Whether you’re a professional designer, engineer, or hobbyist, selecting the right CAD software can be daunting. With so many options on the market that vary in price and capabilities, it’s often difficult to determine which program is best suited for your needs.
I have been working with professional CAD software for over 15 years in a professional design engineering office. I have worked with AutoCAD, SolidWorks and Siemens NX for some of the largest companies in the UK.
It is important to think practically when choosing the right CAD software. How much it costs, the number of users and what you plan to design or model with the software are important to consider.
In this article, I will explore what criteria you should consider when making such decisions covering the basics, such as:
- What is CAD Software?
- What Is CAD Used for?
- How do I choose a CAD program?
- What computer specs do I need for CAD?
What is CAD Software?
CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software is a set of tools and programs used to create virtual two-dimensional (2D) and three-dimensional (3D) models of objects.
We can use these models for a variety of applications, such as engineering design, animation, manufacturing, 3D printing architectural planning, and more.
CAD software can be used to create detailed technical drawings, plans, and diagrams. It is widely used by architects, engineers, and other professionals in a variety of industries.
What Is CAD Used For?
Computer-aided design (CAD) is a powerful tool used by engineers and designers to create detailed designs and drawings.
For example, as a mechanical design engineer, I use CAD software to create and design 3D models of mechanical parts. From these 3D models, I can create 2D drawings.
Then the 3D models and 2D drawings are sent to suppliers for manufacture.
CAD software can be used for a wide range of applications. Here are some examples of how CAD is used:
- Product Design,
- Architectural Planning
- Engineering Simulations
- 3D Printing
- Product Graphics & Animation
CAD software can help to create detailed models and drawings of objects that may not be realistically achievable with traditional pencil-and-paper design methods.
It also enables designers to make changes quickly and easily before they are committed to the design process.
By using CAD software, designers can move quickly from concept to production while ensuring accuracy, eliminating errors and reducing costs.
CAD can also be used to create more realistic prototypes of products before we release them into production, thus ensuring that the product meets all design specifications.
In addition, by taking advantage of CAD’s ability in conjunction with simulation software, design engineers can accurately simulate physical objects and environments. From this, designers can create virtual models that are used to test and evaluate the performance of products before they are manufactured.
This enables them to detect potential design problems early in the process, reducing costs and improving overall product quality.
CAD is a powerful tool that can help designers create accurate designs faster than ever before.
How Do I Choose A CAD Program?
Choosing the right CAD program for your needs can be a daunting task. There are many different programs available, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.
Here are some things to consider when choosing a CAD program.
1. Type Of Work
The first thing to consider is what type of work you will be doing. From my experience, I know you will discover that certain industries prefer different CAD programmes.
For example, SolidWorks is a favourite for Mechanical Design Engineers, Siemens NX is a favourite for large companies with both mechanical design and complex shapes, and the architectural industry prefers AutoCAD.
Some programs are better suited for specific tasks such as mechanical design or architectural drafting, while others are more general purpose.
If you know what type of work you will be doing, then you can narrow your search to programs that are designed for that specific task or are a preferred option in your industry.
2. CAD Software Cost
Another important factor to consider when choosing a CAD program is cost. Some programs can be quite expensive, while others are more affordable and may even have free trial versions available.
If money is an issue, then look for programs that offer subscription pricing or discounts on bulk purchases. For example, it is possible to rent SolidWorks. [source]
You should also check if the software has any additional fees such as maintenance or upgrade costs.
I once worked for a company where the actual cost of the basic CAD software was low, but the annual maintenance costs were so high, the company did not upgrade for several years.
When considering CAD costs, factor in the whole picture, from the actual cost of the software, how much it will cost to upgrade when the time comes, and any technical support you may need from the software providers if you work for a large company.
3. CAD Software Learning Curve
CAD programs can be complex and require a certain level of technical know-how. If you are new to CAD, then look for a program that has an easy learning curve, such as AutoCAD or SolidWorks.
On the other hand, if you are more experienced with CAD, then you may want to opt for a more advanced program, such as Siemens NX or Catia.
From my experience, I have found that once you know one CAD software; it is very easy to try different products as the skills and way of working are transferable. However, some CAD software is easier to learn than others.
4. Number Of Users
If you work for a larger company or are part of a CAD team, it is important to consider the cost of single-use and multi-use licenses.
Single-use licenses are cheaper than multi-use licenses but may not be suitable if you will be working with a team.
Multi-user licenses offer savings on the cost of licensing, as well as providing the flexibility for a team to work together.
If purchasing software for a large company or team, it may be possible to get a good deal.
If you are a single user or a student, it is possible to download student versions of all the major CAD software programmes for a fraction of the cost.
5. Model & Document Control
If you are part of a team, then it is important to consider the 3D model and document management system.
Will you need a database? Will you need strict document release and control? Or can you just implement a simple number system and save the files to a common drive?
When purchasing CAD software for a company or team, you need to consider this and ask your CAD provider about any document control options that come with the CAD software and how much it will cost.
6. CAD Training
CAD software is as only as good as the person who uses it, and even if you are an experienced CAD user, there may be features of the software that you do not know about.
If you are new to CAD, then opting for a course or training from the provider will be a cost-effective way of getting up to speed quickly.
If you are working for a company that can afford it, then investing in training may be a wise move, as it will result in increased productivity and staff satisfaction.
If you do not have the budget for training, then think about asking the provider for any free online resources or webinars they offer.
If you would like to teach yourself CAD design, then I recommend you check out Coursera which has lots of free CAD modelling courses.
7. 2D Drawing Capabilities
Apart from the cost and learning curve, you need to consider what type of models and drawings you require.
Do you need to create complex assemblies? Or create detailed engineering drawings with annotations? Plot designs in different colours? Or visualise products in photorealistic renderings?
Depending on your needs, some CAD software provides better drawing capabilities than others.
As a general rule, most CAD software packages today are capable of 2D drawing creation but ensure you are happy with the interface and that the CAD software is good enough to communicate your ideas.
8. CAD Surface Modelling
If you require more organic shapes in your models, then you will need to consider the surface modelling capabilities of the software.
Some programs, such as SolidWorks and Siemens NX, have very good surface modelling tools that enable you to create smooth, curved surfaces. Other programs, such as AutoCAD, do not have these same capabilities, so it is important to consider your needs when deciding which CAD software to purchase.
Working in the audio design industry, I often have to create smooth and complex shapes. Not all CAD software is good at doing this, so ensure that you can use the CAD software and easily create the designs and shapes you want before investing.
9. Simulation Extras
Finally, if you are planning to use the software for simulation and analysis purposes, then you need to consider what extras will be required.
Do you want or need advanced tools, such as finite element analysis (FEA) or computational fluid dynamics (CFD)? If so, then it is important to check that your CAD software has these.
Advanced CAD packages, such as SolidWorks and Siemens NX, will have very basic simulation extras included. For example, in Siemens NX you can complete simple stress tests on parts.
If this is something you are interested in, check what comes pre-installed with your CAD software before purchase.
What Computer Specs Do I Need For CAD?
Computer specs for CAD can vary widely depending on the type of software you are using and the complexity of your designs.
Generally speaking, it is recommended that a computer used for CAD should have at least 8GB of RAM and a dedicated graphics card with at least 2GB of memory. It is also important to have a processor with plenty of cores.
This is just the basics, however, to be honest, the higher the specifications, the better.
Do not overlook the computer specifications your CAD software will need. Check with the manufacturer for the minimum computer requirements for their software, and then try to improve on that for the best results.
Using CAD software with a slow PC is very frustrating.
Choosing the right CAD software depends on a variety of factors, from budget and user experience to drawing capabilities and model management.
Consider these points carefully before making a decision as it will ensure you get the best value for money and that you can use the software with confidence.
Do not rush into a decision. Take your time and find the right CAD software for you and your business.
Remember to try before you buy and get the most out of your CAD software trial period.