5 CAD Programs for the 3D Printing Enthusiast
We recently wrote about 3D printing workshops and online courses that teach the fundamentals of 3D printing and modeling in our article Courses to Get You Started in 3D Printing. Once you’re past that stage and have an understanding of the technology, you’ll probably want to start making your own designs and not just using other people’s found on Thingiverse.
Here are some great computer aided design (CAD) software programs to get you started:
TinkerCAD (easy, free)
Probably the most easy (and hence the most popular) of all the CAD programs, TinkerCAD can be used by someone with no prior background in 3D printing or CAD whatsoever. The essence of TinkerCAD is using basic shapes as building blocks to piece together and form designs with. You can use TinkerCAD’s basic pre-existing shapes and also import your own. Another cool feature is the ability to import a 2D vector image and easily convert it into a 3D printable design.
TinkerCAD is compatible with all 3D printers that use the standard STL file format, and it also lets you easily export the files you’ve created to an external program or device if you’d like to work on it further and produce something a bit more complex. Best of all, it’s completely free.
AutoDesk 123D (easy, free)
AutoDesk 123D is a TinkerCAD relative. It is a family of apps that let you make CAD’s in different categories and in various different ways.
123D Catch – generate 3D models from photos
123D Circuits – design an electronic circuit CAD
123D Creature – design CAD creatures
123D Sculpt – generate models on your iPad with touch capability
123D Design – basic design creation and modeling from scratch
123D Make – create unique 3D models from 2D slices
Meshmixer – remix different 3D designs with others to create mashups
SketchUp (easy, free)
SketchUp, which was actually owned by Google from 2006 to 2012, is an easy-to-use software that lets you sketch and draw simple shapes and push or pull the surfaces to turn them into 3D forms. You can create your own designs from scratch or use its warehouse of free 3D models and find a design to customize or build on.
FreeCAD (hard, free)
If you’ve had a bit of experience with CAD then FreeCAD could be good for you. If not, you may find it a bit complicated. The site claims no previous CAD experience is necessary but compared to TinkerCAD, AutoDesk 123D and SketchUp it is fairly more complex.
FreeCAD is a parametric modeling software, meaning it lets you change the shape and design of your models by changing their parameters. It is also open source which allows for much more advanced customization than the other easier modeling programs.
Lynda (easy – hard, $25 monthly for unlimited access)
We included Lynda in our list of courses to get you started in 3D printing, and the massive library of online courses is just as great when it comes to CAD. Lynda has 100 CAD courses comprised of over 4,200 short video tutorials. It does cost a monthly fee of $25 to become a member and have access to the courses, but if you’re really interested in mastering the technology then it’s a worthy option.
Shanie Phillips is a originally from the UK, but has spent many years in Singapore, the US and now Israel. In addition to writing for Inside3DP she writes for several news and innovation sites.