14 Best CAD Software for All Levels: Free and Paid
January 25, 2024
If traditional paper and pen drafting methods are not producing the accurate drawings you need, then you need to switch to quick and modern CAD software.
CAD has revolutionized the design process, significantly reducing development time, enhancing collaboration, reducing design cost, improving design quality, and enabling innovative and efficient solutions.
CAD has become an integral factor that moves the world forward. It lets you design everything from tiny pieces of electronic equipment to large airplanes, buildings, and more.
But how do you choose the best CAD software for your needs? There are many options and alternatives available, each with its own features, advantages, and disadvantages.
Different CAD systems are tailored towards certain industries, with crossover and competition between the various CAD software companies.
While it can be worthwhile to invest in a more professional-grade CAD program, you don’t always need to dish out tons of cash if you’re just starting out.
Here, we’ll go over a brief introduction to top 14 free and paid CAD software in the market to help you find the one that suits your style, budget, and goals.
What is Computer Aided Design (CAD)?
CAD refers to the use of computer software and systems to create, modify, analyze, and optimize designs for a wide range of products, structures, or systems.
CAD technology allows designers, engineers, architects, and other professionals to create precise and detailed 2D or 3D models of their designs, which can be used for visualization, analysis, simulation, and manufacturing purposes.
CAD software provides a digital environment where designers can draft and manipulate geometry, apply various materials and textures, define dimensions and constraints, simulate real-world conditions, and perform complex calculations. These tools offer a more efficient and flexible alternative to traditional manual drafting methods, allowing for faster design iterations, improved accuracy, and the exploration of different design options.
CAD systems are extensively used across various industries, including mechanical engineering, architecture, automotive, aerospace, industrial design, electronics, and many others. They play a crucial role in the product development process, enabling designers to conceptualize ideas, collaborate with team members, test and validate designs, and generate technical documentation necessary for manufacturing or construction.
Some common features and capabilities found in CAD software include:
2D and 3D modeling: Creating detailed representations of objects or structures in two or three dimensions.
Parametric modeling: Defining relationships and constraints between different parts of the design, allowing for easy modification and updating of the model.
Assembly modeling: Building complex assemblies by combining multiple components and defining their relationships and interactions.
Simulation and analysis: Performing virtual testing and analysis of designs to evaluate factors such as structural integrity, motion dynamics, fluid flow, thermal behavior, and more.
Rendering and visualization: Generating realistic images or animations of the design for visual representation and communication purposes.
Drafting and documentation: Generating accurate technical drawings, annotations, and documentation required for manufacturing, construction, or fabrication.
14 Best CAD Software for All Levels in 2024
A proper software is a valuable tool to address your pain points during the design process. Here are some of the most popular and highly regarded CAD software options you can use in 2024.
We’ll be digging deep into each software to help you decide which one works best for you.
Dassault’s Solidworks is a versatile professional tool that can model, surface, assemble, simulate, analyze, render, mesh, and optimize designs.
It is commonly used in mechanical engineering for creating complex parts and assemblies. But you wouldn’t typically want to use it to design a house.
It offers robust 3D design tools, solid 2D drafting features and has a user-friendly interface that makes it easy to use.
Solidworks uses the NURBS system to create more detailed curvature. It utilizes dimensional sketching to ensure more accurate resizing, so you doesn’t require remaking or modifying the whole model.
The software offers a very important tool called reverse engineering. It is generally used for industrial purposes.
Moreover, SolidWorks offers powerful simulation capabilities, allowing engineers to conduct stress analysis, fluid dynamics, and motion studies on their designs.
Solidworks has a cloud-based service that allows you to access it from anywhere. The cloud-based service is also available for non-Solidworks users.
With its complete and stellar features, Solidworks is one of the most popular CAD software for industrial engineers and product designers.
It does require extensive training to make the most of its potential, and knowledge in engineering will surely help.
Compatibility: Windows Only, Doesn’t work on MAC.
Pricing: Very expensive, Depending on your chosen modules, it can cost anywhere from $4,000 to a whopping $10,000 a year.
But it has no forced yearly upgrades and license renewals, only an annual maintenance fee of a small percentage of the license price.
Autodesk’s AutoCAD is a highly popular software used by various professionals such as project managers, architects, graphic designers, city planners, engineers, and more.
In a simplified interface, you can quickly access and update DWG files anytime from anywhere. Even beginners can smoothly get the desired results.
There are plenty of professional-grade tools integrated into the software for creating and editing 2D & 3D designs. Its Shortkeys save plenty of time and improve productivity.
AutoCAD’s strength is in 2D, where it’s used for a wide range of technical drawing and diagramming. It’s used very little for 3D modeling, as it is not as intuitive as other products designed specifically for creating 3D designs.
But with AutoCAD, you can indeed create 3D geometry, edit 3D objects, apply different types of textures to the objects, and export 3D objects in a variety of file formats.
Additionally, it improves productivity owing to its specialized mechanical, architecture, electrical, and MEP toolsets. They help automate tasks like creating schedules, counting, comparing drawings, and adding blocks.
AutoCAD also inculcates 1,000+ third-party apps support, APIs, and more to smoothen out users’ workflow.
It is available in multiple languages and can be used on multiple operating systems: desktop and mobile. It also comes with a cloud-based storage that allows you to access your AutoCAD documents anywhere.
AutoDesk’s Fusion 360 is a cloud-based CAD software that offers 2D and 3D design capabilities. It is oriented around the entire design process from design to manufacturing the final product.
It is particularly useful for mechanical and industrial design and offers a range of tools for modeling, simulation, and manufacturing.
It has features for freeform, solid, parametric and mesh modeling. Users can get started on designs quickly and efficiently with a full suite of sculpting tools.
The software offers extensive simulation and testing tools, enabling engineers to validate their designs before production. This can cut costs and speed up the entire design and manufacturing processes.
It integrates CAD and CAM, allowing users to streamline additive and subtractive manufacturing and 3D printing enthusiasts to create prototypes. Fusion360 also employs extensions to make workflow seamless.
Fusion360 can seamlessly adapt to AutoCAD drawing templates (DWT), which means you have a host of pre-built templates at your beck and call. You can also build a custom template and employ extensions to suit your workflow.
Furthermore, it is an entirely cloud-based system with unlimited storage and access. It keeps the data safe and secure plus makes cross-platform access and real-time collaborations a breeze.
Compatibility: Web based, Great for Both Windows and MacOS.
Pricing: $70/month or $545 annually.
Fusion 360 also offers a free version with limited functionality for non-commercial, personal use only.
Siemens NX is a complete CAD, CAE, CAM software platform. ideal for those working on massive and complex projects.
It provides the tools needed for product development from the initial concept to drafting, designing, simulating, visualizing, and prototyping.
As with its direct competitor CATIA, Siemens NX is a modular software package with many available modules for different industry-specific applications.
One strong point of NX is its ability to work with highly complex assemblies with high precision using the Syncrofit module, which makes it ideal for the automotive, marine, aerospace, tools and machinery, and defense industries.
Other modules include Fibersim for composite parts simulation; Mastertrim for the entire seat trim engineering process, etc.
You can use freeform meshes, solids and surfacing methods to create the form you require, all with intelligent direct editing to push and pull features as you wish.
Its advanced simulation capabilities allow engineers to validate designs and improve product performance. Its FEA (Finite Element Analysis) feature is probably the best among all CAD software.
NX also stands out from other CAD software for its amazing rendering capabilities, as well as its highly adaptive UI with predictive functionality based on the user’s previous commands.
It makes collaboration between design teams, engineers, and manufacturing teams efficient by providing a standard interface in which they can all work together.
Compatibility: Windows, Mac, UNIX, Linux.
Pricing: Such a modular software package means many options. A single-user license for normal use can cost close to $8,000 per year. Very expensive.
Siemens’ Solid Edge is a professional modeling tool that provides designers with everything they need for complex modeling tasks.
The software offers excellent dimensional accuracy as it focuses on mechanical and electronic design where precise measurements are required.
It uses synchronous technology to accelerate design, which combines the simplicity and speed of direct 3D modeling with the control and flexibility of parametric design.
The Generative Design feature integrates advanced topology optimization with powerful design tools enabling designers to create shapes with the most efficient use of material, preserving its structural integrity.
You also can perform simulations and analysis to test your designs, generate manufacturing-ready documentation, and integrate electrical systems into your product design.
It supports industry standards and various file formats, so you can seamlessly import and export files, making it easier to work with other CAD software.
You can collaborate with your team using cloud-based tools, working together on projects, sharing design files, and tracking changes in real time.
Solid Edge also offers customizable menus, command search, and context-sensitive ribbons, improving productivity and ease of use.
Solid Edge is cheaper, easier to learn but has less functionality than Siemens NX. On the other hand, Solid Edge has the same PLM integration and identical CAM and CAE capabilities.
Compatibility: Windows Only.
Pricing: Solid Edge has 4 pricing editions, from $110/month to $481/month. depending on the functionality your exact needs.
Siemens also offers a very generous and feature-rich Community Edition for free, along with free versions for teachers and students. of course, only for personal use, no commercial allowed.
PTC Creo is a powerful cad-cam software widely used for product design, assembly and detailed drawings. great for the Engineering, Manufacturing, Automotive and Space industries.
With its parametric, freeform surfacing and direct modeling capabilities, engineers can easily create complex objects with a huge amount of detail.
The 3D models and 2d drawings are associated , you can change either to make modification, both are updated automatically. This makes Creo a valuable tool for mechanical engineers who require flexibility in their design process.
Also simulation is easy to use. Creo has various advanced features like mechanism dynamics and simulation. It is seamless for solid modelling.
Creo is also an ideal software for AM processes and is truly versatile in product design settings.
There is a comprehensive library of parts and assemblies. Apart from that it could simulate and analyze the design in addition to the design process automatically.
The system that Creo implement to its products is very beneficial, they create a submodule for each specific task.
Creo View is one of them which provides comprehensive capabilities for viewing and interrogating 3D CAD models. Additionally, the Creo Illustrate app gives users the ability to create dynamic product illustrations with ease.
PTC Windchill product data management tool allows Creo users to work more efficiently by providing a single, collaborative, and controlled environment.
Compatibility: Windows only.
Pricing: yearly subscription from $2700 to $20,000. depending on the tier you choose and the functionalities you need.
Autodesk’s Inventor is a decent solid 3D modeling software and the main competitor of SolidWorks, used in mechanical design, engineering, and product development.
One of the perks of working with Inventor is a comprehensive set of tools for creating 3D models, including advanced surfacing, direct editing, and parametric modeling.
Inventor also has decent drawing, documentation, rendering, and editing tools. Everything runs extremely quickly and there are no delays.
It allows designers to create and manage complex assemblies, including subassemblies and constraints.
Its Digital Prototyping can help you design, visualize, and simulate the real-world performance of products—and reduce reliance on costly physical prototypes.
It can import many different file formats, and its native files are compatible with many other Autodesk’s 3D software tools.
For efficient product development management, engineering data management, and project collaboration, Autodesk Inventor can be integrated with Autodesk Vault PLM and similar systems from other vendors.
Inventor requires you to have an engineering background to understand and get the most out of its features and functions. But aside from that, it’s also an all-around easy-to-learn and use program.
Compatibility: Windows only.
Pricing: Inventor license costs $300/month or $2,415/year.
Tinkercad is a freee, web-based modeling tool that offers a fast and easy way to draw a 3D design.
TinkerCAD uses an intuitive block-building concept and basic operations of modeling which allows the users to create 3D design models from a set of basic shapes.
This 3D modeling software offers parametric and free-form editing tools, including Basic editing tools, text editing, drawing, solid modeling, and rendering tools.
It has a Scribble’ tool that instantly creates a shape based on your mouse movements. However, Rendering options are very limited, nearly none. There is no lighting feature.
Boasting a library of millions of files that allow users to find shapes of their choice and liking, the TinkerCAD allows even beginners to create impressive CAD designs.
It is worth mentioning that it allows team members to work on the projects together. Not limited to creating individual designs, you can edit others’ finished models.
Tinkercard is part of the Autodesk family, so you get all kinds of integration and file format support, including STL, OBJ, 3MF, SVG, etc. To create 3D prints, TinkerCAD is actually a really good option.
TinkerCAD was developed as an educational tool, so it lacks many of the features you might find in a traditional CAD program. It’s mainly aimed at teachers, kids and hobbyists.
Compatibility: Web based, available for Windows, Mac,Linux and even chromebook.
Pricing: The basic version of OnShape is free for non-commercial use but projects are made publicly available.
Rhino or Rhinoceros, is a 3D CAD software known for its powerful NURBS surface modeling capabilities. It offers a wide range of tools for modeling, rendering, editing, 3D capture, drafting, and analysis.
You can create and edit any combination of curves, surfaces, and geometric bodies, and then export the created models to any format.
Rhino also has many Plugins and can help you be more effective and efficient in modeling, animation, texturing, lighting, and rendering as well.
You can add Grasshopper for parametric modeling, Flamingo or Brazil for high-quality realistic 3D rendering, Bongo for animation, and more.
Rhino offers a high degree of customization, allowing users to create custom tools and workflows to suit their specific needs.
Furthermore, it can be used as a standalone app or paired with other CAD, CAM, MCAD, CAE, and BIM programs.
Rhino has a large and active user community, providing a wealth of resources, support, and knowledge for users.
The Rhino software is favored by product designers and architects due to its versatility and precision in handling complex geometries.
However, it’s worth noting that Rhino is not as user-friendly as some other CAD software, and may require more training and experience to use effectively.
Additionally, Rhino does not have as extensive a set of built-in design tools as some other CAD software, making it less suitable for users who need a more comprehensive design solution.
Compatibility: Windows, Mac OS. It also has an official Rhino 3dm viewer for iOS.
Pricing: Rhino comes in a variety of packages for paid plans from $700 to 1000. free 90-day trial available.
The best software makes it simple and easy to get your work done with the least fuss. Choosing the right CAD software depends on your specific needs, industry, and level of expertise.
This list of 14 popular CAD systems is by no means exhaustive, however, it gives you a general idea of some of the more commonly used CAD systems.
It’s a good idea to try out different programs and see which one works best for you. Furthermore, all the software here is possible to find great tutorials and guidance online.
CAD software can be expensive, but it’s a necessity if you work in a field like architecture, design, or engineering.
If money is tight or you are just starting out, the free options mentioned will fulfil your requirements.
A number of these software in this list offer inexpensive student versions, which should come as a boon for learners.
Ultimately, Whether you’re an architect, engineer, or designer, discover the best CAD software that aligns with your specific needs and empowers you to bring your creative visions to life efficiently and effectively.
If you think we missed out on any good CAD software, let us know in the comments below.
About the author : Clinton Kane
A technical content writer, passionate about sharing high-quality knowledge of pc technology, software, and creative workflows.