Which CAD software is right for you?
A successful industrial 3D printing operation depends on having the right tools readily available. This means the full arsenal of physical tools and machines, but also includes the right software. There are a lot of different software platforms used in modern manufacturing operations, but perhaps the most crucial is the CAD program. If you just want to design 3D models at home, there’s plenty of free software online that will be more than sufficient, but a professional operation will require professional software tools. It’s therefore important to consider your options carefully before making an investment.
So which professional CAD software is the right choice for you? Let’s look at some of the most well-regarded options among 3D printing professionals…
Originally released in 1982, AutoCad is very much the ‘old guard’ of CAD software. Nonetheless, it remains a popular choice among many manufacturers and designers. It’s especially popular amongst architects and engineers, and has the advantage that many professionals are already well-acquainted with its tools and functionality. This can prove a massive boon if you are incorporating 3D printing into your operation for the first time, helping deliver a smoother implementation.
For creative applications, like sculptures and figurines, ZBrush is the choice of many professionals. It’s ideal for organic shapes and fine details, although it is probably not the best choice for industrial applications due to most of its functionality being tailored towards artistic projects. Nonetheless, if you’re looking to create something a bit different, its popularity among digital sculptors is a testament to its capabilities.
Rhino is a popular choice among product designers and engineers, particularly for the high level of detail that it can achieve. However, it’s important to note that it bases its modelling on NURBS — a highly precise mathematical model — rather than polygons or mesh, as other CAD programs do. This means that you may need to get used to a completely new approach when creating your models, although the potential rewards are certainly great.
Blender is free, but its sophisticated design tools mean it has found a user-base beyond bedroom hobbyists. Like Z-brush, it’s generally more suited to creative applications than industrial ones, and comes with quite a steep learning curve, but the range of features it offers means it is certainly worthy of consideration. Also, a large online community means that new features and updates are regularly rolled out, and support or advice can be easily accessed when needed.
Solidworks is the favoured tool for designing mechanical objects among many manufacturers. While its range of tools makes it ideal for such sophisticated designs, you will need to get used to working with sketches, which may take time. As it is often regarded as the premier 3D modelling application, it represents a considerable financial investment, However, there are currently three different versions available, which means you can choose the one which suits your needs and your budget.
Unlike the other platforms we’ve considered, Meshmixer was actually specifically designed for 3D printing applications, and incorporates a dedicated set of tools for designing printable models and exporting them as STL files. In particular, it incorporates various file-checking tools to ensure there will be no issues when your model is sent to the printer. This integrated approach is definitely a good choice if you are looking to limit the number of stand-alone software tools used in your operations.
Inventor is primarily used for mechanical design, and offers freeform, direct and parametric modelling tools in this regard. Like Rhinoceros 3D, it makes use of NURBS to deliver highly detailed surface modelling, although it lacks other platforms’ more specialist functions, such as cost analysis and material-specific modelling. It also offers effective file conversion and data exchange capabilities, allowing it to work well with other software platforms.
NX combines CAD, CAE and CAM functions with PLM capabilities, offering a lot of the same capabilities as dedicated simulation software in a single, integrated package. This means it is suitable for engineering analysis and manufacturing applications, not just design ones. It is widely used across the automotive and aerospace sectors as a powerful (albeit expensive) all-in-one solution.
CATIA is another high-end software platform that is well-regarded for its surface modelling capabilities. In addition to its CAD capabilities, it also offers CAM and CAE functionality, making it a highly versatile solution. The software is well-established across a number of industries, particularly automotive and aerospace. While it does involve a steep learning curve, it is a good choice for complex projects where multiple designers will be involved, as it offers specialist tools to enable remote collaboration.
Creo Parametric (formerly called Pro-Engineer) is popular among medium-sized manufacturers for its wide range of specialist modules, allowing it to be used for a range of applications. It originally established its reputation through its parametric modelling capabilities, something that its makers have continued to refine with each successive version.
Making your decision
As you can see, there’s no single ‘best’ solution when it comes to CAD software. All the established choices offer different advantages and disadvantages, which means your best bet is to consider what sort of parts you are looking to create, and then look at what functionality will best support you in doing so.
Also, consider the other software tools you will be employing across your workflows and make sure your CAD program will effectively integrate with them. To create a smooth, well-integrated workflow, it’s important that any disconnects between software tools are identified and eliminated, otherwise they will create inefficiencies.
Bear in mind that this list is by no means exhaustive. The number of CAD applications is growing year by year, with newer companies offering their own takes on familiar tools. Don’t be afraid to consider these newer tools if you feel they would be a good fit for your organisation.
Remember, your software should serve your operation, not the other way around. Consider your requirements, goals and established processes, then choose your tools based on these. This way, you’re sure to see the best possible return on your initial investment.