CAD for Hobbyists: An Introduction

This post is the first of a series on CAD for Hobbyists.  Be sure to check back for more posts in the series.

I get to use CAD software almost everyday.  There are so many programs currently available it can be hard to choose one.  At work, I alternate between two of the larger players in the CAD game, Inventor and Solidworks, dependent on client needs.  I’ve been using both off and on since the mid-2000s, and over the years I’ve seen each one add a ton of features (and fix a ton of bugs).  More often than not, when one of them adds a great feature, in the next year or two the other will add a similar feature leveling the playing field in the CAD software feature arms race.  With the current versions of both packages it is hard to say who is currently ahead.  Certainly, each package has its quirks and you have to take a minute to adjust to how each functions, but to the average user the packages offer the same features.

If you made me choose between the two as to which I prefer, I would have to go with Solidworks.  As a disclaimer to this choice however, I have spent more time invested in Solidworks in the past 5 years than I have with Inventor (I happen to be a Certified Solidworks Professional).  That said, if I was forced to use only Inventor going forward I would make the adjustment with only a few minor complaints.

While both Inventor and Solidworks are great pieces of software they do have a major downside: they are expensive.  For a business, this usually isn’t the biggest hurdle.  For a hobbyist however, spending thousands of dollars on a CAD package isn’t an option; if you happen to be a hobbyist who can afford this kind of expense, I’m jealous.  So, when professional CAD packages are out of reach for a hobbyist, what alternatives are available?

In the past few years a lot of changes have occurred in the tools available to the average hobbyist/maker.  3D printers, low cost desktop CNCs, and free CAD packages.  Typically free software is sub-par to its paid counter parts, to the boon of hobbyists, this isn’t the case for the CAD packages out there.  There are some really great options out there ranging from open source to commercial packages.

First we have OpenSCAD, as the name implies, an open source CAD program that uses a text based, programming like interface, for creating a 3D model.  OpenSCAD is very popular in non-traditional CAD users and the 3D printing community.  Next we have PTC Creo Elements, a stripped down version of the PTC Creo CAD package, itself the descendant of Pro/E.  Another great free option is the web-based Onshape.  Onshape is a full parametric CAD package that runs in your web-browser as well as on mobile devices with a companion app.  Finally, we have Autodesk Fusion360.  Fusion360 is a desktop based application that combines parametric and free-form modeling tools with integrated CAM, simulation, and rendering.

I have used four of the packages mentioned in the previous paragraph (I have not used PTC Creo Elements).  Each of them has its strengths and weaknesses and offers different capabilities to different users needs.  For my personal use, I’ve selected Fusion360.  In a series of future posts, I’m going to work through a simple sample design project to compare and contrast these free CAD packages.


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