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Best CAD software 2023: Design and draft digital 3D models and 2D drawings

Whether you want to design products, get into architecture or engineer a spaceship, these are the best CAD software to buy

Asking what the best CAD software is might be the wrong question. Instead, you’ve got to ask which CAD software is best suited to your own needs and skill set.

While Computer-Aided Design (CAD) tools are used by anyone from mechanical engineers and professional artists to hobbyists looking for a fun, downtime activity, particular software choices are more appropriate depending on what sort of design you are attempting. In the professional game, different industries often have their production processes intertwined with the use of particular software, so it can be useful to learn programs that are the industry standard in the sector of your choice – particularly for students just starting on their design career.

Still, it’s always good to shop around, even if you’ve been CAD-ing for a long time. Especially since the CAD software industry has been developing at a rapid pace in recent years. In 2021, 3D CAD software alone was valued at $9.37 billion, with that expected to rise to $13.54 billion by 2026, showing just how many people are utilising it and how many software creators are producing tools people want to pay for. You’ll also find 2D CAD software for drawings like floor plans in the architectural world.

Below, we’ve picked out a range of software depending on your application and at a variety of price points (be warned, CAD software can get pretty expensive). Read on for more details about CAD and its uses plus our favourite software.

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How to choose the best CAD software for you

What is CAD?

CAD (Computer-Aided Design) refers to the use of computers to create, modify, analyse and optimise designs. It is the digital equivalent to manual drafting: the practice of creating design and construction information by hand, typically drawings. Software used for such purposes is seen to be more efficient and produce more accurate work than non-digital techniques since you can easily alter existing designs and test their utility in simulated environments – especially applicable to 3D designs. Digitising this process also allows for patents to be made for specific designs in a more standardised way that is also easier to track. Completed designs are frequently outputted in combination with other modern technologies too, such as 3D printing, making the whole production process faster.

3D modelling vs CAD

You may have come across programs like Maya or Blender, however these are referred to as 3D modelling software (or poly mesh modelling) and are designed for organic, freeform sculpting. For instance, imagine you are creating a character for an animated movie: this would be using 3D software. On the other hand, CAD – or parametric solid modelling – is for more functional design that is typically associated with the making of mechanical objects with precision that reflects real-world engineering. In other words, CAD is typically used to create repeatable characteristics driven by exact maths and strict parameters of our tangible world. That said, occasionally software mixes the two forms of design together, so there isn’t always a hard distinction.

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What is CAD software used for?

A whole host of jobs require the use of CAD software. You’ll find engineers and designers operating it for mechanical, electrical, manufacturing, industrial and product development purposes across a whole host of fields such as aerospace, medicine or the arts industry. This could be for standard 2D/3D modelling and design simulation of products and equipment, or to work out cost estimations and manufacturing checks. Outside the professional world, hobbyists will frequently tap into CAD or 3D software to build creations for their own entertainment, too.

Can I 3D print used CAD software?

By using CAD software, you can prepare your design for 3D printing. Most, if not all, CAD software will let you export your model design to an .obj or .stl file, the format used for 3D printing. However, you’ll also need slicing software like Slic3r or Cura to prepare those models for printing its component parts. Most importantly, you’ll require access to a 3D printer.

How much should I spend on CAD software?

The cost of CAD software depends on the level of complexity you require for your modelling tasks, which will in turn depend on your purpose for modelling.

Designers that require incredible complexity – for instance, models with more than 1,000 pieces, that use intricate curves required for aerodynamic testing or otherwise industry specific features – will generally cost much more than £1,000 per year with software made for large engineering teams, such as NX Advanced Designer by Siemens, which costs upwards of £5,000 per year. There are much cheaper alternatives, with less powerful features, but you are still looking at around £60/mth. Alternatively, many programs are either heavily discounted or free for students and educational reasons which is another avenue to explore if you can.

As you may have inferred, the payment structure for the vast majority of CAD software is a subscription licence system and while that can run costs high in the long run, it does split things up to more affordable monthly or yearly payments than a single, upfront cost. That is also useful should you just be venturing into the world of CAD and aren’t sure how long you’ll be sticking around.

There are open-source or free varieties of software available, however these tend to be limited in what they can do, feature watermarks on any designs and/or be for personal use only. If you are planning on making financial gain or notoriety out of your CAD endeavours, you should be prepared to pay for the software that you’re using.

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The best CAD software to buy in 2023

1. Fusion 360: Best CAD software for beginners

Price: £66/mth, £510/yr | Buy now from AutoDesk

When you’re starting out with CAD, all you want is a user interface that’s easy to understand so you can get stuck into the actual modelling process itself. Fusion 360 has both the intuitive interface to let you begin designing instantly and the expansive toolset so you can keep growing your skills and not feel constrained by your software thereafter. It joins up the thinking and tools required for designing, engineering and manufacturing into one software to render your ideas succintly and even use simulation (after purchasing the relevant add-ons).

It doesn’t have the specialised tools like SolidWorks required for mechanical and other more complex design industries, but Fusion 360’s simplicity and low cost give it the advantage when it comes to producing models that aren’t overly complicated.

What’s even better is that there is a free version for hobbyists that provides all the same tools for CAD design (albeit, with a few constraints and other, non-CAD related features missing).

Key specs – Platforms: Windows, Apple; Free trial? 30 days

Buy now from AutoDesk

2. AutoCAD: Best 3D/2D combined CAD software

Price: £246/mth, £1,986/yr | Buy now from AutoDesk

Generally used by architects, interior designers and fine artists for creating the likes of blueprints, home visualisations and sculptures respectively, AutoCAD is one of the most well known CAD software packages, having first been released in 1982.

With the ability to form and edit both 2D geometry and 3D solids, surfaces and objects – and seamlessly switch between the two – AutoCAD’s versatility is a major boon and has become widely used as a result. While it generally isn’t used for detailed product design or 3D work, it can be employed to tackle these areas – especially by way of introduction to the CAD space. Experienced 3D designers may feel it lacks some precision features.

There are several AutoCAD add-ons and industry-specific verticals, should you need a bit more oomph or particular tools, but right out of the box this is a great 2D/3D combination software for all (and a must-learn for architects and construction professionals).

Key specs – Platforms: Windows, Apple; Free trial? 30 days;

Buy now from AutoDesk

3. Revit: Best CAD software for architects

Price: £366/mth, £2,940/yr | Buy now from Autodesk

Traditionally, architects have predominantly used Autodesk’s AutoCAD software and while it remains ever-useful, there is a change afoot. The building design industry has been pivoting towards a more focused software style in recent years called BIM, or Building Information Modelling, and Revit is Autodesk’s alternative.

While the vector systems of AutoCAD are still very useful in a general sense for drawing lines, arcs and sketching ideas, Revit allows you to focus on the actual buildings with wall, door and window presets amongst the number of other handy objects available at a moment’s notice. Rather than thinking in floor plans, you think in 3D space and objects that can be associated with real-world data and characteristics.

This all allows for greater efficiency and quality control from design to construction by architects, engineers and construction professionals. Especially since, via cloud connection, BIM databases are available to multiple members on a project and helps all the different stakeholders in building projects work together simultaneously to spot any issues before construction begins.

Key specs – Platforms: Windows, Apple; Free trial? 30 days

Buy now from Autodesk

4. Solidworks: Best CAD software for manufacturing

Price: From around £4,000 (perpetual licence) or £99/yr for students | Buy now from Solidworks

With its sensible user-interface paired with stellar features, Solidworks has risen to become one of the most popular CAD software products around for industrial engineers and product designers.

Used by designers in the medical industry, furniture designers and anywhere in-between, Solidworks allows you to accurately form, transform, manage, validate and reverse engineer with ease. A fan-favourite feature is that Solidworks uses a NURBS (Non-uniform rational B-spline) system so you can create detail rich curvature in any design. Since it uses a history tree to save all features with their set parameters, it is the optimal choice for models where you are making iterative improvements and need to see your previous creations.

It’s fairly powerful, too: it can handle projects with over 1,000 components, more than enough capacity for most designers, and you even get by with making complex designs with aerodynamic requirements too, like cars and boats.

No matter your intentions or industry affiliations, product designers love Solidworks and being priced between Autodesk’s Inventor (cheaper but less capable) and NX Advanced Designer (more expensive but more capable), it makes the most sense too – if you can afford it. Enquire with Solidworks for an exact quote on the price point.

Key specs – Platforms: Windows, Apple; Free trial? 7, 14 or 30 days

Buy now from Solidworks

5. AutoCAD LT: Best value 2D CAD software

Price: £60/mth, £486/yr | Buy now from AutoDesk

When we saw the price of AutoCAD, like the other software costing more than £1,000 per annum, it was a turn off despite the lure of excellent tools. Thankfully, should you only be interested in 2D design, you can get a similar array of features for around 75% less money via AutoDesk’s LT (light) version.

It has the same core features as regular AutoCAD for 2D digital drawing, drafting and making documentation except it forgoes all the 3D functionality, meaning those after a 2D toolkit – like those completing mechanical, architectural or electric design projects – will find great-value in AutoCAD LT.

You do lose out on some other handy features like AutoLISP for programming, and other specific tools for electrical drawings or architecture, but given the cost is so much cheaper you may as well test it out first even if the full version is tempting you.

Key specs – Platforms: Windows, Apple; Free trial? 30 days

Buy now from AutoDesk

6. Autodesk Alias: Best CAD software for automotive design and Class-A surfacing

Price: £672/mth, £5,388/yr | Buy now from Autodesk

Designing a car has its own specific requirements. Namely, something called A-Class surfacing: complex, final production surface data for the aesthetic parts of a car.

The four big hitting software of the automotive industry that can handle these complex models are Alias, ICEM, Catia and NX Advanced Designer. None of these are particularly cheap solutions, but they are professional ones that provide very fast and capable tools for Class-A purposes. The most affordable of the lot is Autodesk’s Alias. It is predominantly used by those doing studio work across the automotive industry and is a great place to start your car design journey – especially since Autodesk has a range of tutorials to help you out.

An alternative, budget option for non-commercial purposes would be Fusion 360 and then purchasing its simulation add-on if you wanted to do any aerodynamic, CFD (computational fluid dynamics) testing, but unfortunately it can’t match the Class-A intricacies of Autodesk Alias.

Key specs – Platforms: Windows, Apple; Free trial? 30 days

Buy now from Autodesk

7. NX Advanced Designer: Best CAD software for complex models

Price: £5,832/yr | Buy now from Siemens

When you need to add over 10,000 parts to your model, NX Advanced Designer is the software you should be looking to use. NX is utilised mainly by large enterprises such as Apple, Nissan, Daimler Mercedes and SpaceX, and that’s reflected in the price.

Thankfully, you do get a lot in return for that financial cost, with industry leading software capable of advanced part design and drafting that make it a favourite of aerospace engineers. Why it is held as the gold standard is the ability to approach design from different angles: you can use freeform meshes, solids and Class-A surfacing methods to create the form you require, all with intelligent direct editing to push and pull features as you wish.

As such, NX is an intuitive software – perhaps even the crème de la crème of CAD systems – ideal for those working on massive and complex projects.

Key specs – Platforms: Windows, Apple; Free trial? 30 days

Buy now from Siemens

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