How to choose your CAD Software

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This article is part of our series for getting CNC Beginners up to speed fast.  Be sure to check out our CNC Beginner Home Page for more good articles.

Being a CNC Beginner can seem daunting–you have to learn a very broad range of topics before you can make your first part.  But take heart, none of the topics is really all that hard to learn.  It’s one of those eat the dish one spoonful at a time and eventually you’ll finish deals.

From that perspective, I like to see the Beginner start with CAD as early as they can.  Do It Yourselfers are tempted to get immersed in the details of their CNC conversion.  Perhaps you’re pouring through catalogs to decide which machine to purchase, or maybe you already have a machine.  Whatever else is going on, step back and carve out some time to get started with CAD.  Ideally, I’d love to see you having chosen a CAD package and become somewhat proficient with it before you get distracted learning your next CNC skill.

Eventually, CAD will be the software you spend the most time using for CNC (unless you want to count the control software which I guess you’re using every minute the machine is running, but you know what I mean).  While I will often suggest starting with something simple and upgrading later (for example, start with a super-easy to use CAM package like MeshCAM), in this case I am going to suggest that for all but 1 of the 3 kinds of beginners, you start with the CAD package you think you’ll use going forward.

Software falls into two categories usually.  Some software you have to use so much it becomes second nature.  Word Processors and Spreadsheets are like that, and so is CAD.  Some you learn a little bit every time you use it.  Unless you’re the CAM programmer for a decent-sized shop and cranking a lot of gcode, CAM is more likely in that second category.  It doesn’t mean you don’t have growing familiarity, but you’re less likely to be able to fly through it without pausing to think about how to do things more.  With CAD, you want it to be second nature.  So if you are going to make that kind of investment, it’s worth picking the right horse to invest in.

A bit of good news, of all the things you’ll need to learn, CAD is not so bad, relatively speaking.  Here’s a chart from our recent survey on how hard things are to learn:

whats hard about learning CNC

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It’s the second easiest thing after measurement.  I find it to be slightly frustrating but quickly turning to fun learning new CAD packages.

But how do you choose the right CAD software for you?

I’m going to start out with 2 special cases and their considerations and then move on to what everyone needs.  Let’s call the 3 kinds of beginners “Manual Machinists”, “Professionals”, and “Mainstream.”  Don’t read too much into the labels and let’s talk about each category.

Manual Machinists

Manual Machinists

A CNC is like a manual machine with power feeds and DRO’s on every axis…

You’re an accomplished Manual Machinist.  You turn the handwheels, read the DRO’s (if your machine has a DRO), and you can make parts.  Now you want to make parts on the CNC.  It can be a big letdown to go from being productive on a Manual Machine to not being able to do anything on the CNC.  I have good news for you–you can be just as productive in a day or two on the CNC as you were on the Manual Machine.  That may not be exactly what the shop you’re at was looking for, but it is still very useful.

The thing to realize is that a CNC can be operated just like a Manual Machine.  Think of it as a machine that has power feeds and DRO’s on every axis.  Even better, the DRO’s talk to the Power Feeds and will stop at exactly the coordinate you ask for.  Pretty cool, eh?

I recommend the Manual Machining crowd start with a little different priority than the others.  Figure out how to do everything on the CNC you used to do on your Manual Machine first.  It’s the shortest path to productivity.  To do that, check out our GCode Course’s beginner articles.  Just read up through the article on MDI.  MDI is the magic buzzword for how you control the CNC by typing g-codes in.  It’s how you operate your power feeds and DRO’s on the CNC.

Once you can operate the CNC at that level, the next step I want you to take is to try Conversational CNC:

Conversational CNC

Conversational CNC: Simple access to all the common operations in CNC…

With Conversational CNC, you have simple access to all the common operations you’re used to doing on your Manual Machine.  Each function asks you a few simple questions that will be familiar to a Manual Machinist, and then it cranks out a little g-code program for you that does what you asked for.  No CAD, no CAM.  Load the g-code onto your CNC, run it, and you’re making simple parts.  It’s particularly powerful for Lathes because many of those parts are pretty simple to start.

In just a few days you’ll be able to use MDI and Conversational CNC to sidestep the tasks of learning CAD and CAM and start making simple parts.  That’s got to be a lot happier way to dive into CNC for a Manual Machinist because it puts  your hard-earned skills to work right away.

Now, you still want to pick up those CAD and CAM skills, so you’ll want to read what I have to say for Mainstream CAD Beginners below.  And, if you’re a Professional too, read on for that section.

Professionals

I’m calling out Professionals because you won’t have as much freedom of choice as everyone else.  The reasons are simple, let’s go through them.

– Professionals have to work closely with others.  You have to work with everyone else in the Shop where you’re employed.  Even if you own a one man shop you will have to work with Customers.  That means you’ve got to be able to exchange CAD files with whomever you’re working with.  In a shop with multiple users, you wouldn’t want every CAD operator to use a different package.  You’d want to standardize them all on one package at which point any time you hire you will want to hire folks with experience in that package.

– Professionals have to be capable and competent.  As a Professional, a customer may come in and say, “Our designers use CAD package X, have you worked with X?”  The best possible answer back is, “Yes, we’ve been using X for years and we love it.”  Or, “Absolutely, nearly all of our customers are using X so we are very used to working with it.”

– Professionals often can’t choose their priorities.  You want to take the business that comes through the door, assuming it’s profitable.  You need a general purpose full-featured package that you’ve learned well.  You can’t afford to say, “Come back next week when I’ve had a chance to upgrade and learn the new features needed for your job.”

– Professionals make money and can trade cost for efficiency.  Why would you take an expensive talented CAD operator and make them use a free CAD package at the price of their productivity just to save a sum of money that operator will make in a few months?  It doesn’t make sense.  Make you CAD operators maximally productive and they’ll be maximally profitable for your business.

I hope you’re beginning to pick up on the theme here for Professional CAD users.  Let me try to summarize:

–  Popularity of the CAD matters a lot.  It means you use the same CAD as many of your customers and you can easily hire (or be hired by) those who know that package.  It means you can exchange files with customers and colleagues and it all just works.

–  Productivity trumps cost.  You’re going to have paid off the CAD pretty quickly, so pick the one that keeps paying productivity dividends even after it has been paid off.

–  Support and Ecosystem are big.  Professionals can’t fail.  When they hit a problem, they need to be able to get help and get it fixed quickly.  Look for more mature products because CAD is mission critical for CNC.  If your CAD software fails, finding a workaround will be very hard.

All this means you’re thinking more about the Long Haul and not just short-term how to bang out a few drawings as cheaply and easily as possible.

Mainstream

Keeping in mind the special considerations Manual Machinists and Professional CNC’ers may have, let’s talk about the rest of how you should go about choosing their CAD Software.  For your decision-making process, I would be trying to find the answers to the following questions:

–  Is it easy for me?  Everyone reacts differently to software.  What’s easy for one person may be hard for the next.  I find some CAD packages that are wildly popular to be almost impossible for me to put up with–I can learn them, but I hate using them and I am less productive.  Yet, there is an audience that loves those programs.  Ease of Learning and Use is in the eye of the beholder and you are the one to make that choice.  Nobody can make it for you.

–  Can I get help?  You’re a beginner, you’re going to need help.  How easy is it to come by?

–  Will it serve my needs for the foreseeable future?  Nothing is forever, but you’re going to make an investment in learning a particular package, and if you’re active in CNC, you will use it a lot over a long period of time.  If you have to switch, you’re starting over on that investment.  Take a little more time to be sure you get the right package up front.

–  Can I afford it?  I’ve put this one last for a reason, I do believe it is the least important consideration, but regardless, it won’t matter if you can’t afford the package.  What I’m really saying is to look elsewhere for savings or a deal.  With CAD, it’s worth getting the best one you can afford.

The best way to start is to make a list and start checking it with an eye towards answering those questions and rating the packages relative to one another.  We’ve got an extensive survey on CAD software that breaks it out into sub-markets.  It’s a way to look at the market share of various packages.  It even has notes about how that market share has changed since our prior survey.  With over 3 million visitors a year from all walks of CNC, our surveys give statistically significant results and can deliver good insights.  Use this market share information to build your list of potential candidates.  Here are the overall market shares:

CAD Software market share

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Overall CAD Market Share…

If you’re a CNC Professional, be sure to look at the chart that breaks out the Pro category.  If you’re a Hobbyist, check the Midrange too.  What you want to do is winnow your list down to a maximum of 4 to 6 packages based on easy to research criteria.  This market share information will leave you with more than 4 to 6 choices, so we need to find some easy ways to start winnowing it down.

There are two categories I would consider skipping–the “Free” and the “CAM” categories.  Why?

I go back to the idea that CAD will be the software you spend the most time in.  All of the Free packages are tragically flawed at some level, with some possible exceptions I will get to in a minute.  All of the CAM packages that include CAD are fine to use the CAD to manipulate things during the process of CAM, but as your only CAD, they’re going to be tragically flawed compared to dedicated CAM packages.  I know the CAM vendors, the Free CAD vendors, and probably some of you will take me to task for saying so, but it’s true as anyone who really learned a good stand-alone CAD package and then tried to use one of those others will attest to.

Let’s talk about the possible exceptions on the Free to practically-Free front.  First, all the serious CAD vendors have some serious educational discounts.   Some have amazing discounts for individuals and startups too.  Some packages that look completely out of reach can be surprisingly affordable if you can qualify.  Second, Cloud Software is coming along very rapidly.  Two packages in particular, OnShape and Fusion 360 offer a lot of power pretty cheaply when compared to more conventional products.  There are some strings attached, but for many, the strings will be acceptable.  Some are completely unwilling to entertain any notion of Cloud Software.  They’re very vocal about it, but they’re in a small and shrinking minority because there are good answers to almost all objections to the Cloud.  Personally, I would put both OnShape and Fusion 360 on any list of potential packages to evaluate.  The biggest issue with the Cloud software is maturity.  It is still evolving.  It’s unclear whether it has evolved enough to be the serious one-stop solution for all professionals or even all hobbyists.  But it has evolved enough to be worthy of consideration at least, and it gets better all the time.

Another winnowing issue–pick a package for its 3D capabilities and completely ignore 2D-only packages.  We live in a 3D world and mostly make 3D products.  Sure there are cases where 2D is fine, but most 3D CAD will handle 2D just fine too.

What about feature grids?  Marketers love to put them out, and they’re always drawn to show why their product is conclusively better.  The trouble is, if you’re a beginner, you have no way to evaluate the feature grids.  Rely on seeing parts similar to what you want made in the package.  Rely on market share.  Rely on your hands on testing of the software (discussed below).  And forget the feature grids for the most part.  It is worth checking how many file formats each package imports and exports.  Check them against the market share information we provide.  You want your package to be able to exchange files easily with all the major players.

And speaking of feature grids, if you haven’t already, you will hear a lot of talk about Parametric CAD.  Man, it even sounds powerful.  You will definitely want at least one Parametric CAD package on  your list.  But do not automatically assume all the packages must be Parametric.  In fact, I would almost deliberately try to consider a package that allows non-Parametric use.  The most modern packages are hybrids, you can go Parametric or not and it is totally under your control.  But I can also tell you I have done hundreds and hundreds of drawings in a package (Rhino3D) that has no Parametric features and it has not been a problem at all.  I have also spent equivalent time in SolidWorks and love the Parametric stuff–it just feels so natural there.  The reason I say not to get hung up on it is I spent 6 weeks trying to learn to love a version of Alibre a few years ago and I could never get there.  The Parametric stuff was making me take far longer to set up a drawing that either Rhino3D or Solidworks would.  It was like working in handcuffs.  Incidentally, people tell me Alibre is way better now, but this is why I say you need some hands on time with multiple packages to know what’s right for you.

Some so-nice-they-might-be-essential features to consider:

– 3D:  We’ve talked about that.

– Both Parametric and Non-Parametric modes.  If it’s too hard to tell, ignore it.  But if the vendor makes a deal out of this, take note, it’s a good thing.

– Rendering.  Because it is so cool to see those photo-realistic renderings of your 3D models.  You know you want this!

– Dimensions and ‘Print Capabilities.  I love a 3D model, but in the shop, I want to have access to dimensions on a printout in my hand.

The next winnowing step I’d take is to investigate the Online Communities and Resources behind each entry on your list.  Spend an afternoon or two with your web browser and your list of candidates and go fishing on the Internet to check on the following:

–  Videos:  Can you get great video training?  Are there lots of videos on YouTube?  Does the software vendor have videos?  Are their introductory videos, step-by-step videos, and videos about advanced topics?  Videos are a great way to learn quickly.  We use them for our G-Wizard University training and they work great to help people get up to speed quickly.

–  Forums:  Are there active forums for users of the software?  Are there both forums the vendor sponsors and forums that are public such as CNCZone or Practical Machinist?  The more forums and the more active the forums, the easier it will be to ask questions and get answers.

–  Blogs:  Is someone actively writing about your package?  It can be great to find a blog that has series of learning article and other helpful tips and resources.  Does the vendor have a blog?  Go check it out.  Get a sense for how helpful the content will be to you.

–  Kindred Spirits:  When I bought my first CAM package, I spent a lot of time looking at photos of parts people had made with the different CAM packages.  You want to know their is a community of Kindred Spirits who have literally done what you want to do or very similar things.  You know if they can do it, so can you.  At the very least, maybe you’ll be able to ask them some things and since they’re doing similar work, they will speak your language.

Along the way, be sure to look for likes and dislikes.  Look for complaints about missing features or bugginess.  Try searching for articles that include the names of all the packages you’re considering.  This kind of search turns up reviews and conversations about the relative merits of competing packages.

This web research can be time-consuming, but it is much easier than actually learning a CAD package and it can be a lot of fun.  You will also learn a lot from it.  Importantly, you should be able to winnow the list down to 4 to 6 packages.  The shorter the list the better, because your next step is to learn multiple CAD packages.

Whoa!  I can hear the cries of anguish now.  You were expecting it to be hard to learn just one package and here is Bob saying I should learn many?  How is a poor beginner going to manage all that?

Here’s the thing: you don’t have to master any of the packages.  Your goal should be to spend a maximum of 2 weeks on each package.  Don’t start all the free trials at once–do them one at a time.  Insist on reviewing at least 3 packages in this way.  Your goal is to draw perhaps 2 or 3 parts.  Let’s pick 3 as our ideal.  You’ll draw 2 of the same parts on every package, and then you’ll do a 3rd part that is different for each package.  The parts can be simple.  Here is the first part I ever drew on a CAD package (I used Rhino3D to draw it):

RhinoBackplate3ViewGhost

The first CAD drawing I ever did for a lathe chuck backplate was drawn in Rhino3D…

I had it done by the day after I’d purchased Rhino3D.  It turned out to be a good choice for me, but I wish I had read this article to do a better job choosing CAD than that.  Here are some other examples of simple parts that you might use to help figure out what you think of a CAD program:

CAD program

A YoYo is a good test of organic curves, which can be hard to do in some CAD packages…

ViseStopRhino

A vise stop for a Kurt vise I made early on in my machining career.  Good example of a drawing that combines multiple parts.  Rhino doesn’t have assemblies like some packages.  The main thing about multiple parts is you have to figure out how to align them relative to one another, which is another basic CAD skill that is sometimes hard…

Once you’ve gone through drawing 3 fairly simple parts in 3 different CAD packages, taking perhaps 3-6 weeks, you’re going to be pretty clear about what you liked and didn’t like about the experience.  You’ll know which package was easiest for you to learn and manipulate well enough to get that job done.  You’ll have a good idea about how each package “thinks” about the tasks involved in CAD.  In short, you’ll be much better prepared to choose the best package for your needs.

Conclusion

We’ve boiled this process down into a set of easy visual infographics for how to choose CAD software:

CAD software

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Step 1: Build Your Candidate List…

ChooseCADSoftware2

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Step 2: Do Your Online Research…

ChooseCADSoftware3

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Step 3:  Hands-on Testing.  Draw 3 parts in each CAD package to find the best for your needs…

There’s a fair amount of work involved in choosing a CAD package.  Figure a week to narrow your choices down and then one to two weeks testing your potential choices with hands on experience to choose the winner.  It’s all worth it.  Don’t let someone pick your package for you unless they’re your employer.  You’ll learn a lot even from packages you don’t choose to evaluate.

This article is part of our series for getting CNC Beginners up to speed fast.  Be sure to check out our CNC Beginner Home Page for more good articles.

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