What is computer aided design?
Our explanation will likely be an oversimplification to some, but we would say that computer-aided design is the process of using software to draw the lines and shapes necessary to a plan for use with a 3D printer. CAD is also used in engineering and architecture, but in the case of 3D printing, designs are often used to literally print the item being made. You’ll soon learn that some CAD software is very useful for beginners to make basic shapes without worrying too much about detail, while other CAD software is for advanced users who want to create fully detailed miniature models.
The idea is that the user can create just about anything they want that can be printed out of plastic, and use a secondary software called a slicer to translate their drawing into something that the 3D printer will understand.
What is the best CAD software for 3D printing?
TinkerCAD is made by the larger and more powerful Autodesk. The software is free to all users. New users will like TinkerCAD because the entire software experience is very simple - as you use mostly shapes to develop any tool or product you’d like, you don’t need significant experience with drawing the model itself. Files are also saveable in most formers that will be friendly to a slicer.
Also, technically TinkerCAD is not software. The program is powered by a web based app, so it just uses your existing web browser. Overall, the software is excellent for younger builders and new people alike.
FreeCAD, like TinkerCAD, is more of a training tool than for professional use, but it again provides a great beginner’s tool for parametric 3D modeling. As you can tell by the name, FreeCAD is in fact free.
The software is relatively deep and complex and will take some learning, but it is worth it to learn how to use more complicated and full featured software in the future. Note that parametric modeling is a little different because it involves using features and constraints, which is not quite the same as direct modeling. Parametric design requires a bit more planning and foresight, which might make a better but more difficult experience for beginners.
Like the previous two, BlocksCAD is a free software designed for education that leads to more powerful software uses later. BlocksCAD uses plenty of color to explain things and help users understand structures and commands that look LEGO-esque. The interfact is fairly easy to use, even for beginners, and the program does well in helping you understand what you are building. You can also export the code to OpenSCAD, the more professional software, so your build is compatible across multiple programs.
Solid Edge balances the line between beginners and professionals n nicely. This is one of the older 3D CAD programs out there. Thankfully, Solid Edge blends parametric and direct modeling while showing the history of what you are building, taking away some of the difficulty of planning especially in parametric.
The interface is a jump up in challenge level from the free software above simply because Solid Edge has more to offer with both designs at the same time. Another nice feature from Solid Edge is the ability to put files on the cloud so you can access them from a different computer later.
One unique thing about Solid Edge which is being used more now in modern software is the ability to use some artificial intelligence to help teach other users. Does one managing user build things in a certain way? Solid Edge can look at examples of their work and push other users toward building items with the same processes the first person did, which is cool because it doesn’t like it requires lots of setup.
Solidcore is perhaps best known for its abilities within the world of manufacturing and changing sheet metal.The program seems to understand the best placement for flanges and automatically trims around them to make for better creation and welding space. The program does quite a bit, ranging from mechanical and electrical design to data management and technical documentation.
You’ll also pay for it - starting at $75 per month per user all the way up to $329 per month per user.
“360” comes from the ability to collaborate within Fusion 360, which lets workplaces help and share files when designing products and creating 3D models. Files offer the entire process history, which is great to avoid having to ask each other too many questions about how things were built to spec.
Many users rave that nearly everything within the software has at least a couple of ways to complete, which is great for efficiency and learning in multiple ways. Others claim it offers excellent resources for do-it-yourselfers who are just printing at home on their own 3D printer.
While some believe that Fusion 360 is complicated, many have written stating that anyone can make 3D models with the software - and even goes so far as offering internal product testing to ensure that your created item is capable of handling particular stresses based on the material.
Fusion 360 has a price, but it’s fairly low. Depending on the time of year you buy and sales prices, you could get it for as low as $70 paid monthly.
4D_Additive is a unique software that also helps repair models from different software sources and can be configured for exact geometry that isn’t hard to translate to others. While 4D_Additive is initially capable of designing 3D models, it is also pretty smart and can recommend printing orientation based on the bed size as well as suggesting reorganizations to better your print quality. Overall, the intent is to optimize the workflow and make your print look good.
You also get lots of textures - with more than 5,000, and a nesting function powered by AI - meaning that 4D_Additive repairs and builds in part for you based on predictive modeling of what you are attempting to build.
CREO is around for those who require high precision applications with their 3D printing, Many users who employ CREO in an industrial setting have compliments for the program, which allows for collaboration and data management, including those moments when you have to exchange and manage dozens of files at a time. Others have strong positive feelings about the 3D assembly software, saying it is fairly straightforward considering the actually complicated process. Some have also said that CREO has lots of little hidden, thoughtful features, but they are too well hidden and become hard to find and access.
Overall, the software works well for experts in a workplace where teams need a good workflow.
CREO is not free, but you’ll have to dig in here a little bit more to understand their pricing structure.
Consider nTopology a more advanced 3D modeling software that is typically used more to refine models and create templates for higher performance products. nTopology also helps with simulation tools and programs that are designed to make your 3D model look for organic and natural, as well as lightweight.
The program also uses GPU acceleration to make more complex models and geometry very quickly based on the choices you made earlier, as well as the paths you tell it to take. This is great because it will save you significant time as opposed to making everything click by click.
Find more info here. nToplogy is free for educators, students, and non commercial use.
You’ll want some training for this one, but OpenSCAD is quite literally open ended in regards to how to build the 3D print you want. OpenSCAD is highly adaptable and has a built in programming language that allows you to have the software make changes, even when building rather intricate parametric processes. The language is overall easy to learn though the interface itself is not. Frankly, we don’t have high expectations when it comes to the interface for a 3D modeling software because it is an advanced, difficult process.
Ultimater CURA is both a fairly advanced 3D modeling software, and a really easy to use example. CURA ranges between beginning users and advanced professionals in that it can help guide you through the 3D modeling process or leave you be while you make the model you want.
While other more advanced options have some complaints from users who are seeking an easy to use interface, CURA makes up for that by being fairly simple for those who want simple.
While not free, RHINO’s cost of about $1000 can help you build the foundation for 3D models pretty easy with QuadraMesh software. RHINO is best for 3D structure printing and creating detailed meshes and surfaces. You’ll find the user interface is fairly easy to use, and it has extreme flexibility in file types and translation, so you can use it for just about anything.
While some of the software we have mentioned earlier requires a subscription - the best part of RHINO is a one time payment instead of paying over the course of years. This also means that its not as much of a collaboration tool, but if you don’t need it, it won’t matter.
Blender does a lot! The software program is free and open source, and is largely dedicated to people who are advanced amateurs and professionals. It can do a lot, but we would recommend having a training manual handy when you jump in because there is so much it can do.
When should I pay for software?
Free software doesn’t tend to have a lot of “help” available outside of online users who happen to use the same software and form a community. We would suggest paying for software when you are taking 3D printing seriously enough that it is investing in, and when you find that the guidance you find within your current software and online to be inadequate.
If you are a person printing at home, you might find value in getting additional guidance from a paid software. Alternatively, if you don’t always want help right away, you might find that just asking a question on a discussion forum is worth it.
Do 3D printers come with 3D modeling software?
Most come with something. You might already know this, but you’ll need more than 3D modeling software to make a product with your 3D printer. You’ll also want slicing software that takes a 3D model and translate it so that the printer understands what to make.
The average 3D printer comes with at the very least 3D slicing software since printers tend to have their own language and abilities.