What is CAD?
CAD, or computer-aided design, is the use of a computer to create digital 3D objects. These objects can be used for products, games, architecture, civil engineering, factories, and countless other applications. With CAD, digital objects can be created, modified, analyzed, rendered, simulated, and optimized before any resources need even be invested in manufacturing.
Why Use CAD?
CAD is useful in a variety of ways and provides a powerful tool for new product development, product design, and manufacturing processes. New products need to fulfill a customer need, but to build such a product, a high-quality design is needed. Though many product ideas start out as “napkin drawings” or other hand drawn concept ideas, eventually, to bring the product to life, a high-quality CAD model needs to be made. Manufacturing operations such as 3D printing, machining, and injection molding require defined product parameters to build a product.
Once you have obtained a CAD model you can use ZABFAB’s online 3D printing service to manufacture your product on-demand.
How Do I Choose a CAD Program?
Though there are many advanced CAD programs utilized by professional designers that can cost thousands of dollars, there are still many more free options that still offer all the essential CAD features for effective product design. There are a few key considerations when choosing a CAD software. These include the ease of learning, the type of CAD system, features needed, file formats supported, operating system supported, and cost. For instance, there are parametric CAD programs for mechanical engineering applications where components need to have defined dimensions and relationships with other components within a larger assembly. There are also digital sculpting CAD programs that allow 3D artists to sculpt animated objects for films, games, and many other applications. Depending on the intended use, some CAD programs may be more appropriate than others.
To help navigate the vast amount of CAD software programs on the market we have created a list of the top 15 free CAD software for beginners. We have broken down the benefits and features for each of these programs to help you make the right decision for your CAD modelling needs!
- 3D Slash
- Fusion 360
- Wings 3D
Programs for Absolute Beginners
TinkerCAD is a browser-based 3D design and modeling tool. Users utilize native shapes, such as spheres, cubes, cones, cylinders, etc. to create 3D objects by combining, intersecting, and cutting other shapes. The shapes sizes and edges can then be specified by the user. Offered by Autodesk, TinkerCAD has an intuitive user interface that is a great free CAD software for beginners looking to master the basics.
3D Slash is a block-based 3D modelling software, whereby users create objects using blocks. It offers an intuitive user interface and is great for kids, schools and first time CAD users trying to learn the basics. There is a free version and multiple paid versions that offer more advanced capabilities.
LeoCAD allows users to design virtual 3D models out of Lego bricks, making it the perfect fit for kids and students developing an interest in CAD and 3D design. LeocAD offers all the excitement of real-life legos in a virtual world with an unlimited number of legos and creations. Files can be exported and printed to look like lego-sculptures, all designed in a digital CAD program. It is a great opensource free CAD software for beginners and is available on Mac, Windows and Linux.
2D Drafting Programs
NanoCAD is a 2D drafting software for designing building plans, schematics and many other applications. The user-interface is similar to other industry standard products such as AutoCAD, so there will be less of a learning curve transitioning from or to other 2D drafting programs. Offering both a free version and a paid version with more advanced features and developed by nanosoft, NanoCAD offers a great multi-purpose free 2D CAD system for a wide variety of applications.
QCAD is another free 2D CAD drafting software supported on windows, Mac, Linux and Unix operating systems. Great for creating building plans, interiors, mechanical parts, diagrams and schematics, QCAD offers an intuitive user interface for easy learning and adaption. While NanoCAD caters more to intermediate users, QCAD is a great starting program for beginners.
Blender is a free and open-source 3D graphics software for sculpting 3D objects. Features include modelling, rigging, animation, simulation, rendering, compositing, and motion tracking. In contrast to parametric modelling tools, Blender is geared more towards the likes of 3D artists creating virtual animations and objects for use in films and video games.
SculptGL is a digital sculpting web application for creating animated objects and characters for graphic content, films, and video games. Sculpt tools include brushing, inflate, smooth, twist, drag, and many others. The web-based free CAD software for beginners allows users to sign in and work from multiple locations and multiple devices with all their work saved in the cloud.
Sculptris is a digital sculpting software for 3D artists that focuses on the concept of modelling clay. Users utilize a mouse to modify an object like they would modify clay to make an object, all on a virtual 3D modelling platform. Users can pull, push, pinch, and twist virtual clay. Sculptris was developed by Pixologic and is available for free on Mac and Windows operating systems.
FreeCAD is an open source parametric modelling program for mechanical engineering applications. Users can sketch, model in 3D, perform simulations, and export for manufacturing. The program is divided into workbenches, so users can easily navigate between different operations when creating products. FreeCAD may be difficult to master when first learning CAD but it is a good intermediate program to master if you are looking to learn other more advanced mechanical engineering CAD programs such as Solidworks, Fusion 360, Inventor, CATIA, or Siemens NX.
Fusion 360 is a freemium software suite offered by Autodesk which offers a free version for students, a low-cost standard version and a paid ultimate version which offers more advanced features. Fusion is a powerful CAD program for advanced users that offers a variety of capabilities including parametric modelling, direct modelling, rendering, and simulation analysis. Though advanced, Fusion is extensively documented by Autodesk with online tutorials and videos to guide new users through the learning process. Fusion is supported on both Mac and Windows operating systems.
OpenSCAD is the ultimate CAD program for programmers as it is a script-only program. Users have a preview box for their models but are unable to interact or modify the model in the preview. All model manipulation is done through writing code. Though not ideal for non-programmers, OpenSCAD is a great open-source solution for designers looking to work on the back-end of a CAD program and understand the logic and mathematics of the program.
Onshape is a browser based parametric-modelling software with a range of cloud-based services. Great for team collaboration as multiple people can simultaneously work on the same design and chat. It is primarily used for mechanical engineering and product design applications and can be accessed anywhere on any device including a cell phone. It is supported by Mac, windows, Unix, Linux, android, and iOS operating systems and offers a free version for students.
Users of SelfCAD can sketch, model, sculpt and print their designs with an online 3D printing service. Being a browser-based CAD application, users can access the program from multiple locations on multiple devices. SelfCAD also offers uses a library of over 40,000 3D files to incorporate into their designs. It is geared towards students and beginners as an introduction to more advanced modelling programs.
Wings 3D is an opensource subdivision modeler used to create low to mid-range polygon models. It is great for surface modelling applications that require outlines for complex curvatures. It is a step in-between a parametric modelling program and a sculpting program. Vertexes, edges, faces and bodies can be manipulated to the shape outline desired by the user. Many 3D objects are started in wings and then exported to sculpting programs such as Blender or Sculptris to model the more intricate details.
Sketchup is a freemium software suite offered by Trimble that enables users to model architecture, interior designs, landscaping, civil and mechanical engineering products, film characters and video game characters. SketchUp Free is an online browser-based product while SketchUp pro offers more advanced features on a desktop version. Additionally, users have access to an online library of thousands of premade 3D objects including cars, doors, windows, bikes, laptops, etc. for creating 3D renderings.
Get Your Models Manufactured!
Once you have started modelling with one these free CAD programs for beginners, you can use ZABFAB’s online 3D printing service too bring your 3D models to life. Check out our instant quote feature to get a quote in seconds!