The Best CAD software list

Since the invention of computer-aided design software applications in the 80’s, the world of graphic design has continued to evolve as more and more companies began to build design apps for public use.

A simple Google search show that there are 100 of apps out there built to handle structural design, architectural design, animation, 2D and 3D designs which make choosing a specific drafting application to work with quite difficult. This article is expressly written to help graphic designers regardless of your design niche—engineering, architecture, animation etc—choose the right software for creating these designs.

The design software applications that will be outlined below will cover the basic kinds of graphic designs individuals need to cover and the advantages of using each outlined app for a certain kind of design will also be outlined below. Note that these CAD applications were chosen using three criteria;

  • Scope of work—these criteria covers an apps features, tools and how suited it is to handle certain types of CAD design
  • User interface—these criteria takes into consideration the ease of use associated with an app and the learning curve needed to become proficient in using the software
  • Cost and Availability—the apps pricing, packages, its popularity and its general availability to anyone seeking to purchase or download it also plays its part in making this list.

The best CAD software

The best CAD software for 2D Designs: AutoCAD

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Although there are various apps contending for the position as the best app for 2D design, Autodesk’s AutoCAD still remains the standard and the best out there. And using the above criterion, AutoCAD emerges the top app for 2D CAD design for the following reason:

Scope of work

AutoCAD comes equipped with all the necessary features and tools needed for the design of 2-dimensional characters or models. With this app, users can design 2-dimensional characters that cut across all verticals—engineering, architecture, graphic design, modeling, and animation. Due to AutoCAD’s influence in computer aided design, its file format the DWF is currently seen as one of the industry’s standard which means other CAD applications are built to support its file format.

User Interface

AutoCAD can be called one of the pioneering design software of the CAD industry and it has consistently raised the bar with its user interfaces and the intuitiveness they provide designers. AutoCAD spots a simplistic interface, features and tools that are easy to manipulate thereby making the learning process quite easy for both beginners and anyone who has had prior design experience with any CAD application.

Cost and Availability

AutoCAD remains the oldest drafting software still available on the market and since its inception in 1982, its parent company—Autodesk—has continued to release newer versions concurrently to take advantage of both new design technology and the advancing computer age. Therefore, the app and its different packages can be found online with ease. Designers can choose to take advantage of its free packages or the premium ones depending on your budget size. It is also important to note that knowledge of prior versions of AutoCAD will serve you well when exporting your design projects to its newer versions or any other CAD application on the market.

The best CAD software for 3D Design: SolidWorks

In engineering and furniture design circles, the name SolidWorks reign supreme for the design of 3 dimensional models or components. And although this 2D/3D CAD tool may not be popular in other industries, it is highly regarded by designers and has made a name for itself as one of the best apps for 3D design and that is why it makes this list. This is how it ranks with our listed criteria:

Scope of work

SolidWorks is a design application equipped with the necessary tools and features needed to create 2D/3D character which makes it a multi-purpose tool. Users can handle projects ranging from the design of 3D components, assembling the designed components and animating the complete model to analyze its functions. Solidworks is also equipped with its own Application 3D-printing-softwareProgramming Interface* which can be used to provide solutions to complex models that cannot be easily drafted using its custom tools.

User interface

SolidWorks is equipped with an expansive user interface, tools and different design modes tailored to fit the user design needs. Its intuitive nature makes it an easy tool to use for CAD users with some experience using design software. For beginners, SolidWorks may provide some challenge before one can become proficient in using it. But the multitude of tutorials—video and textual—available on the internet covering the topic of SolidWorks, eases the slight difficulties that come with mastering its interface.

Cost and Availability

SolidWorks can be purchased online and its packages are available worldwide to graphic designers irrespective of their location. Its parent company also believes in innovation, therefore, it releases a new version of the CAD application at the turn of every year. A good understanding of any version of SolidWork can be translated to the newer versions thereby eliminating the need to re-learn its features when upgrading to newer versions.

The best CAD software for Architectural Design: Microstation

In architectural design circles, two CAD software applications—Autodesk Revit and Microstation—stand out, which made it quite difficult to choose the best design application for the architectural niche. But after pitting the pros and cons of both applications against our criteria, Microstation edged out the Inventor as the best design app for architects, project managers and interior decorators for the following reasons:

AutoDesk-homestylerScope of work

Microstation is an all-purpose CAD design software application which has the capability to handle both 2 and 3-dimensional designs for architectural and engineering projects. Microstation also doubles as Building Information management system which makes collaboration between designers easy. Its unique features include; Bentley architecture extensions, and Bentley building mechanical and electrical systems. These features and extensions show that Microstation wasn’t built to serve simply as a CAD tool, but was built to be a CAD platform for handling extensive projects and providing solutions to complex modeling problems.

User Interface

Microstation is an advanced CAD software with a highly developed interface and drafting tools built to handle both simple and advanced mechanical and structural designs. Microstation has evolved with time and with the advent of the V8 versions, its interfaces have been expanded to take on both the role of design and collaboration. Due to the advanced nature of the software, learning to use its tools and features may be quite difficult but having some knowledge of computer aided design will drastically reduce the learning duration.

Cost and Availability

Bentley, the parent company that builds Microstation, have spared no efforts in making the software available to the general public and designers can purchase the app in online stores as well as on its official website. As of now, there are no free Microstation software applications available on the market. It is also important to note that like many other major CAD applications, newer versions of Microstation are released every year and knowledge of older interfaces can be transferred to these newer versions. Lastly, the software falls in the range of $2,000 t0 $3,500 depending on the chosen package.

The best CAD software for Designing Aerospace Components: Catia

Designing aircraft and its corresponding aerospace components require the use of special CAD/Computer-aided manufacturing software for accurately designing components, assembling them and testing their reactions to external forces such as pressure and weight. And while there are several CAD apps that can be used to create these 3D models only one stands out as the industries standard and it is Catia. Catia is a 3D CAD/CAM created by Dassault Systems for the design of components used primarily in the aerospace and automotive industries.

Image credit: James Coleman

Image credit: James Coleman

Scope of application

Catia provides designers with a suite of surfacing, reverse engineering and visualization features which are used to create, modify and design complex shapes or models. These tools also include the necessary features for testing structural tolerance and kinematic functions. Catia also integrates aspects of systems engineering in providing solutions to complex modeling problems these solutions include the use of programming languages—C++, visual basic etc.—to solve complex issues.

Catia is used in various industries including aerospace designs, automation, defense and the design of industrial equipment.

User Interface

The highly advanced nature of Catia projects means that its tools, features and programs are designed to undertake tasks involving complex modeling problems which mean learning to use the software maybe actually difficult. its interface also integrates Building information management features to make collaboration between designers, engineers and programmers possible. Also note that the new age versions of Catia—V4, V5 and V6—are compatible which makes file sharing amongst them possible.

Cost and Availability

Catia is not a popular CAD application. Therefore its availability on the market is limited to the placing of orders which can be done by visiting its official website or that of its parent company—Dassault Systemes. The suites that comprises of Catia’s drafting tools are quite expensive and so are its supporting extensions thereby making the app somewhat of a commercial product purchased by business, freelances and not hobbyists.

The best CAD software for 3D Rendering: Keyshot

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Image Credit: Chris Shakal

In 3D modeling, rendering plays a huge role for it is the feature that produces the final product or 3D model the public sees which makes the need to obtain quality renderings whenever possible quite important. Designers who are interested in obtaining quality renderings for their designs usually achieve this with the use of third party rendering software applications and after reviewing a number of rendering software out there, Keyshot comes out as the cream of the crop. Using our criteria, here is an analysis of the rendering software:

Scope of Application

Keyshot is a standalone rendering engine that supports almost all of the major 3D file formats which makes importing and rendering 3D designs a piece of cake. This means keyshot can render DWF files coming from all Autodesk’s product, DXF files from Microstation as well as files in PDF format coming from other 3D CAD software applications.

It is also important to note that Keyshot’s performance is entirely reliant on its own rendering engine and the power of your CPU. Therefore, the advanced nature or lack of advancement of your computer’s graphic cards does not affect the performance and final result of Keyshot’s renderings.

User Interface

This rendering software’s interface is simplistic and very easy to use because an imported scene from any 3D CAD application comes across with the geometry and materials used in modeling that scene. And once the scene is in Keyshot, the application automatically kick-starts the rendering process and the user will immediately see the progress being made if he/she focuses on the screen.

Keyshot also comes equipped with a robust materials library in its suite which makes the addition of external materials to an imported scene possible. With Keyshot, designers as well as non-technical people can achieve specific lighting and extensive textural fine tuning to produce realistic renderings.

Cost and Availability

Keyshot which is built by Luxion—one of the pioneer developers of the 3D mouse— is available for purchase online and although its popularity is quite limited to designers who make use of third-party rendering software applications, anyone can purchase the app from the Luxion e-commerce website. Keyshot packages are quite affordable when compared to the cost of purchasing any of the above CAD software application listed in the article. So if you are interested in rendering software applications, Keyshot should be the easy to go.

The best CAD software for 3D Animation: Maya

Since its inception, Maya has stood at the pinnacle of 3D animation as the best app out there for creating both simple and complex animations. In fact, most of the animated movies and computer generated images used in non-animated movies have been designed solely using Maya. Examples such as the animated movie Groods, and the transformers in Transformer where designed using this application. This and other reasons are why Maya makes our list as the best CAD application for 3D animation. Using our criteria, Maya comes out tops because:

Scope of Application

Maya 3D is made up of an advanced user interface equipped with the necessary design tools and features for creating 2D/3D models, animated scenes as well as rendering these images and scenes to produce a complete animated figure/character or scene. Newer versions of Maya also incorporate the use of programming to solve problems associated with designing complex models. The design software also spots features that classify it as a Building Information Management platform which supports collaboration and the sharing of animated designs via social media platforms such as Facebook.

User Interface

Maya’s user interface is designed to be intuitive when designing 3D models and rendering animations which means it is equipped with both design tools and a rendering machine for animating scenes. The level of complex design problems the application is built to create makes learning its use quite difficult for beginners as well as experienced CAD users who are new to using its features. Despite its steep learning curve, there are multitudes of tutorials both off and online to help students/users become acquainted with is features and workspace.

Cost and Availability

Maya—which was also built by Autodesk—is an expensive animations software application to purchase but it can be easily be bought on any e-commerce store that sells design software to the public. And like any other CAD software, Maya comes in different packages with prices ranging from $2,500-$4,000. Autodesk also releases newer versions of this software annually which includes a subscription plan for students who do not have the resources to purchase a more complete version of the application.

Related: Looking for more CAD software

Final thought

As every CAD user knows, there are a multitude of design applications out there and choosing the best for whatever type of project you choose to handle usually depends on your experience and the CAD tool you initially learned with. So if your preferences didn’t make it to the list, your recommendations and the reason why would be appreciated in the comment box below.

While for beginners looking for the right applications to learn the act of modeling, this list should serve as a go to market guide when purchasing computer-aided design applications. Lastly, it is important to know that the difficulty level of learning how to use any of these applications is largely dependent on the effort the user puts into the learning process which means practice in CAD design makes perfect.

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