Best CAD Programs
The best way to look at a CAD program is as a digital workstation with a select number of tools and resources. Each individual software is going to have different assets attached to it, which can be viewed as tools in your tool belt. The tools that you want to have available to you can be determined based on what you ultimately want to be designing and how intricate or complex you want your prints to be.
For many users out there, the best CAD program is one that you can jump right into to create simple designs that are fun and easy to make. Not everyone wants to create advanced 3D prints. Many people just want to have fun with their designs, which is why a lot of software is intended for beginners so that 3D printing is intuitive and available to everyone - regardless of their level of expertise. If you feel that this matches your ambitions as a designer, then beginner software is going to be the way to go - at least while you are starting out!
However, if you have been around the block, are an experienced designer, or even working in an industry that requires technical and intricate 3D printing, then you are going to want to go with advanced software that is going to be more suitable for your level of expertise. With advanced CAD programs, you want to make sure that the software is going to have the features that you require for your specific needs, as some programs are created to serve a specific function. Some programs are quite dynamic and can be used for creating a variety of designs, but undeniably, some are going to be more appropriate for particular prints.
Lastly, you should consider that CAD programs not only enable more intricate prints but can also be a source of inspiration for your designs. If you are having writer's block or are simply tired of printing the same model designs over and over, then a CAD program with a nice interface can be the perfect solution for adding a burst of creativity into your workflow. Good software will enable you to visualize your design so that you can make changes and pursue new possibilities intuitively, which is why many users prefer to have a CAD program that can inspire as much as it can create. Keep reading to learn more about the best CAD programs for 3D printing.
Tinkercad (Beginner Level)
If you are just starting out and want to dive right into 3D printing, one of the best CAD programs that you should consider is Tinkercad.
Tinkercad is highly regarded by users as being one of the most hands-on software out there, as it is incredibly intuitive and easy to use. The layout of the interface is clean and clear - with your Workplane being the centerpiece of your screen right as you open the program.
You will find that there are a good variety of different pre-designed models for you to utilize on the sidebar. By having these template designs at your disposal, you can begin printing your first design with a simple drag and drop by clicking on your desired model and placing it on the Workplane. If a pre-designed print is all that you want, you can call it a day right then and there.
However, Tinkercad also has some great customization options for you to utilize. You can change the shade and color of your designs very easily and you can also make alterations to your prints by customizing their structure.
With that being said, Tinkercad is also a great CAD program for building prints from scratch. You have a lot of shapes to select from your sidebar and you can begin building whatever you desire based on the options that Tinkercad has available. What’s also great about this software is that you can run it through your browser!
Navigating Tinkercad is about as simple as you could ask from a CAD program and you can have a design on the way within seconds of opening up the software. Once you feel that you are satisfied with a design, simply export it from Tikercad and it will show up on your computer as an STL file, which means that it is ready to go.
Now, although Tinkercad is incredibly comprehensive, you must recognize that this is very much a beginner CAD program. A program that is this easy to use does come with a considerable amount of limitations, which as far as we are concerned is its only real drawback. If you want straightforward 3D printing software, few programs that can compete with Tinkercad.
BlocksCAD (Beginner Level)
Another excellent CAD program for 3D printing is BlocksCAD. This is a CAD program that is very easy to use and is going to be perfect for beginners - or designers that just want to work with simple prints.
The interface is very nice and can be easily comprehended by users of all levels of expertise. You will find a color-coded sidebar on the lefthand side of the interface that has a number of different options such as 3D and 2D shapes, as well as a variety of different selections.
Simply click on the option that suits your design and drag it to the workspace to begin building your project. You can select parameters that are appropriate for your project to get the right size and dimensions that you want. What makes BlocksCAD stand out is how you build your designs, as this software has a ‘block’ style builder.
As you drag the shapes and features that you want your design to have, you will see them appear onto the workspace in the shape of blocks. You can then build these blocks on top of each other to create the structure and features that you want your design to have. As you add blocks to the workspace, you will not see your actual design being built yet. It is only once you hit render that a visual representation will appear on the screen to the righthand side of the workspace.
Once you begin seeing your design looking the way that you want it to, you can customize the project further by adding color to it based on your tastes. As you move through the workflow of your project, BlockCAD enables you to stay organized with your settings and parameters by giving you the ability to add notes to each detail of your print. After you feel satisfied with the initial layout of your design, you can collapse all of the blocks into a single block to clean up the workspace.
The first part of your design process will likely be the base of your project. With your base design collapsed, you have a free workspace so that you can build onto your print further. Depending on what you want to create with your project, you can add shapes and additional features to your project by using the lefthand sidebar to repeat the process to add more detail.
All in all, you will find that the capabilities of BlockCAD are not far off from what Tikercad has to offer. You will primarily be working with basic shapes that do not have an overwhelming amount of manipulation options. The key aspect of BlockCAD compared to another beginner 3D printing software is that this CAD program utilizes a block building interface to create a design. This kind of interface and workflow may be more intuitive for some users, but certainly not all.
If you are looking for a simple and easy-to-use 3D printing software, then you should highly consider trying out BlockCAD, as it is available on your browser and is hands down one of the best introductory CAD programs out there.
SketchUp (Intermediate Level)
If you want to move up the ranks of CAD software, SketchUp is often a go-to for a lot of designers out there. This is a fantastic 3D printing software that comes with more dynamic capabilities than Tinkercad and BlockCAD - you can certainly expect to get more advanced designs when using this CAD program.
When using SketchUp, you will find that there is a free option available and a paid version. If you want to dive into your prints and are not looking to have every feature available (especially as a beginner), then you will be very pleased with what the free version has to offer. However, if you want to enhance your projects within SketchUp, the paid version does unlock some advanced features that will enable you to create more intricate prints.
This CAD program has a slightly less appealing interface for beginners, but if you can get your head around the layout, you will find that a lot more doors will open for your designs. You have a variety of different tools available to you in the sidebar of the software. To begin a design, select a tool that is in alignment with what you want to create. You can then draw custom shapes such as lines to create the base for your design. Once this is created, you can manipulate the shape to your desired parameters.
A second sidebar can be found on the righthand side of the interface where you have additional controls over your prints. In this section, you will have the ability to create customizations to the color of your design based on your tastes. However, in this section, you also have a lot of intricate templates at your disposal.
Unlike most beginner CAD programs, SketchUp has some advanced pre-made templates that are quite intricate. You can search for various pre-made designs in the sidebar to begin printing immediately, which include technical templates for things like mechanical parts. In addition, you can create curves and unique shapes to liven up the creativity of your designs.
Although this is a more advanced CAD program compared to Tinkercad and BlockCAD, it is still pretty easy to get your head around. What is great about this software is that you can keep your designs as simple or as intricate as you want, as it is incredibly versatile as being useful for a beginner and an advanced user. This is a particularly useful CAD program for people that want to pursue architectural designs with their 3D print models.
Fusion 360 (Advanced Level)
This is a CAD program that is not going to be ideal for the beginner as it has got a lot of functionality that is going to be overwhelming for someone who is just starting out. There are a lot of options for you to consider for your prints, which can make creating a simple design too complicated for most when using Fusion 360.
However, the complexity of Fusion 360 comes with a lot of perks. You will be able to pursue incredibly dynamic and intricate prints with this software, as its’ features are highly advanced. If you are in an industry that deals with mechanics or other technical components, you will find that Fusion 360 is going to be a great CAD program to take advantage of for your work. With that being said, this is also a great software for a user that wants to push their creativity further into more intricate 3D prints.
When using Fusion 360, you can start by creating basic shapes which you can manipulate with a wide variety of different features that are built into the software. Once you learn the ropes of the software, you can take basic shapes and transform them into intricate mechanical parts within seconds!
If you want to create basic parts and shapes, Fusion 360 is more than capable of outputting these kinds of designs. However, where this CAD program truly shines is in its ability to create incredibly complex designs. You can dive deep into Fusion 360 and spend hours, days, and weeks working on just a single project, as you have countless features and tools to utilize when creating your prints.
With that being said this software’s dynamic capabilities and pleasing interface also make this a fantastic CAD program for sketching ideas and sparking creativity. You can create designs solely based on your imagination, which can give you a sense of inspiration for future projects. The ability to modify your designs is expansive, to say the least. And building in-depth projects can be a bit like entering a rabbit hole, as there is a lot that goes into this CAD program.
Fusion 360 also has a parametric design. You can access the drawing section of Fusion 360 to get an overview of your entire project. This can be seen as a blueprint that gives you a detailed analysis of your entire project’s parameters and components. Once you make changes to the actual structure of your design, the details in your drawing will be updated based on any alterations that you make.
Fusion 360 naturally has all of the essential render and extruder functions that you would expect out of an advanced 3D printing software. In addition, you have more features built into the program such as creating an animation of the components of your design. On top of that, Fusion 360 also gives you the option to create simulations of your designs so that you can create a test of the durability of your project - among other things!
If you are looking to create advanced designs with your 3D printer either for your industry or simply for the love of making creative and intricate projects, Fusion 360 is going to be one of the best CAD programs that you can utilize to push your work further. However, you should note that this is a highly advanced 3D printing software that can be overwhelming for a beginner.
Another great thing about Fusion 360 is that it is free for just about everyone to use, which is amazing considering how advanced this CAD program is. The creators have made a system that enables each user to get a free license for 1 year, which needs to be renewed on annual basis. This license is completely free so long as you do not make more than $100,000 per year. If you are below the income level (which most people are), you will have complete access to all of the features that Fusion 360 has to offer - just remember to renew your license when it expires!