You’ve finally gotten the 3D printer of your dreams. Yay! Now here comes the hard part: figuring out what software makes it do exactly what you want it to.
There are a lot of options out there, but don’t get overwhelmed. After you figure out the answers to a few basic questions, you’ll find what’s right for you and be printing that sweet action figure or prosthetic leg in no time.
First, a mini crash course in CAD: computer-aided drafting. This is the type of software you’ll need to design what you want to print. It can be either vector-based, which uses traditional drafting shapes, or raster-shape based, which uses pixels on a dot matrix data structure to show a picture. Confused? Basically, with CAD, you can either draw using shapes or draw using pixels. Which type you use depends on your personal preference and also a little bit on the projects you’re doing.
3D modeling in CAD comes in various levels of design nuance and manipulation. 3D wireframe software means you manually draw individual through lines to create a 3D picture from a 2D shape. The drawings don’t have any mass properties associated with them, and you can’t directly add any features to it; they have to be constructed as part of the through lines. 3D “dumb” solids start as basic 3D shapes such as cubes and spheres. You can manipulate them by adding or subtracting solid volumes. But you can’t see much (or any) motion between the components.
3D solid modeling has two variations that expand beyond the capabilities of “dumb” solids. Parametric modeling lets you manipulate parts of your design while keeping the geometric and functional relationships of the parts to each other and the whole. But keep in mind you have to change the parameters of the design for this instead of directly manipulating the shapes themselves. That’s where direct or explicit modeling comes in. This variation lets you modify your design by directly interacting with the model’s geometry. It’s the closest you can get to molding your design out of clay with your hands. Combine this with freeform surface modeling within your software, and you’ve got the whole package covered.
At this point, you’re either nodding along or pulling up Wikipedia. We’ve come to the first real step in your 3D software buying journey:
- Be honest about your drafting skill level. It’s super important for you to know what you know before you choose what you want. The best part of 3D printing is how accessible it’s gotten for everybody who wants to join in. But that also means it’s easy to get in over your head. To keep your printer from becoming your most expensive paperweight, take into account how familiar you already are with CAD and how much you are willing to learn. There is software all along the spectrum of assistance, from basic models that are already made that let you choose your own finishing details, to completely blank slates that assume you do this for a living. Choose wisely, and you’ll be right in that sweet spot between being able to do what you want and continuously learning something new.
Once you figure out what skill level you need your software to be at, it’s time for another step of self-reflection: price.
- Be honest about your budget. Another cool result of 3D printing becoming mainstream is the wide variety of 3D modeling CAD software prices out there. The rise in maker space culture has spawned free programs whose quality start at adequate and go to excellent. But as with all software, “free” doesn’t necessarily mean “perfect.” You may find that if you have the money for it, shelling out for a more professional version is worth it. Be careful as well to not equate price with assistance. If you’ve figured out that your skill level is lower than what you need for what you want to do, pricier programs may be tempting. Pay more, get more, right? While usually true, you can easily overwhelm yourself by getting something that has way too many features and a customer base assumed to have too much previous knowledge for its instructions to be useful to you.
Now it’s time to expand your planning beyond yourself:
- Consider your whole user base. This is easy if you’re getting 3D software for your own amusement. No other users mean you get to decide everything based on your own parameters. But 3D printing has become ubiquitous as a way for the public to get in touch with their own DYI side. Plus it’s more fun! Collaboration means combining brain strength and producing stuff that you wouldn’t be able to on your own. So embrace it. If you are a part of the maker space movement, you’ll need to go through steps 1 and 2 above for all the potential users you may have. That doesn’t mean you have to figure out everybody’s individual 3D modeling or CAD credentials and income, but it does mean you need to consider the lower ranges of need in both areas and how to compromise those so the higher end folks won’t get bored.
- This is especially applicable if you’re in charge of a 3D printing operation within a public institution like a school or a public library. Will the CAD software be used as a teaching tool, or for more freeform experimental access? Will it be for general use, as in anybody who is curious can experiment with it? Or will it be for groups that are already selected for interest and knowledge of it, such as a high school robotics club or a library engineering program? This will also determine practical details such as how many user licenses doe you need, how long do you need the software to stay relevant before you can upgrade, what other hardware (if any) you may need for optimum performance, how teachable is the software to multiple people at once, and what is the troubleshooting process for the person in charge (which, if you’re in charge of ordering the software, will more than likely be you). Any other factors you know about the population who will be using the CAD will be extremely helpful with pointing you in the right direction.
Once you’ve figured out what you need, check out the list below of our ten best CAD software packages for 3D printing. They’re labeled by price point, experience level, and user needs so you can hone in on exactly which one works best for you. Click the links and explore!
- Price: Free
- Experience Level: Beginner
User Needs: This works well for anyone who needs a thorough introduction to 3D printing simple shapes. The software is network-based, so no installation or user licenses are necessary, making it a great option for those who need group access but don’t have the money for multiple software copies. Its website provides real-time support as well as templates for those who want to use them. However, its interface does not stay intuitive when adding complexity to shapes, so if you will be printing complicated stuff on the regular, you should probably find something more robust.
- Price: Free for basic/$119 annually for Shop/$695 flat fee (no renewal fee) for Pro
- Experience Level: Intermediate
User Needs: Another program you can start using for free, Sketchup is great for users who already know a little bit of 3D modeling theory and want a program that will grow with their skills. It hides some of its best features in plug-ins, and the premium-price updates, natch, but if you have a grasp on the basics you can go straight to the Shop version and upgrade whenever you feel ready. We definitely recommend getting the Warehouse plug-in, which lets you access designs of other users and is a great place for inspiration.
- Price: $1,575 annually
- Experience Level: Beginning – Professional
User Needs: This is the universal design software across professional engineering and architectural projects. You don’t have to be a pro to grasp its intuitive controls, but it might help to justify the cost and computer power necessary for this program. If you want to make 3D printing part of your job – or already do – AutoCAD will have your back.
- Price: free
- Experience Level: Beginner – Professional
User Needs: Great for those leaning more towards the creative side of 3D design and printing. This is not just a CAD software on its own but a suite of 3D modeling programs that work together to realize bigger projects such as game animation. Of course it 3D prints your models, too, and you have license to use it for profit or not, free and clear. That makes it perfect for an area like a public makerspace, where anyone who wants can design something and put it to use whether that’s printing a bracelet or designing a movie monster. It does depend on donations, so if you use it and like it throw a few bucks at the creators to keep this software going strong.
- Price: $3,995 unlimited license/additional $1295 per year for subscription tech support and upgrades
- Experience Level: Beginner – Intermediate
User Needs: Anyone who appreciates intuitive design will love SolidWorks’ interface. Its commands are straightforward and out in the open, which is great for those who are learning and gaining confidence in 3D CAD. Although its renderings are not quite as detailed as other programs with its capability levels and it lacks advanced design testing capabilities that makes it impractical for certain professional purposes, its CAD and 3D printing functions are top notch.
- Price: free for non-commercial use/$125 per month per user for professional version
- Experience Level: Intermediate – Professional
User Needs: Sharing is caring with Onshape, at least with the free version – your designs on that level become public property, so be careful if you are looking for a commercial use package. But the controls are easy to grasp, and the program is cloud-based and so you can run it on any computer you can get to. Just make sure you have a good internet speed, and, if you’re paranoid, another backup saving method for any network hiccups that may come along.
- Price: Intermediate
- Experience Level: $60 monthly/$495 annually/$990 for two years
User Needs: Another CAD software with its head in the cloud, Fusion 360 is also specifically designed to work well on both Macs and Windows machines, which definitely justifies its price. (Especially since it’s a bargain in the first place.) Although it may still be expensive for those who are small budgets or have to justify any price at all, it’s perfect for private consulting and personal use when you do not have to worry about external regulations on your designs.
- Price: $55 per month for Inventor LT Suite/$465 per month for Inventor HSM Pro/$7,500 one-time fee for Inventor HSM
- Experience Level: Advanced – Professional
User Needs: Perfect for users who know every detail of their design and want to tinker with each one. The amount of tinkering Inventor lets you do is exactly what certain levels of 3D modeling and printing need – however, the same amount that is great for experienced designers can overwhelm first-time users, so this software is best for professionals or soon-to-bes, whether on their own time or in an office that lets you control every aspect of your design.
- Price: $190 a month/$1,505 annually/$2,859.50 for two years/$4,063.50 for three years
- Experience Level: Advanced
User Needs: Previous knowledge of 3D modeling is key to getting the most out of this software. It rewards experience designers with a vast array of features that allow you to build your model to exacting specifications and look good doing it. It also has stellar animation capabilities if that’s up your alley, and it interfaces seamlessly with other design programs to take your drawings into whatever other realm you need them.
Whether you’re setting up a station for beginners or wanting to let your own professional imagination go wild, this list of 3D computer-aided drafting software can get you started on your own 3D printing journey. Enjoy!
Further read, The Best 3D Printing Software