Low Cost 3D Mechanical CAD

I've been interested in 3D MCAD for quite a while, and have been covering it on my blog (see my MCAD MCAD Tips and MCAD News tags). I intend this page to be my summary of the current state of low cost MCAD. I'm not interested in non-Mechanical 3D software, and thus won't be covering it here.

I own two MCAD products, Geomagic Design and ZW3D 2010 Standard. My history with both started in the fall of 2009:

  • I bought Alibre Design Standard with the extended import / export filters during the firesale; that become Alibre Design Personal Edition, then Geomagic Cubify (after 3DS bought Alibre) and finally, a free upgrade to Geomagic Design Elements. I think 3DS is taking Geomagic Design in a good direction, but I just went off maintenance because it's not worth $300/year to me to stay on given my occasional usage.
  • I bought VX Innovator; after ZW bought VX, I received a free upgrade to ZW3D 2010. Again, due to my occasional usage, I've been off maintenance (which is $600/year I believe).

I've also played a bit with CoCreate PE, DesignSpark Mechanical, and SketchUp.

All prices are approximate, and accurate as far as I can tell at the time of writing, but can change very quickly, so please verify first.

Best for 3D PCBs

This is somewhat provisional, since I haven't had time to fully explore the possibilities.

I want a program that can take in manufacturer-created STEP and IGES files, create a PCB (e.g. from a DXF or DWG file), create an assembly with proper constraints, and then export a STEP file.

I haven't been impressed with the 3D capabilities of PCB design programs I've tried; for one, most don't deal with STEP files.

The major MCAD programs will work fine; I know SolidWorks does a good job. Geomagic Design Elements does OK, except that I haven't figured out handle silk screens with it. I'm not sure which of the current free programs would work best.

Open Source 3D MCAD

Open source 3D MCAD isn't ready for prime time, or even beta time, but a couple of programs are making steady progress. A quick example: FreeCAD couldn't properly import a DXF of my FP-SMC-1 PCB, and NaroCAD doesn't even have a DXF import option.

Free Commercial Programs

Most free versions of commercial programs are extremely limited (to protect sales of the expensive commercial version, of course) and the terms change often. However, they can still be useful.

  • Autodesk 123D Design
    • Part of Autodesk's 123D suite of apps. Still currently free; internet comments say it's limited compared to programs like Fusion 360. Limitations include non-commercial use.
    • Upgrading to Premium (currently $10/month, includes all 123D apps) gives important benefits, such as being able to use the 123D apps for commercial purposes.
  • Autodesk Fusion 360
    • Apparently free for non-commercial use. I hope to give it a try soon, and update this based on my experience.
  • Autodesk Delcam PowerSHAPE-e
    • Base program is free and very capable; the only differences from PowerSHAPE are 1)No rendering and 2)No more than 30 annotations per 2D drawing. The other big limitation is that you have to use Delcam Exchange, with its fees, to import from or export to most file formats.
  • Autodesk Inventor Fusion
    • The prototype for Fusion 360, is apparently still available but is not being updated.
  • CAD Schroer MEDUSA4 Personal
    • Runs on Windows and Linux
    • Not for commercial use. However, you can use it for business by paying for export (to PDF, DXF, or MEDUSA4 formats)
    • Appears to have minimal limitations (compared to MEDUSA4); major limitations include watermarked drawings, unique file format, and limited export options.
  • MecSoft VisualCAD
    • Designed to run MecSoft VisualCAM stand-alone
    • I haven't tried it yet, but at a glance it doesn't seem ideal for machine design, but has a lot of useful tools, such as file importers
  • Onshape
    • Cloud-based MCAD, can use for free with up to 5 models. Definitely more powerful than most other free MCAD programs. Cloud-based can be a bug or feature, depending on your circumstances and opinion.
    • Ralph Grabowski has some good Onshape info on
  • RS Components DesignSpark Mechanical
    • A cut down version of SpaceClaim. The interface is kind of like SketchUp for mechanical design, and it has a strong PCB orientation (e.g. IDF import). On the other hand, documentation is pretty weak, it can't export STEP files, and as far as I can tell, cannot create assemblies with constraints. For a free commercial CAD program, it does have relatively few limitations.
  • PTC Creo Elements Direct Modeling Express
    • Free version of Creo/Direct, Limitations include a maximum of 60 unique parts in an assembly, and export to only STL or VRML.
  • Trimble SketchUp Make
    • OK, base SketchUp isn't really aimed at mechanical design, but it can be a useful, free addition. For example, it's used by the Eagle!Up Eagle PCB to 3D model program.

Under $100 Programs

$1000 and Under Programs

$3000 and Under Programs

Honorable Mentions of Expensive Stuff

  • Autodesk Product Design Suite Ultimate, $8395
    • If you like the included software and can handle the yearly maintenance fees, it's an incredible value, since it includes Inventor Pro, AutoCAD Electrical, AutoCAD, Alias Design, 3ds Max Design, and more.
    • Note that Autodesk will stop selling perpetual licenses soon; yearly cost is $3730, which isn't such a great deal.
  • IRONCAD, $3970
  • Siemens PLM Systems Solid Edge
    • Solid Edge is very focused on machine design. What's impressive to me:
    • Synchronous Technology: combining direct (non-history based) parametric CAD with history based CAD
    • Solid Edge has a very active technical blog, and was smart enough to hire Matt Lombard.
Last modified 3 years ago Last modified on Jan 14, 2016 7:51:13 PM