Our favourite free CAD software tools
While we’ve previously looked at some of the sophisticated, professional-level CAD software available, it’s important to remember that you don’t necessarily need to spend a huge amount of money to delve into 3D modelling and printing. There are a range of free CAD software tools available online that can be successfully utilised for industrial 3D printing applications. These can potentially be used for education, home use, or introducing 3D printing to a manufacturing operation for the first time in order to gain the support of external stakeholders.
Here are some of our favourite free CAD software tools for industrial 3D printing applications:
As we touched on in our last blog post on CAD software, Blender is popular among hobbyists, with a vibrant online community, but its wide range of features mean that it is certainly capable of professional applications. Bear in mind that there is definitely a learning curve involved in getting the most out of this software’s capabilities, but the possibilities it offers are great.
FreeCAD is an open-source software platform for parametric 3D modelling applications, which is especially good for product design and mechanical engineering. As with Blender, it benefits from regular software updates and new features, and also enjoys the support of a loyal online user community. Notable features include a specialist tool for simulating robot movement, and a ‘drawing sheets’ module that allows a 2D view of a 3D model to be exported as an SVG or PDF.
MeshLab is widely used across the scientific community, in both academic and research contexts, as well as for rapid prototyping applications. As the name implies, it offers a number of sophisticated tools for managing and processing complex meshes, included functions for checking, cleaning and repair. It is also capable of exporting a wide range of file formats.
Sketchup’s highly intuitive interface means that it is many users’ first foray into the world of 3D modelling. However, don’t think of it as being solely a beginner’s tool: it is especially effective at working with sharp designs, and so is a popular choice for creating architectural models. If you are going to be using it to create printable models, make sure you download the extension needed to export STL or OBJ files. This, and other professional features, will cost extra, so be sure to consider this when comparing costs. Also, we would strongly advise you to invest in a dedicated file-checking tool, as the platform has something of a reputation for delivering unprintable files.
Tinkercad is the current free version of Autodesk’s 3D modelling tools, descended from its original Autodesk 123D software. While it lacks the sophistication that professional CAD applications deliver, it can still serve as a powerful and accessible introduction to 3D modelling and printing. Although it is more focused on design than printing, it nonetheless integrates with a number of dedicated 3D printing services and allows external 3D files to be imported for editing.
Also worthy of consideration is the student version of AutoCAD, which is free to access for students, teachers and any academic institutions, and provides users with the opportunity to earn Autodesk certification.
The importance of effective software integration
As with any new software, when you’re evaluating these tools, make sure they are able to properly integrate with any other software tools you will be utilising, and that it will be able to export your models in your preferred 3D printing file format. For example, we would strongly suggest you invest in dedicated file-checking and slicing tools to avoid the cost and inconvenience of failed print runs. All software tools — free or otherwise — should be able to communicate with each other in order to avoid any inefficiencies in your project workflows. If you are able to avoid any disconnects like this, you will be in a great position to successfully incorporate 3D printing into your operations and concentrate on exploring its capabilities.