Computer-aided design has been around for a while, and it’s definitely here to stay. It’s safe to say that CAD software has come a long way since its beginning in the late 50s, with Dr. Patrick Hanratty’s pioneering work on his Pronto CAM software. He is considered by some as the father of all CAD software tools.
Over five decades of research and development done by hundreds of engineers, programmers, and other professionals from different fields has produced dozens of different CAD software tools with ever-increasing complexity and functionality.
Even if you’re not a freelance product designer, architect, or engineer, chances are you’ve already heard about the more popular programs like AutoCAD. But if you’re in the 3D design industry, or if you plan on pursuing a career related to it, then you probably already know that there are a lot of different CAD software tools to choose from.
Read on to find out which are currently the best CAD tools, what their strengths and weaknesses are, which industries they are best suited for, how they compare in price, and a whole lot more.
Let’s get started!
3ds Max 2019 (by Autodesk):
- Best suited for 3D animation, 3D rendering, and flythroughs
- Works on both Macs and PCs
- Highly flexible to fit into your workflow by supporting file formats from other Autodesk tools, as well as from third-party apps like SketchUp, Unity, and more
- Offers a 30-day free trial and money back guarantee on a one-year license for a single user that costs $1,505
- 3 years free educational license available, for only non-profit and non-commercial use
- Difficult to learn
- Not the best option for building your designs from the ground up
3ds Max is a very powerful 3D modeling, rendering, and animation software tool from Autodesk. This CAD tool is uniquely suited to create impressively realistic virtual worlds to be used in games and VR. It’s tailored to bring your 3D designs to life through high-quality renderings and animation.
The 2019 version includes improvements in terms of better 3D modeling and texturing, Open Shading Language support, and more efficient 3D animation that includes fluid simulation and complex particle flow effects. Another big plus is the new ability to directly edit scenes from within VR by using its new interactive function, which reduces work time.
As you can see, this software package is exceptionally well suited for animators and game developers. It’s also an excellent tool for architects and freelance product designers alike, but to build realistic scenery and make amazing flythrough animations to enhance designs rather than to actually make the designs themselves.
Regarding price, Autodesk offers a 30-day free trial on 3ds Max with a one-year single user license that costs $1,505, if you decide to commit. You also have the option of a two- or three-year commitment which can save you up to 10%. Don’t plan on using 3ds Max for the long term? No problem, you can also purchase a monthly license for $190/month. It’s not cheap, but it beats paying over $1,500 if you only intend to use it on one short project.
Autodesk also offers a 3ds Max bundled its most popular software tools in different “flavors.” Each bundle is oriented toward specific industries like media and entertainment, product design, and architectural design. Each bundle includes Autodesk’s best software solutions for each industry and costs around $2,800/year, which is a bargain if you add up the individual prices.
AutoCAD 2019 (by Autodesk):
- 3-year free educational license available
- Ideal for the architectural design and construction industry, 3D modeling, and mechanical engineering
- Includes industry-specific toolsets for architecture, mechanical engineering, electrical design, and more
- Mobile and Web apps allow you to view, edit, and annotate work files anywhere, anytime
- Works on both Macs and PCs
- Share as much or as little as you want of your project files for feedback and work collaboration
- Costs $1,575/year if bought alone, or from approximately $2,500 to $2,800/year if you purchase a bundled license with other AutoDesk software solutions
- Steep learning curve
- Doesn’t work with Building Information Modeling, or BIM, which is quickly becoming a construction industry standard
AutoCAD is a classic. It’s been used for decades by freelance architects, designers, and engineers, and with good reason: it has always provided a means to produce the high precision 2D and 3D drawings needed for the mentioned industries’ standards.
While staying true to its original concept, AutoCAD has evolved throughout the years in order to keep one step ahead of the competition.
One of the improvements made to the previous release is that AutoCAD 2019 harnesses the power of cloud computing through a web and a mobile app, which allows users to work on their project files smoothly across different platforms from anywhere in the world. These apps will let you view, edit, annotate, and create project files without the need to carry your laptop everywhere you go.
AutoCAD is not cheap, but it’s not the most expensive option either. The 1-year subscription costs $1,575, but it’s well worth it. You can purchase a bundled license with the AutoDesk Architecture, Engineering, and Construction collection for $2,755/year, which includes Revit, Civil 3D, 3ds Max, and more.
With Revit, you can work around one of the main drawbacks that some AutoCAD users mention: AutoCAD doesn’t work with Building Information Modeling or BMI, a relatively new construction industry standard for architectural design.
Another attractive licensing option is a bundle for those in the consumer products design industry. You can purchase the Product Design & Manufacture collection for $2,525/year which includes AutoCAD, Inventor, 3ds Max, and other special Autodesk engineering software tools.
Blender (by blender.org):
- Free open source 3D design software
- Uniquely suited for 3D animation services, modeling, and VR
- Not a great choice for architectural design (yet), but great for architectural visualization
- Multi-platform: Works on Windows, Mac, and Linux
- Has many tools for rendering, animation, sculpting, modeling, rigging, video editing, and much more
- Offers cloud support you can subscribe to for only €9.9/month
- The huge user base enriches an ever-growing library of predesigned objects and add-ons for enhanced productivity and functionality
- An excellent choice for beginners embarking in 3D design, since it’s free
- You can customize it any way you like with python scripting
- Not the easiest to learn
With every high-end, high-price commercial software package that arises around the world, there will always be a community of programmers willing to take it upon themselves to develop an open-source option. Blender is the 3D design world’s free project, and it abides by the principles of open source: you can use it for anything you want, no strings attached.
But Blender doesn’t make the cut just for being free. As with many open source projects, the fact that Blender receives contributions from a massive community of users and programmers from all corners of the world means that it’s always growing, evolving, and getting better. The current version, 2.79b, is a complete 3D workstation that provides every single tool you may need for every 3D application you can think of.
It’s great for product designers, animators, 3D artists, game developers, and VR. Having said that, it isn’t the best choice for high precision parts design or assembly, so you won’t see BMW switching to Blender any time soon. It’s chief focus point and strength is animation and movie production.
Blender has an excellent rendering engine called Cycles. It also has a good set of sculpting, UV, and modeling tools, as well as many 3D texture brushes to make your designs look great after rendering. It includes a series of CAM tools for 3D printing, CNC cutting, and machining.
So many different functions will, of course, make for a hard to learn piece of software, but this is true for pretty much all fully functional 3D design software tools. However, the vast user base, many hints and tips throughout the UI, free video tutorials, and a Blender service you can subscribe to for only €9.9/month which includes 100+ hours of training videos will help you become an expert after a short while.
Another great feature has to do with the fact that it’s open source. Blender has a python API that will let you customize the program any way you want by way of python scripting, develop your own add-ons and, in general, make Blender your own. Many users also publish their add-ons, so you can download them for free and enhance Blenders functionality even more.
CATIA (by Dassault Systèmes):
- Fully integrated, high-end CAD, CAE, and CAM software solution
- Mainly used for part design and highly complex assemblies
- Covers a broad range of industries including automotive, marine, and aerospace and defense, which call for high precision design and complex assembly work
- Very versatile but especially suited for surface modeling
- Excellent part manipulation functionalities
- No forced yearly upgrades or license renewals, only an annual maintenance fee
- Not user-friendly
- It has compatibility issues with older CATIA files, so upgrading is a bit of a headache
- Windows only
- Steep learning curve. Requires proper training
- Very expensive. Depending on the modules you purchase, the license can easily surpass $10,000
- Paid educational license, not free like with some of its competitors
CATIA is a software package in a league of its own. This isn’t just a CAD software tool. It’s more like a complete suite of computer-aided design (CAD), engineering (CAE), and manufacturing (CAM) tools to satisfy your every whim, no matter what industry you work in. To say that CATIA is high end is an understatement, as it is used by the biggest names in the marine, automotive, transportation, aerospace, and defense industries.
CATIA is definitely Dassault Systèmes’ best and most complete 3D solution. It’s incredibly versatile, and you can purchase it with a variety of different modules for different applications. There are many industry-specific modules available that come at a high price for obvious reasons.
These include certain automotive or aerospace industry modules. You can do pretty much anything with CATIA, but one of its strong points is surface modeling, which is great for car, ship and airplane design.
Most users agree that CATIA is not a “learn it yourself” software package. It is very complex, hard to master, and not as intuitive as SolidWorks (also by 3DS). So, if you’re planning on learning CATIA through trial and error, by playing around with the user interface, or by watching a couple of YouTube videos, then it’s probably best you save your money and choose another software package. You’ll find that pretty much everyone who has ventured into buying a license recommends that you get proper, certified training in order to get the most out of your investment. Thankfully, 3DS provides it.
As with other 3DS products, you won’t find the license price listed anywhere on Dassault Systèmes’ site. If you want to know the price, you have to ask for a quote, because there are a great number of modules for an incredible amount of different functions. Unofficial sources claim that a CATIA license can cost from $9,000 to an incredible $65,000 a year per user.
Of course, if you’re Lockheed-Martin or Boeing developing the latest fighter jet for the US military, then that may not add up to a lot when you consider the overall size of the project. But if you’re a startup designing a new model of 3D printed lens frames, then the price is definitely a deal breaker.
Cinema 4D (by Maxon):
- 3D design, modeling, animation, and rendering software
- Works on both Windows and Mac
- Compatible with many popular 3D file formats
- Uses parametric modeling for a non-destructive workflow
- Very user-friendly and intuitive
- Great integrated help function to quickly find the answers you need
- Great integration with Adobe After Effects for motion picture production
- Large expert user base that makes learning and solving problems quick and painless
- Free 42-day trial version available
- The full-featured Studio version is expensive, but it’s a one-time investment if you buy a perpetual license
- No student or academic license available
- Limited texture library
- Heavy, hardware intensive app
Maxon’s Cinema 4D is an easy to learn but powerful 3D design, modeling, animating, and rendering platform. Its name is a bit of a giveaway regarding its applications, as it’s mainly used in the movie and animation industry. However, it has also proven very useful for graphic designers and 3D artists, as well as for consumer product and architectural design visualization.
One of C4D’s selling points is its ease of use, which Maxon openly advertises, and most users agree with. In fact, many users describe this software as the best starting point for new 3D designers or animators, as it can be learned and pretty much mastered by watching YouTube video tutorials. You can also take advantage of C4D’s excellent integrated help function, which you can easily access by right-clicking on any tool or button in the user interface.
Features in C4D include an extensive modeling toolset that includes polygon modeling and parametric modeling. The latter is a feature many users love, as it empowers C4D with a non-destructive workflow that allows you to modify and edit a design at any stage without having to start over from scratch.
Use the Volume Builder and Mesher to create complex models using Boolean-type operations. Animating your models can be done with keyframes, and C4D has many tools to make this process as efficient as possible. Or it can be done without them through the use of different effectors and expressions that make procedural animation straightforward.
You can also use a combination of Voronoi Fracturing (which is a way of defining the pieces in which a model will break into) and Dynamics (a tool for creating real physics-based movement) to very quickly produce animations of models shattering into pieces that are incredibly realistic.
There is no perfect 3D software solution, so Cinema 4D does have some downsides users don’t like. One of the first things we can mention is that it’s a massive, resource consuming piece of software, so you’ll want to have the right hardware to get the most out of C4D. Another downside is that it has a minimal texture library, which means that you either have to make your own textures, buy texture packages, or surf around the web. Finally, some users have complained that the animation tools are a bit hard to use and master.
Maxon offers a 42-day free trial (no strings attached, no credit card info required) in which you can opt to enable file saving, which means that you’ll be able to work in a complex 3D model and try out all of Cinema 4D’s features before committing. If you do decide to go for it, Maxon offers pretty flexible licensing options.
For starters, you can choose between a perpetual license (indefinite use with no forced upgrades) and a short-term, 3- or 6-months license. Cinema 4D comes in 4 different “flavors” with prices that go from an accessible $995 for its most basic package to a rather steep $3,695 for the whole package included in the Cinema 4D Studio flavor (single seat perpetual license in both cases).
There are numerous different options for each flavor that include multi-user licenses, license keys that can be used in different geographical locations, an annual Maxon Service Agreement that lets you upgrade to the newest version of your licensed software every time there’s a new release, and more.
Daz Studio (by Daz Productions Inc.):
- Especially suited for the animation and gaming industries
- Not really a 3D modeling and/or design software – more of a morphing and posing software
- As user-friendly as character design gets
- Works on both Windows and Mac
- Complete character creation and posing with Genesis 8 model figures
- 3D printing enabled through a plug-in and a 3D print service provided by Daz Productions Inc.
- Daz to Maya plug-in to quick transfer figures or props
- Back compatibility and cross-compatibility with Maya, 3ds Max, and Mudbox
- Completely free for personal or commercial use, no watermarks, no strings attached
- Must purchase premade models from the Daz Studio store in order to get the best results
- Not for creating characters or models from scratch
- Not the most professional rendering results
Daz Studio is the application of choice when you’re giving 3D character design your first shot. It’s not as much of a 3D design platform as it is a morphing and posing application that relies on the availability of premade, highly detailed character models which you transform into your desired designs. This alone makes Daz Studio very easy to use and master, as it lacks many of the tools traditionally associated with 3D modeling. It works in a very similar way to its main competitor, Poser, but it has one key difference: It’s free!
The secret behind DS’s success is a series of aforementioned premade 3D figures available in Genesis 8, Daz Studio’s character engine. This platform provides a large selection of both male and female human model figures, animal figures, cars, buildings, etc. You can transform them with a large number of morphing tools that will modify muscles, fat, body shape, size, proportions, hair, eyes, and much more.
These models also come with a virtual bone structure that allows you to move all body parts and achieve very natural looking poses. Daz Studio can also be used to tweak facial expressions, to dress the models, and for final renderings, providing the complete toolset for character design from start to finish.
Base models can also be imported from other 3D design software solutions like 3ds Max or Maya, and the finished designs can also be exported to said applications, enabling DS to be integrated into your existing workflow.
As a free 3D software package, Daz Studio has an extensive worldwide user base that is in the millions. This user base continually contributes to an already extensive library of content you can use to enhance your designs.
One of the trade-offs of using DS is that you don’t really have complete creative control over your 3D design because you have to start off from a predesigned figure. This makes it great for beginners, but not so great for more weathered 3D designers. An issue regarding functionality is that when objects collide in DS, they tend to intersect rather than push each other apart, which makes object interaction seem unnatural at times.
Fusion 360 (by Autodesk):
- Best suited for 3D design, 3D modeling, product development, and prototyping in general
- Excellent choice for mechanical engineers as it is CAE enabled
- A cloud-powered solution that makes design collaboration and teamwork easy and efficient
- It has photorealistic 3D rendering and animation capabilities
- Works on both Mac and PC
- Complete product development platform, CAM enabled for CNC Machining and 3D printing
- Automatically generates CAD solutions based on manufacturing requirements (generative technology)
- Great price: Full functionality for only $60 a month or $495 a year
- The only downside, as with many Autodesk products, is a steep learning curve
The world of software has evolved, and cloud-based computing is coming on strong. Fusion 360 is Autodesk’s cloud-powered 3D design software solution that enables simultaneous collaboration between different professionals without the need to be in the same place at the same time.
If you plan on working as a part of a team of freelance consumer designers or engineers from around the world, cloud-based software like Fusion 360 is an excellent choice at a very affordable price.
Fusion 360 integrates the complete product development process from conception, design. and engineering to actual manufacturing in a single platform. It’s a combination of CAD, CAE, and CAM software that lets product developers streamline the whole production process in one single package at an incredibly affordable price.
The CAD features include freeform modeling and sculpting tools, as well as solid, parametric, and mesh modeling tools. CAE functions include various test modes, assembly modeling, as well as joints and motion studies.
Once your model is designed and tested, you can see how it will look through its photorealistic 3D rendering capabilities, and you can use Fusion’s CAM utilities to create tool paths for 2, 2.5, and 3 axis machining, as well as 3D printing to actually manufacture the final product.
Inventor (by Autodesk):
- 2D/3D mechanical design and solid modeling software
- CAD, CAE, and CAM software solution
- Good with parametric modeling
- Very user-friendly, especially for prior 3ds Max users
- Easy to learn and master, very user-friendly
- Free 3-year student license available
- Pricey: Standard license costs $1,935. You can also buy it bundled with other Autodesk products
- Huge work files
- Not strong on sheet metal work
- Some of its tools have bugs that require annoying workarounds
Inventor is Autodesk’s mid-market software solution for mechanical parts modeling, simulation, and manufacturing. You could say it represents Autodesk’s SolidWorks alternative with a lighter price tag. One of the perks of working with inventor is the ability to do parametric modeling, which allows you to modify an existing piece by tweaking parameters like size, angles, length ratios, etc., without the need to remake the part from scratch. You can also do direct editing and freeform editing. When modifying any parameter of a piece, Inventor automatically updates all the files in which that piece is used or embedded, saving a huge amount of time.
Inventor also has decent drawing, rendering, and editing tools. It can import a large number of different file formats, and its native files are compatible with many other 3D software tools. It’s great for assessing form, fit, and function of your designs before manufacturing. This reduces the number of prototypes needed for each product and reduces design-to-market times.
When designing this piece of software, Autodesk went out of its way to make it as user-friendly as possible. It does require you to have an engineering background in order to understand and get the most out of many of its features and functions. But aside from that, it’s an all-around easy to learn and use program. It’s definitely a software you can learn to use by yourself, but to become a pro, it is recommended that you take formal training courses. Apart from that, always remember that practice makes perfect.
Some users have complained about deficiencies when working with sheet metal. Others have encountered bugs with certain tools that don’t work properly, but overall, the functionality is excellent.
Regarding licensing and prices, Inventor is more expensive than some of the other programs mentioned here, but it’s cheaper than its main competitors. The basic license cost $1,935 per year, and you can buy a bundled license with the Product Design & Manufacture Collection for only $2,525/year, which will include AutoCAD, a 5-axis CAM software solution, advanced simulation software, and more. Even with said collection, the price isn’t as high as the SolidWorks license, so Inventor makes for a great alternative to Dassault Systèmes’ mid-market 3D solution.
As with all of Autodesk’s software packages, you can download a free trial version. If you’re a student, you can get a free, 3-year educational license for academic, non-profit, and non-commercial use.
Marvelous Designer 8 (by CLO Virtual Fashion, LLC):
- Specific for 3D garments and accessories design and animation
- Extensively used in the movie, animation, and game design industries, as well as in the fashion industry
- Easy to use and intuitive UI
- Automatically forms natural wrinkles in the fabric
- Compatibility with other 3D design software tools for better workflow integration
- Create and edit patterns of any shape
- Simulate physical fabric properties for accurate, realistic animation
- Basic automation through Python scripting
- Great price: $50/month, $300/year, or $490 for a perpetual license
- 30-day free trial available
- Hardware intensive
- It only has essential CAD functions
Marvelous Designer MD8 is an excellent and versatile software solution devoted explicitly to the creation of 3D clothing and accessories. It is a powerful tool for simulating different types of clothes and fabrics, along with their physical properties, in order to achieve stunning, impressively realistic results.
This alone wouldn’t be too useful if the designs were only usable in this program, so CLO has made MD8 compatible with many other 3D design software solutions like 3ds Max, ZBrush, and Maya. With those software packages, you can model your characters and build 3D worlds for them to live in, but you’ll need MD8 to dress them for the occasion.
With MD8, you can design fabrics with any level of detail. From plain t-shirts to layered garments, this software solution can handle it all when it comes to clothes and apparel. It’s no wonder it was the program of choice for the blockbuster Avatar.
The design principle behind MD8 is based on pattern making, the same technique used by fashion designers to design garments. Add belts, buttons, textures, elastic fabrics, shoulder pads, and everything else you may need to create any kind of garment, scarves, belts, gloves, curtains, rugs, and anything else made out of fabric.
Apart from being easy to use, CLO Virtual Fashion offers a great price for this excellent product and three different licensing options to choose from. A short monthly license costs only $50, a 1-year subscription costs $300, and a perpetual license without any forced upgrades costs only $490.
The bottom line is that if you’re a 3D animator, VR, or game designer, you’re probably going to need a more powerful software package for the 3D modeling stage of your work, but MD8 will prove invaluable when it comes to dressing your characters.
Maya (by Autodesk):
- Built for 3D design and animation, 3D rendering, and 3D modeling
- Used primarily in the movie and entertainment industry
- A great choice for creating characters and simulating hair and fur
- Costs $1,505/year if bought alone, or $2,095/year if bundled in the media and entertainment collection
- 3-year free educational license available
- One of the steepest learning curves of all Autodesk products
- Doesn’t allow importing 3D or 3ds files, which are the most common formats in 3D objects libraries
Maya is a sophisticated 3D modeling, animation, simulation, and rendering software. It provides the whole package but at a cost, and we’re not just talking about money. This software’s complexity and functionality make it one of the hardest to master with what’s probably the steepest learning curve. However, if you do get on the saddle, you’ll be made for life. Maya experts are in high demand in the movie and entertainment industry.
Features like Time Editor and the Motion Graphics toolset make animating in Maya easier now than ever before, though this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s actually easy. Interactive grooming lets you handle hair and fur to make them look more realistic and natural, especially with its new clump modifier.
An improved UV editor and seamless integration with Adobe After Effects make this release an animation powerhouse.
Maya is an integrated toolset to meet your every 3D desire, but its complexity makes it incredibly hard to master. It’s probably the hardest to learn 3D design software out there, at least among its direct competitors, and among other Autodesk products.
Some users say it’s better if you only focus on one of the program’s strengths and master that, as opposed to trying to master the whole package. Having said that, most agree that if you master Maya, every other 3D software will be a piece of cake.
Onshape (by Onshape Inc.):
- Complete cloud-based CAD software solution
- Especially suited for product design and parts & assembly design
- Platform independent, works on Mozilla and Chrome web browsers, and there’s also a mobile app available for both Android and iOS
- Designed for teamwork
- Excellent for real-time work collaboration
- Well-implemented version control for project files
- Premium plan offers a number of industry-first analytics tools and data management tools which empower companies to make the best possible business decisions
- Completely free, easy to set up academic plan with all the features in the standard plan
- Free trial available
- Only works if you have an internet connection
- Loading models is sometimes slow
- Goes from $1,500/year to $20,000+/year
- Doesn’t have a native rendering engine – you have to get an add-on
- CAM and CAE functionalities aren’t included
Onshape is a CAD software solution developed by the original builders of SolidWorks®, one of the top names in the traditional CAD software industry. SaaS is quickly becoming more than just “a thing” as everything is moving to the cloud, including 3D design software. Onshape embodies this trend as a completely cloud-based CAD software application.
There are many perks associated with cloud-based software, especially for 3D design. Some of these include:
- Working from anywhere in the world, on any computer at any time
- Avoiding the need for installing heavy software on your computer
- No need for expensive high-end hardware
- No need to keep folders and files synchronized across multiple computers and devices because you work on one single project file which is hosted on the cloud
- No risk of losing files or other important information
- Keep track of every bit of progress and go back to any previous version of the file you want through version tracking
- True real-time collaboration between different teams which streamlines product development
- …and more
This software solution uses parametric modeling to design parts that can later be edited and modified without the need to start from scratch. It’s also capable of producing annotated 2D drawings from the 3D model for part production teams. It doesn’t include any native CAE tools or CAM tools, but they can be purchased as add-ons.
Some downsides of using Onshape include being limited to the speed of the server’s hardware (you can’t upgrade your computer to make things go faster), it’s very expensive (read below) and it only works if you have an internet connection. Some users have complained that the 2D drawings function could use some improvements and some models take a long time to load, which can be frustrating.
As a SaaS solution, Onshape isn’t a program you buy; it’s a service you subscribe to. There are different subscription plans with various features and different prices. The basic or standard single user plan costs $1,500/year and includes parts & assembly modeling tools, production drawings, and tech support.
However, if you want to add features like complete data management, company-level admin tools, and consolidated billing, you will need the Professional plan that costs an extra $600/year per user. Onshape Enterprise is Onshape’s premium offering which, apart from all the tools in the professional program, offers a high level of project visibility and control through an array of industry-first analytics tools that help companies make essential data-driven decisions. It also grants each employee a different level of access to project files in accordance to their role. These features, along with many others, you can get for a minimum of $20,000/year.
Onshape also offers a free trial and an academic plan termed Onshape Education and referred to by some as the Google docs of CAD. This plan is free, non-commercial, and probably the easiest academic CAD license to set up, because all you have to do is open a free account for the teacher and each student and you’re ready to go, no strings attached.
RHINOCEROS 3D (by Robert McNeel and Associates):
- Mostly used by architects and structural engineers in the construction industry, but also by product designers and prototypers
- Works on Windows and Mac
- Easy to learn and intuitive UI
- Vast functionality
- Especially suited for working with curved surfaces and freeform objects with NURBs and mesh geometries
- Easily add plug-ins for enhanced functionality like parametric modeling, BIM, improved rendering, and more
- 90 day free trial version, more than enough time to get acquainted
- The latest version goes for $995
- It doesn’t have a “free” student license, but it makes up for its price by allowing full functionality and commercial use
- Mac version is a prior release of the Windows version and doesn’t have all the plug-ins available
Rhino is definitely a great choice as far as 3D modeling software go. This software solution is especially designed to work with curved surfaces, which make it great for product design and cutting-edge architectural design. It works mainly with NURBS geometry, but it can also work with mesh geometry and a hybrid of both as well. It’s also a good choice for prototyping, as it includes all the tools needed.
The stand-alone Rhino app has an immense amount of functions that include modeling, drawing, rendering tools, and much, much more. This vast amount of options tends to be daunting at first, but you’ll soon discover that the UI is very intuitive, so learning to use it becomes a breeze after a short while.
In order to soften the learning curve even more, McNeel provides a wide range of short video tutorials that explain the various ways in which commands can be executed. There are numerous other video tutorials out there and a very large user base to clear up any doubts that might come up.
Having said that, some of the tools and functions Rhino includes aren’t the best ones for the job. One example of this is the rendering engine, which in Rhino isn’t great. However, most of these issues can be overcome by beefing up your Rhino distribution with high-quality plug-ins that’ll do the work.
Some of them are free, and others you can even buy bundled with Rhino 6, saving a good load of money while you’re at it. You can add Grasshopper for parametric modeling, Flamingo or Brazil for high quality realistic 3D rendering, Bongo for animation, and more, to get a very respectable 3D modeling solution for a very reasonable price.
Speaking of price, Rhino is somewhere in the middle when compared to other options. The basic license costs $995 for either Rhino 6 or Rhino 5, Windows edition. You might be surprised to know that the Mac version, which only reaches Rhino 5, actually costs $300 less than the windows version. There aren’t nearly as many add-ons and plug-ins for Mac as there are for windows, so you won’t get the same functionality.
A downside regarding licensing is that, unlike Autodesk and other developers, McNeel doesn’t offer a free student license. Nevertheless, the student license is just a fraction of the price, giving you full functionality, and you’re even allowed commercial use.
SIEMENS NX (by Siemens Product Lifecycle Management Software):
- High-end full CAD, CAE, and CAM platform
- A vast range of applications including consumer product development, automotive, transportation, aerospace and defense industries, high-tech electronics, medical device industry, and more
- Works on Windows and Mac
- Includes tools for electronics as well as for routed pipes, valves, and instrumentation
- Built-in tutorials to help with the learning curve
- Free 7-day, cloud-based trial available
- A very versatile modeling tool that includes wireframe, surface, solid, parametric, and direct modeling
- Steep learning curve
- Very expensive
- No academic licensing available
Siemens NX – Unigraphics or UG, for short – is Siemens PLM’s full computer-aided design (CAD), engineering (CAE), and manufacturing (CAM) software platform. It provides the full set of tools needed for product development from the initial concept to drafting, designing, simulating, visualizing, and prototyping. It has lost a bit of ground among big Fortune 500 companies, but it’s still a strong competitor in the same league as Catia.
As it happens with its direct competitors, Siemens NX is a modular software package with an immense amount of available modules for different industry-specific applications. These different modules can be used for drafting your initial concepts and ideas and turning them into full-fledged 3D rendered designs. It makes collaborating between design teams, engineers, and manufacturing teams efficient by providing a common interface in which they can all work together.
One strong point of this software is its ability to work with highly complex assemblies with high precision using the Syncrofit module, which makes it ideal for the automotive, marine, aerospace, tools and machinery, and defense industries. At the same time, it’s an ideal option for the design and manufacturing of small but complex products like medical devices or for consumer product design.
Other features include a strong rendering engine for excellent photo-real renderings and visualizations; CAM tools to design tool paths for CNC machining, robotic manufacturing cell control, and 3D printing; Fibersim for composite parts simulation; Mastertrim for the entire seat trim engineering process; and a whole set of engineering tools for real-world simulation that will make product prototyping more efficient.
All these functions make NX bear a heavy price tag. Being such a modular software package means that there are many options to choose from, so you won’t find the price listed on Siemens PLM Software’s site. Unofficial sources say that a single user license for normal use can cost close to $8,000. There is a free trial available but it only lasts for 7 days, and it’s entirely cloud-based – you won’t have to download or install a single file.
SketchUp Pro (by Trimble):
- The easiest to use 3D modeling software
- As user-friendly as it gets
- A good choice for architectural design, mechanical engineering, and 3D animation
- An excellent choice for a quick sketch up of your initial concept
- Free for non-commercial use
- Huge user base
- Includes access to 3D Warehouse – the world’s largest 3D model library
- You can buy a non-expiring license of SketchUp pro for only $695
- Functionality is limited when compared to other options
SketchUp is the opposite of complicated CAD software like Maya, Catia, or Siemens NX. It’s the easiest to learn and use 3D design platform. It takes months and sometimes even years to master most CAD software tools, whereas SketchUp can be learned in just a couple of weeks or days.
Trimble, its publisher, claims they don’t sacrifice functionality for ease of use, but that’s not entirely true. Yes, it can be used in every stage of a construction project, but the quality and precision of the results aren’t in the same league as industry giants like AutoCAD.
With the pro version, you also get LayOut, a tool used to make presentation slides, vector drawings, drafts, and more. You also get the ability to make animations for creating walkthroughs, but you won’t achieve the professional results you’ll get with 3ds Max or other rendering and animation software.
Since there is a free version available, there are literally millions of users worldwide who share knowledge through forums and are constantly adding 3D models to the already vast 3D Warehouse, the world’s largest repository of predesigned 3D objects.
All of this contributes to fast-tracking your projects from start to finish. The huge user base also means that you will always be able to find someone willing to help you out with any design problems you’re not able to solve yourself on SketchUp.
SketchUp is a great starting point if you’re new to the 3D design world. It’s a great way to get acquainted with the terminology, the most commonly used tools and functions, and to have fun while you’re at it, all without spending a dime. Once you’ve mastered this one, and if you crave more design power, you can move on to bigger and better options.
SolidWorks (by Dassault Systèmes):
- A single software solution for industrial applications including sketching, designing, rendering, animation, engineering, simulating, testing, and manufacturing
- Mid-Market CAD, CAE, and CAM software tool
- Covers many different industries, big and small, that range from consumer products, automotive and high tech to the aerospace and defense industries
- Offers Cloud-based solutions for an improved collaborative working environment through 3Dexperience
- Not too hard to learn, relatively user-friendly, but hard to master
- No forced yearly upgrades and license renewals, only an annual maintenance fee of a small percentage of the license price
- Dassault sometimes offers free student licenses, but for a limited time only
- Very expensive – can go for as high as $10,000
- Windows only
- A standard student license isn’t free – costs anywhere from $20 to $100 a year
SolidWorks is a complete CAD, CAE, and CAM software solution for the CAD market. It is a powerful 3D design software tool that’ll get you from the original idea to the actual manufactured piece without the need to use any other software package in the process. Unlike other software tools that rely on add-ons, plug-ins, or other stand-alone apps to get the most functionality and best results, SolidWorks provides the complete toolset to make anything you can imagine with relative ease.
Start off by using DraftSight, which is a 2D drafting and design solution. Then move on to one of the most powerful 3D CAD tools out there, use the CAE tools to analyze your designs, and do real-world simulations of your products before building your prototypes. Finally, transition seamlessly to the CAM interface for 3D printing, laser cutting, or creating tool paths for computerized machining.
It also includes electrical solutions for designing high-tech electrical parts and circuits, and it even provides tools to help companies better present their products to customers, help with sales, advertising, social media management, and more.
SolidWorks is expensive due to its high complexity and functionality. In fact, 3DS doesn’t even publish its price; you have to talk to a sales expert, specify which modules you need, and ask for a quote. It can cost anywhere from $4,000 to a whopping $10,000 a year, depending on the modules you choose. Despite this, it’s one of the most widely used CAD software tools, which means that there are a lot of designers and engineers willing to pay.
An upside to the Dassault Systèmes’ licensing scheme is that, unlike many competitors, they don’t force you to upgrade and renew your license every year. Instead, they charge a license maintenance fee instead, which is only a small fraction of the original license price.
There are educational licenses available, but unlike with other software developers, they’re not free. However, if you compare the price of a student license, which can be as low as $20 per year, to the price of the regular license, you’ll see that the amount is almost symbolic considering all the features you get for it.
So many functions are apparently hard to learn and master, but the user interface is relatively intuitive, and 3DS offers training, certification courses, and reliable customer service.
ZBrush (by Pixologic):
- Works on both Windows and Mac with the same purchased license
- A perpetual single-user license costs $895 and you get free upgrades
- Single user academic license can be upgraded to a full commercial license for half the price
- Excellent 3D sculpting software
- Best suited for the movie and animation, gaming, automotive/airplane design, and art industries
- A virtually limitless number of polygons to get whatever level of detail you need
- Smart and dynamic polygon addition and reduction so you can concentrate on your modeling
- PolyGroupIt function that automatically groups polygons and makes work easier
- The user interface could use some improvements
- Full-featured non-commercial academic licenses available, but they’re not free
ZBrush is rated by many as the best 3D sculpting software solution. This tool is used mainly in the movie and animation industry to create characters from scratch, but also by some more artistically oriented freelance industrial designers and 3D illustrators.
This modeling software takes on a different approach to 3D design than most of the other options we’ve shown you here. The design paradigm is more artistic in nature and is better suited for plastic art and freelance 3D sculpting services than for your average engineer.
ZBrush features include Sculptris Pro, which gives ZBrush its main functionality. With it, you can create virtually any freeform object, just like you would when modeling clay, or you can use it to add details to existing designs made with other software tools. ZBrush automatically adds or removes polygons whenever needed to simultaneously optimize file size and level of detail.
Use the different deformer tools for quick volume creation and to create more symmetrical pieces and designs, turning something as simple as a ball into something as complex as a human face. You can take advantage of the PolyGroupIt tool to automatically group related polygons within your design and make work more efficient.
ZBrush comes with its own rendering engine, but some users find it lacking. Issues like this may be overcome by purchasing add-ons that enhance functionality or by using a different standalone app that’ll do a better job. Pixologic offers an add-on called ZBrush to KeyShot Bridge, allowing you to use KeyShot, a great standalone rendering engine directly in the ZBrush interface.
Another complaint some users have had is related to the UI, which some people find to be unintuitive. It takes some getting used to, but after you’ve cleared the learning curve, you can become very productive with this excellent software package.
The licensing options offered by Pixologic are some of the best you will find. A single user license costs $895 (Windows or Mac), and it can be installed in two different computers provided you only use one copy at a time. That price isn’t what you would call cheap, so why do we say that the license is great? The real kicker is that, as of today, once you purchase a ZBrush license, you never have to worry about renewals or upgrades – they’re perpetual.
You get a free upgrade to every new version of the software that Pixologic releases, and that’s not just for ZBrush but for all their software solutions. Another great selling point is the fact that they’ve united their cross-platform licenses, and now a single license will work for both the Windows and Mac versions of the app. If you do the math, it’s a great investment.
Pixologic also offers an academic license with full features, but unlike with some of its competitors like Mudbox, it isn’t free. It’s a lot cheaper than the regular license, but unlike competitors, they are strictly for academic non-profit, non-commercial use.
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