make non-SolidWorks files compatible, check out eDrawings Publisher. Either way, you can download them instantly and for free.
A program built by SolidWorks is not going to make you go elsewhere to view certain types of their files. So using eDrawings guarantees that no matter what you created in SolidWorks, you’ll be able to view it like a dream every time.
Unfortunately, not all aspects of eDrawings are free. If you need to manipulate your 3D design or watch it in motion, you’ll have to pay a subscription for its Professional level.
Get it: Download it from the SolidWorks eDrawings website.
Free IGS Viewer assumes you’re new at dealing with 3D solid modeling files. Which is actually great, because that means it explains everything from what the file extensions stand for in 3D solid modeling, to which one is the best to use for which projects, to how their Free IGS Viewer fits in and helps you in your process.
And since SolidWorks files can be saved as IGS files, all SolidWorks users can take advantage of this efficient yet powerful free viewer.
When you go to the Free IGS Viewer website, the first thing you see is a giant green button called Download. Click that, and congratulations, you’ve just installed the Free IGS Viewer. It’s really that simple.
Don’t be fooled by its name – Free IGS Viewer actually offers STL and STP viewers as well, all free and all just as easy to download.
Uncertain funding, in this case meaning donations to a website, is not the best way to make sure your program stays on the cutting edge. Free IGS Viewer can’t guarantee that it will always be in business, so if you’re worried about supports and updates going away at an inconvenient time, maybe pick a SolidWorks viewer that is backed by a company with its own source of revenue.
Get it: Download it from the Free IGS Viewer website.
FreeCAD is based on a number of open-source programs that are heavily used in mechanics, engineering, and other computer-based fields of science. Because it’s based entirely on open-source software, FreeCAD is also compatible with a whole range of plugins for further functionality. If you’ve got a favorite add-on, chances are FreeCAD will either already be able to accommodate that, or will point you to where in their code you can change that yourself. You’ve got to love programs that let you be as weird as you want.
And because FreeCAD is an open-source program, you can download and then modify it to your heart’s content (using the Python programming language). If you don’t have the need or know-how to do that, its default program is solid with beginner to intermediate users in mind. Plus, it’s updated at least once a year with detailed release notes, and its basic interface is very similar to SolidWorks, so if you’re used to SolidWorks, you already know how to work FreeCAD.
FreeCAD’s viewer supports the imports and exports of a long list of typical computer-aided drafting file types, which is a good one-way stop for all your CAD work. But they do warn on their wiki that “the level of compatibility between FreeCAD and a given file format may vary since it depends on the module that implements it.”
We are not here to knock volunteer work. It’s a great and noble thing, especially when that means making expensive software and programs accessible to the masses. However, you do need to be aware that the FreeCAD project is a labor of love for those who work on it. As with the Free IGS Viewer, that means its own support system is shakier than that of a company with plenty of backing. The good news is that FreeCAD has been going strong since 2001 on its current model, and its volunteer workers keep up a massive, well-organized wiki and maker community to go along with the program. So we have faith the Free CAD project will be able to offer its goods for many years to come.
Get it: Download it from the FreeCAD website.
If you enjoy the HiCAD Viewer, you’ll find plenty of ways to further explore the company’s offerings of engineering programs (just remember none of the rest of them are offered for free). They all work together as well as with SolidWorks and other CAD programs, so you’ll be able to create on whatever platform you like most.
Get it: Download your language version from ISD Wiki.
Navisworks Freedom lets you see your design in a huge range of customized viewing scenarios, including different materials and lighting. You can also choose from different scanning scenarios, like what your object looks like when you walk around it, fly over it, zoom past it, orbit it, and more. If you’re looking for a SolidWorks viewer to examine your designs on every level, Navisworks is for you.
Since AutoDesk is the purveyor of CAD software that has become industry standard, it knows what it’s doing, and it brings that experience to its free SolidWorks viewer. It’s also got an establishment behind it that won’t disappear anytime soon, plus all the compatibility that comes with the universality of its AutoCAD.
Like eDrawings, Navisworks has several levels of usability, and only the lowest tier is free. Even without paying anything, you get a good SolidWorks viewer, but if you want also to manipulate or change any of your design, you’ll have to subscribe to Navisworks Simulate ($880/year), Navisworks Manage ($2,175/year), or a bundle with other AutoDesk software ($2,825/year).
Get it: Download it from the Navisworks website.
Feature image source: SolidWorks
License: The text of "5 Best Free SolidWorks Viewers" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.