Computer-Aided Design, or CAD, software are fantastically powerful tools that can help turn your creative, engineering, and design concepts into reality. They are also often extremely expensive. As a result, many turn to the wonderful world of open-source software. For CAD tools, it is possible to get incredible functionality with none of the cost of premium software. Since CAD is an extremely diverse field of tools, we have highlighted some of the best options for a whole range of use cases.
Types of Open-Source CAD
The following is a list of the niches we will cover, and the tool was chosen to represent them
- 3D modeling for Engineering- FreeCAD
- 2D modeling – LibreCAD
- 3D modeling for Games and Animation – Blender
3D Modeling for Engineering – FreeCAD
There are a ton of options for 3D modeling CAD tools that are open source. FreeCAD is the best option for the highest number of use cases. The description they use on their website is the best way to describe this open-source tool; “FreeCAD really is a Swiss Army knife of general-purpose engineering toolkits.”
FreeCAD allows for the creation of extremely detailed 3D models that can be exported in a huge array of features. This can range from sending your creation directly to a 3D printer or turning it over to a CNC machine for fabrication. 2D plans can be generated to give to workers for more complex or demanding components. You can even create a parts lists for your team and run finite materials analysis.
The parametric modeling system is well suited to those use-cases where dimensions are crucial. Engineering and manufacturing organizations as well as smaller fabrication studios will find this suits their needs well. As far as CAD models go, this can create nearly any file type you could need. DWG, DXF, STL, SVG, OBJ, and all of the other common file formats are supported for the creation and can be imported.
This is software that can serve as your one tool for CAD. FreeCAD is featured on our list of the best overall free CAD tools, including options that are not open-source. One issue that can come up in open-source software is the lack of a community. This is not the case for this tool.
The FreeCAD community is large, engaged, and enthusiastic. This helps address one of the cons of FreeCAD. As an open-source tool, the UI is somewhat less polished than software offered by a vendor. New users may find this overwhelming, especially those with less CAD experience. There is a wealth of tutorials available to help you get the most out of this software. Below is the first episode in a series that can turn even total novices into very capable users.
The program is extremely friendly to programmers or anyone with Python experience. Those with scripting experience can create whole new tools directly in the program. Customization is fantastic, and single-line commands can speed up sculpting and other tasks. For those new to python, the education tools present for FreeCAD are a great way to start the climb up the learning curve in this language.
Overall, this is a strong CAD application for uses with an engineering or fabrication focus. While not easy to use, the active community and education tools make it much better than some other open-source options for new users.
The Best CAD software for 2D Modeling – LibreCAD
LibreCAD is another veteran of our piece on the top free CAD software. For this list, it is earning its place because of its strong 2D modeling capabilities. While 2D modeling is less common now than in the past, it can offer quick, extremely accurate design tools to users for a variety of use cases.
LibreCAD works on Linux, MacOS, Windows, and supports over 30 languages. Its 2D modeling capabilities rival that of even the best paid services. The user interface is strong and less intimidating than that of many 3D tools. This is one major advantage to 2D CAD tools: simplicity. LibreCAD is exceptionally capable and does not try to do more than that. Often, users of 3D tools with 2D functionality say that these features feel added on as an afterthought. With LibreCAD, 2D is all they do, and they do it well.
The community support for this software is incredible. The tutorials are often at professional quality even from its army of amateur enthusiasts. Tools like this and FreeCAD are testaments to the power of open-source software. Below is a brilliant beginner tutorial to those new to the software.
While not as comprehensive as FreeCAD, if you are looking for 2D modeling, there are few better options. This is superior to the vast majority of paid software for what it does.
3D Modeling for Animation or Game Creation
If you have done any research into 3D Modeling for more artistic use cases, there is a chance you’ve heard of Blender. Simply put, this is professional quality software that offers a jaw-dropping array of features. From modeling and animation to rendering and VFX, at times it feels there is nothing this tool can’t do. Even features like simulations, advanced rigging and video editing are present in this tool.
Blender is, to put it mildly, complicated. Individuals build careers around mastering aspects of Blender, and even they rarely use everything it has to offer. The libraries of content, ranging from 3D models and textures to scripts and stock effects are massive. You can create assets for video games, generate entire 3D environments, and just about anything else you can think of. As a general rule for blender, it can probably do it, it is just figuring out how.
This is where the community comes in. Because of the huge array of what this juggernaut can do, there are millions of users. You can get a step-by-step tutorial on any of the seemingly infinite features this software has. While it seems unlikely anyone out there knows everything about this tool, everything this tool has to offer has someone making educational content for it.
In summary, if your use-case is more artistic and less focused on dimensioning, Blender is going to be a strong option. The quality of work you can create here will be limited only by your skill and patience to learn. While the tutorials are endless, below is a general overview and a more specific video for those interested in character design. It is also impossible to discuss blender without bringing up Unity. We Highly encourage you to check out the jelly to Blenders peanut butter if you are involved with this software.
More CAD options
If you are looking for a more comprehensive list of CAD software, click on the button below to explore all the options available. These will include paid offerings.
For those looking to stay free, but look outside the world of open source, check out the piece below highlighting the best free CAD software.
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