CAD stands for Computer Aided Design, and CAD software are used all across the architectural, engineering, automotive and jewelry industries, just to name a few, and ever-present across rapid prototyping, product design, graphic design, and even in the making of prosthetics.
Both 3D CAD software and 2D CAD programs exist to create, edit, modify and test 2D and 3D designs before they ever get put into production and become physical parts, tools or objects.
Back before computer software and CAD, designers and engineers had to manually draw their designs on paper to create new products. This naturally had its problems — it was much slower, more prone to human error, and less repeatable.
- We also have a list of the best free 3D modeling software
- Additionally, we have a list of the best professional 3D modeling software
- We also have a ranking of the best architecture software
The Best 3D CAD software tools
|Name||Main Applications||Price||Where to download|
|TinkerCAD||CAD software for kids and beginners||Free||TinkerCAD website|
|FreeCAD||CAD for product design, architecture||Free||FreeCAD website|
|Blender||Free 3D CAD modeling||Free||Blender website|
|Fusion 360||Product design, electronics||$499/year||Fusion 360 website|
|Rhino 6||Professional 3D CAD software||$995 lifetime license||Rhino website|
|AutoCAD||Industrial CAD software||$1,690/year||AutoCAD website|
|Revit||Industrial architecture CAD software||$2,425/year||Revit website|
|Maya||CAD software for video games||$1,620/year||Maya website|
|Inventor||Mechanical engineering CAD tool||$2,085/year||Inventor website|
CAD software offer massive advantages over drawing on paper, as you can instantly edit, make complex changes, and then export the model for production — such as by CNC machine, or by additive manufacturing or 3D printing. Iterations can be easily shared with clients or upper management, and changes made instantly based on their feedback.
In fact, 3D CAD tools are one of the reasons for increased productivity in manufacturing, and allow for more accurate and high quality parts to be produced and brought to market in record time.
Advanced CAD modeling software even simulate product or part usage to check for any weak points, and even use augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) technologies to see how your designs would look in the real world, before they actually exist.
In addition to these industrial uses, CAD software has also democratized design. Hobbyist 3D designers can now design stunning models at home, and sell their creations on 3D printing service marketplaces such as Shapeways for anyone who wants to buy one of their designs in brass or any other kind of material.
Autodesk are one of the largest 3D CAD software companies around, offering a variety of the best CAD software across a number of industries.
Advantages of CAD Software
- Faster and more effective: Can more easily visualize your part from all angles, and far quicker than on paper.
- Very accurate and precise: Details can be blown up by zooming in on specific areas, and perfectly symmetrical parts can be drawn that humans are not capable of replicating by hand.
- Quick iterations: Can quickly make changes based on feedback to optimize parts or designs. Some 3D CAD software even have features for running simulations for areas like thermal analysis.
The Best Free CAD Software
TinkerCAD – Best CAD software for beginners and kids
- Price: Free — View here
One of the best free 3D CAD for beginners, TinkerCAD is perfect for younger users and complete novices. Nothing needs to be downloaded as it runs in your browser, and it is almost certainly the simplest 3D CAD modeling software to use on this list.
Operated by Autodesk, who mostly sell more professional CAD software, TinkerCAD is a free and easy CAD software to get you started with the basics, with a very short learning curve and a mobile app if you’d prefer to design on your smartphone.
The simplicity makes it the best CAD software for beginners, as well as kids, and is used in schools to teach basic engineering principles like how to create simple structures and geometries. TinkerCAD comes with a variety of drag-and-drop objects like cubes, pyramids and spheres to create a model with. All you you need to do is change and transform these objects to perfect your model: rotate, resize and move objects until you’re satisfied.
It’s almost like a free online Lego builder with infinite possibilities that people of any ages should be able to pick up with ease. You may find as you advance and improve that you grow out of TinkerCAD’s suite of beginner CAD tools, but there’s a range of free CAD software and paid professional options out there once you’ve gained the skills.
FreeCAD — One of the best free CAD software
- Price: Free — Download it here
FreeCAD is a free and open source CAD software modeling tool for building complex models, with the ability to design both 2D and 3D models. First released in 2002 and steadily updated since, FreeCAD has wide use in product design, as well as architecture and engineering and mechanics.
- We also have a ranking of the best architecture software.
FreeCAD is versatile, compatible with a wide variety of file types, and also accommodates turning 2D models into 3D models by drawing the original base of the model in 2D, and then using that to design the eventual 3D model. It’s ideal as a CAD software for 3D printing as you can easily export finished models into STL files for your 3D printer, and it’s easy-to-use interface makes it great for beginners and experienced makers like.
As its open source, not only do you get to use everything for free, but you’re also welcome to build on what already exists, improving or finding new ways to accomplish design tasks. Not only can you design 3D CAD models, but you can also design new features for the 3D CAD software program, too! It’s also used for CAD modeling real-life images using its parametric modeling tools.
There are two versions: the stable version, and the development version for those who want the latest features.
- We also have a guide for the best open source 3D printers.
3D Slash – Best CAD Learning Software
- Price: Free – Download it here
We hold no hesitancy in stating that 3D Slash may be the most fun CAD software available and rivals TinkerCAD in simplicity and beginner-friendly design.
As you’ve seen throughout this article, most CAD modeling software involves molding a range of shapes and curves to create models. 3D Slash is wholly different.
Slash shakes things up by instead using a Minecraft-esque building block-styled modeling.
You start by selecting one of the many-sized blocks. Now, these can be new blocks, previous projects you’ve worked on, or imported files from the 3D Slash community that you can edit and work on as you desire!
Then, with your trusty hammer and trowel, you can begin removing or adding cubes, chiseling and packing, until the design is complete. There’s also a bucket used to color large areas, a paintbrush for individual cubes and detail, and a pipette that allows you to pull color from the selected object.
Along with being a free software download, you can also use it as a web-based application.
With such an engaging and effortless interface, it’s no surprise this software has made it big in education, becoming teacher all over the world’s go-to tool for blending lessons and games.
But that doesn’t mean professionals can’t enjoy this tool as well. Missing features are fixed with a little imagination to create quirky logos and designs in no time.
- Price: Free – Download it here
Smoothie 3D is a free, web-based CAD modeling software that was built with the average 3D printer user in mind.
What some people find out the hard way is that to print amazing 3D objects, you have to have 3D modeling skills. The solution? Smoothie’s instinctive platform that almost does the modeling for you.
All you have to do is upload a photo and sketch out its outline. Bit by bit, the software will pull the 2D outline off the image. It copies the texture and design, and to create the other side of the model, it will mirror the different parts.
It supports STL and OBJ imports, STL OBJ and VRML exports, and you can subtract shapes as well as use smoothing, extrusion, revolution, and text tools.
Smoothie 3D is really for those who want a simple mechanism that can quickly pull images into the correct format to get detailed 3D printing. For beginners who aren’t bothered with mastering modeling but want the benefits of printing.
Blender — Most powerful free 3D CAD software
- Price: Free — Download it here
Blender is a free and open source tool, but it would be a disservice to this mighty software to call it just a CAD program.
In fact, Blender can just about do anything: not only is it a proficient 3D CAD design program with an incredibly deep array of tools, but beyond this you can animate, move and simulate your designs, and Blender even has basic video editing tools for putting everything together.
For 3D CAD design, Blender has a deep range of CAD modeling, sculpting, curving and rendering features to help you create stunning 3D models. It’s not for beginners or the impatient, however; Blender is complex and with such a wide range of options, it takes a while to master. But if you’re willing to invest the time and want a free CAD modeling software that does it all, Blender could be the one for you.
BlocksCAD – Best CAD Software for Educators
- Price: Free – Download it here
Following suit the building block design from 3D Slash, BlocksCAD is a web-based modeling software specifically designed for schools.
You can seamlessly interweave math, art, science, and technology lessons into this student-oriented platform. It breaks down 3D modeling to its most basic format, and provides students the fundamentals for potential careers, and builds a unique perspective of the world around them.
Based on the same programming language as the script-only modeler OpenSCAD, you use variables to change sizes, loops to create patterns, and build your own library of random modules.
For clarity, the user cannot interact with the model directly, only through the series of descriptors on the side.
Because of this reliance on abstract concepts to create modules, rather than simply using a mouse to create a design, this isn’t for tiny tots, but definitely a perfect resource for slightly older to teenage children.
BlocksCAD also offers free online tutorials for teachers and parents, so the child has multiple sources of support.
Best CAD Software for professionals or skilled users
Fusion 360 — great engineering CAD software
- CAD software price: Free for students
- If not a student: $495/year if paid yearly or $60/month — Purchase it here
Fusion 360 is an advanced 3D CAD modeling tool that is well suited to manufacturing, product design, electronics and models for rapid prototyping.
Featuring a wide range of modeling tools, compatible with all major file types, and making it easy to turn 2D models into 3D designs, Fusion 360 is well equipped to deal with all areas of CAD design. You can not only design and model complex designs, but also test them for a variety of real-life factors, such as thermal analysis and tools that detect weak spots in your design that might buckle under strain of use.
A main selling point is that it is an online CAD software, so you can access your models anywhere from your browser without a large and slow download, and easily collaborate with others and get their feedback. Autodesk offer a free trial, and you can get Fusion 360 for free if you you are a student.
It’s not necessarily a CAD software for beginners, but if you’re willing to take the time to learn the many tools Fusion 360 offers, it’s a fantastic engineering CAD software that can do almost anything.
Rhino 6 — one of the best CAD software, and often used as a jewelry CAD software
- Price: $995/€995 for a commercial license, $195 for students — Purchase it here
Rhino 6 is a cheaper CAD software than some more industrial CAD programs, costing just under $200 for students. Rhino allows for extremely detailed modeling and and modifying of parts, using cutting-edge curving, surface modeling and polygon meshing tools as well as a number of others.
A strength of Rhino 6 is its uninhibited free-form modeling tools, making creating any shaped object far simpler. In addition, Rhino is a flexible 3D CAD software allowing for the designing of huge truck-sized models, down to intricate, small models such as for jewelry. Many jewelry designers use Rhino to both design and preview jewelry designs, with the ability to create precise and intricate parts to set diamonds in once a wax model has been cast and burned away.
Whereas most paid CAD software such as those sold by Autodesk involve monthly payments, with Rhino you pay a one-off fee for lifetime commercial use, which many will prefer. Students will also appreciate the discount.
As for learning Rhino, it has one of the less steep learning curves for commercial CAD software as compared with very complex tools, with a vast number of tutorials ranging from interface basics to modeling specific objects to help you master Rhino 6.
Best Industrial CAD Software
AutoCAD — best CAD software for professionals
- 3D CAD software free trial available: Yes
- Price: $1,690/year or $210/month — Purchase it here
AutoCAD is one of the best-known engineering CAD programs sold by software giant Autodesk. Commonly used by engineers and professionals working in the construction sector for both 2D and 3D plans, drawings and models, AutoCAD offers a fantastic way to design complex geometries with ease.
AutoCAD covers everything from large complete structures to their smallest components: from pipes and circuits to whole floor plans and elevations. All these specific types are available in AutoCAD’s part library.
The ability to view designs in their web app makes sharing designs far easier, and means the program doesn’t need to keep being downloaded. Moreover, 3D designers can even access the AutoCAD on their phones using the AutoCAD mobile app. Overall, if you’re a professional designer, AutoCAD is one of the best professional CAD software programs around.
Houdini – Best CAD Software for Simulations
- Price: Free to $6,995 depending on the edition. Available here
Founded by the long-running 3D graphics company SideFX, or sometimes Side Effects, Houdini is a 3D animation/modeling software that offers full pipeline support.
Houdini is mostly used for film and game development by VFX artists because, as the name might suggest, it’s the industry standard for creating sublime side effects and simulations.
You’ve seen its work in the Disney film Moana and games like League of Legends. It’s particularly skilled at rendering smoke, water, fire – very intricate CAD VFX modeling. Its render engine Mantra allows it to excel in complex scenes.
But the real magic is in its workflow architecture.
With other software, you mold a design, character, or thing, but with Houdini, you create a node-based system for that thing. The result is a procedural workflow that makes editing your designs much easier.
Think of the nodes as save points throughout your design, and instead of having to backtrack or potentially start over, you can access whatever node you want and edit only that specific area.
While one of its best selling points is its ability to offer full pipeline support without any plugins, it can be a plugin for other software like Maya, Unreal, and Unity with the Houdini Engine.
There are free versions available for schools and a free learning version, so don’t hesitate to try it out!
Revit — best architectural CAD software
- CAD software price: Free trial, then $2,425/year if paid yearly or $305/month — Purchase it here
Revit is a BIM (building information modeling) 3D CAD software able to plan out large-scale buildings, offices and all other kinds of architecture. These 3D CAD drawings plan out huge buildings, with bespoke floor plans, levels, and individual sections.
Revit is for professional architects looking to design complex buildings in extreme detail, and the price reflects that. You can also simulate the design and analyze the results to find any flaws in the design to iterate and improve before any building takes place.
Maya — Best CAD software for animations and video games
- Price: Free trial, then $1,620/year if paid yearly or $205/month — Purchase it here
Maya is another Autodesk 3D CAD modeling tool for animating, simulating and rendering game and video characters, models and scenery. With Maya, you can create expansive and detailed worlds that can support lifelike characters and realistic effects, ranging from Michael Bay-esque explosions to snowstorms using Bifrost Graph Editor.
- See also: our ranking of the best 3D animation software.
- We also have a ranking of the best 3D rendering software.
Maya also uses Arnold for rendering, allowing for the rendering of complex models such as characters, scenery and lighting. You can preview everything in Maya as well before rendering. Again, it’s expensive, but for professionals in the movie, game and animation industries, Maya offers an extremely valuable 3D CAD toolset.
- Price: Free trial then $2,085/year or $260/month — Purchase it here
Inventor is a professional 3D software tool for product design and engineering, specialized for mechanical design and product simulation applications. The program can tackle parts and objects of all sizes, down from individual gears and small parts up to large vehicles and objects comprising hundreds of smaller parts. Inventor boasts specialized 3D CAD tools for sheet metal as well as frame design.
Inventor allows for reviewing designs in the cloud, making collecting feedback from upper management or clients simple and means it can also be done remotely, as they may not have the program but can still view designs from their workspace.
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