CAD stands for Computer Aided Design, and is a mainstay in the architectural, engineering, automotive and aerospace industries, and ever-present across rapid prototyping, product design, graphic design, and even in the making of prosthetics.
3D CAD tools are used to create, edit, modify and test 2D and 3D designs before they ever get put into production and become physical parts, tools or objects.
Both 2D and 3D CAD tools exist. 2D CAD tools are used in the production of signage, branding and packaging using tools such as Adobe Illustrator as well as free tools such as QCAD and LibreCAD.
- We also have a list of the best free 3D modeling software.
- Additionally, we have a list of the best professional 3D modeling 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 3D 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, 3D 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 different solutions across a number of industries, becoming a multibillion-dollar company. We recommend several Autodesk CAD software tools below.
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.
Part 1: Best Free 3D CAD Software
TinkerCAD – Best 3D CAD software for beginners and kids
- Price: Free — View here
One of the best free 3D software tools, TinkerCAD is perfect for beginners and younger users. 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.
The simplicity makes it the best 3D CAD software for kids, and is used in schools for educating kids on basic engineering principles and 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.
FreeCAD — One of the best free 3D CAD software
- Price: Free — Download it here
FreeCAD is a free and open source 3D 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.
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.
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!
- We also have a guide for the best open source 3D printers.
Blender — Most versatile 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 3D 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 modelling, 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 software tool that does it all, Blender could be the one for you.
Part 2: Best Professional 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 3D 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.
A main selling point is that it is cloud-based, so you can access your models anywhere 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 can prove that you are a student.
- Price: $995/€995 for a commercial license, $195 for students — Purchase it here
Rhino 6 is a more affordable commercial CAD software than some more industrial CAD tools, 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.
Whereas some CAD software such as those sold by Autodesk are charged monthly, 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 3D 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.
Part 3: Best Industrial 3D CAD Software
- 3D CAD software free trial available: Yes
- Price: $1,690/year or $210/month — Purchase it here
AutoCAD is one of the best-known 3D 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 3D CAD software on their phones using the AutoCAD mobile app.
Revit — One of the best industrial CAD modeling software for architecture
- 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 drawings can 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 3D 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 software 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.
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 beforehand. 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 CAD 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.