Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software can be expensive for a small business, but it’s also essential for product design and technical illustrations. For businesses looking for an affordable alternative to popular CAD software options, free and open-source CAD software might be the ideal solution.
Some of the best free CAD software includes:
|3D or 2D
|Ease of Use, Automation
|Resource-Intensive, Missing File Organization
|Quick, Easy Model Creation
|New Features Often Not Free
|3D, Limited 2D
|Windows, MacOS, Linux
|Complex UI, Limited 2D Functionality
|2D, Limited 3D
|Windows, MacOS, Linux
|Excellent 2D Design
|Limited 3D, Limited Support
These products are a mix of 2D and 3D computer-aided design software, and all of them have a forever free to use option. Products were selected based on their popularity and feature completeness.
NanoCAD is a free-to-use CAD software with both 2D and 3D design functionality. NanoCAD has an easy-to-use interface combined with complex options that allow power users to get the most of the software. Additionally, NanoCAD receives frequent updates and new features, keeping it competitive with other cutting-edge CAD software. NanoCAD also offers paid premium packages that businesses can upgrade to as they grow.
- NanoCAD is easily accessible. Non-technical users can use it to create simple drafts without significant training
- NanoCAD supports automation features so drafts and documentation can easily be transferred from the app to a database. This streamlines the exporting process and helps you get designs in the hands of product developers.
- Rendering drafts with NanoCAD is resource-intensive and may require a powerful machine
- NanoCAD’s free version is missing file organization features that are offered by the premium version and toolbars that are offered by other premium CAD software
Best For Growing Companies
NanoCAD offers essential CAD features for free, with the option of purchasing a premium package for advanced features including a robust table editor. NanoCAD may not be appropriate for organizations with very limited budgets as it does require a powerful machine for rendering designs.
With this in mind, NanoCAD is a good choice for organizations that have powerful machines but don’t want to invest in premium CAD software yet. If your organization’s CAD needs increase, you can upgrade NanoCAD to get premium features without having to learn a completely different tool.
#2 Sketchup Free
Sketchup is CAD software built to create 3D designs and 2D documentation. Sketchup’s free version includes 3D modeling features for individual users, as well as cloud storage and model viewing. Sketchup also provides access to a variety of free and premium 3D assets for users to take advantage of. As businesses using Sketchup grow, they can upgrade to paid versions for features such as offline development.
- It’s straightforward and quick to use to create models and designs using Sketchup Free
- Sketchup Free allows users to share and download prebuilt models from the 3D Warehouse
- Adjusting layouts can be challenging, and placing objects can be time-consuming if you want to get it just right
- New features are often found in extensions, which aren’t available to free users
Best For Businesses with Inexperienced Users
Sketchup Free is one of the easiest free CAD software options for creating designs. Users without much experience will be able to work with Sketchup Free without training, and can easily export and share their creations. This makes Sketchup Free a good choice for businesses with inexperienced users that would need more training to use a different tool.
FreeCAD is an open-source CAD software designed for 3D modeling. FreeCAD supports parametric modeling, so users can modify designs after building them by changing model parameters. Because FreeCAD is an open-source tool, there is an active community developing new features and providing support. FreeCAD also supports 2D designs, though those features are limited compared to FreeCAD’s 3D designing features.
- FreeCAD is actively supported by a community of developers that keep the software up to date
- FreeCAD is available on Windows, Mac, and several major Linux distributions
- FreeCAD’s user interface is complex. Users may need the training to maximize performance using FreeCAD
- FreeCAD’s 2D design features are limited compared to 3D design features
Best For Linux Users
FreeCAD is one of the few CAD software options that runs on popular Linux distributions such as Ubuntu and Mint. If your organization’s workstations run Linux, you won’t have to do any extra work to get FreeCAD to work, or wait for Linux features to be developed. Linux compatibility makes FreeCAD an ideal choice for businesses that use Linux.
Onshape is a cloud-based CAD software designed to speed up a business’s product development process. Onshape includes 2D and 3D design features packaged in with release management, workflow management, and real-time collaboration tools. Onshape also allows users to design both on a computer or via a mobile app. If businesses need more advanced features, Onshape offers paid plans including enhanced support and support for multiple workflows.
- Onshape doesn’t require installation and can be used by devices without powerful hardware
- Onshape provides robust versioning features that protect businesses against data loss
- Onshape limited dimensioning features for drawings and lacks text customization features
- Since Onshape is cloud-based, poor latency can result in slowed-down exporting and drawing
Best For Small Companies
Onshape can work on almost any device with an internet connection regardless of hardware specifications and has built-in data loss prevention. Many other CAD software options require powerful hardware and separate file versioning systems. Smaller businesses that can’t budget for powerhouse hardware might find Onshape is the perfect CAD software.
LibreCAD is an open-source CAD software built for 2D design. LibreCAD also offers 3D design features, though they are not as robust as the 2D design features. Since LibreCAD is open source, it is supported and developed by a community of third-party developers. This development group keeps LibreCAD up to date, but cannot provide the same level of support businesses might expect from proprietary CAD software.
LibreCAD can not convert STL files to 3D diagrams or OBJ files.
- LibreCAD excels at 2D design and offers features competitive with paid CAD software
- LibreCAD’s user interface is similar to popular CAD software options such as AutoCAD, so technical users will be able to transition to working with LibreCAD without losing productivity
- Limited features for 3D design compared to 2D design features
- Limited support compared to proprietary CAD software
Best For 2D Designs
LibreCAD specializes in 2D designs and is powerful enough to rival paid proprietary 2D design software. Additionally, LibreCAD is very limited when creating 3D designs. LibreCAD may be the best choice for your organization if you create primarily or exclusively 2D designs.
Free Premium CAD Software for Students
Individuals can sometimes get access to usually paid software for free. The most common example of this is student and educator licenses. These are designed to allow individuals to learn industry-standard software and gain experience with the tools associated with them. These can include CNC and 3D printing machines which are becoming more common at high school levels. Such hardware has long been present on college and technical campuses.
Autodesk offers full versions of most of its products for free to students. For mechanical engineering students, Autodesk Inventor offers3D CAD features and simulation tools. Autodesk Architecture has a design-focused ui that allows you to switch between 2D and 3D.
It is worth noting that while the software for these products are free, the hardware to support them is not. Advanced features such as the parametric 3D modeler in AutoCAD 2020 require high performance hardware to run. This specific feature allows the automation of repetitive geometry manipulation.
Fusion 360 is another tool offered by Autodesk to students. This combines a host of CAM, CAD, PCB and CAE tools into one software. This supports .obj, .dxf, .stl, and .iges file types, among many others.
In summary, premium software offers students the chance to learn more advanced and varied skills. Educators can use the 3 year license to educate students in simple information like technical drawings and schematics all the way to advanced application and practical skills.
What’s Right for Your Business?
Between all of the free and open-source CAD software, there is a good option for any small business. Businesses focusing on 2D design should consider LibreCAD, while FreeCAD is ideal for 3D design. NanoCAD is a good choice for businesses that do both 2D and 3D design. For businesses that are looking for simple software that requires minimal training, Onshape and Sketchup Free are good choices.
Since these are free tools, try out all of the options you think might be right for your business. If your designers have a chance to use all the software you are considering you can remove the guesswork when making a final decision. When deciding between open source and proprietary CAD software, you should also consider how much support your business will need. Proprietary software options can usually provide more hands-on support than open-source tools.
If none of these software options are right for your business you may need to consider a premium option. You can read reviews for all of these CAD tools, as well as other premium CAD software on TrustRadius.
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