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3D CAD Software

3D CAD (Computer Aided Design) software, alternatively CAD 3D software, assists in the creation of 3D drawings for manufacturing, engineering, 3D printing, and architecture. Common features in 3D Design software include modelling and simulation capabilities, along with collaboration tools for teams. 3D CAD software is related to 3D Architecture software and Architectural CAD software. Find the best 3D CAD software for your organisation in Australia.

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3D CAD Software Buyers Guide

3D CAD (Computer-aided Design) software assists in creating 3D models and technical drawings for several fields, including manufacturing, architecture, engineering, and 3D printing. This software enables users to create detailed 3D models of a potential item or structure, allowing them to plan out every aspect of the structure in virtual space before any materials need to be used. It also allows for the visualisation of a finished product or project, which can be beneficial when pitching something to senior management or potential investors.

Over the years, 3D CAD software has grown to include some incredibly complex core features, from time-saving automated features that make the creation process easier to in-depth calculations that allow a user to perform stress tests on the structure being designed. The core features, however, revolve around creating 3D designs and the ability to output those designs as technical drawings that can produce the designs in the real world. This requires a high level of accuracy and technical detail, as well as the ability to display all of the necessary information clearly in the technical drawings.

3D CAD software makes designing real-world items far more efficient and cost-effective. Things that would traditionally have required extended periods of prototyping can have that prototyping substantially reduced. Tolerances can be refined due to more technically accurate designs, reducing the cost of materials and permitting designs that might not have been possible without CAD software. It is also possible to export certain parts of a design for direct input into Computer Numerical Control machinery that can fabricate the part to a high degree of accuracy using the data created by the 3D CAD software.

3D CAD software can be specialised or generally focus on what the software must design. For example, some software solutions of this type feature the ability to simulate complex physics to test how a design will react to different forces. Others may be more geared towards 3D printing and have built-in functions to make the resulting item more likely to print correctly, such as automatically adding supportive material to the build. Some closely related software categories include architectural CAD software and engineering CAD software.

Businesses will naturally need to consider many factors when choosing a 3D CAD software solution, not least of which are the features included in the software package. With this type of software, the feature set can vary substantially from one solution to another. Some of the core features that should be included in order to be classified as 3D CAD software include:

  • The ability to model a wide range of structures in 3D to a high level of accuracy, including being able to look around the finished model and easily make changes
  • Output technical drawings that contain all the information needed to manufacture the component or product that has been designed using the software
  • Import and export functionality that will allow a user to bring in designs from other software, export them to other software, or export them for use in CNC machinery
  • The ability to create assemblies—collections of previously designed parts—that can be reused when needed

What is 3D CAD Software?

3D CAD software makes designing structures of varying sizes and complexity much more efficient. It does this by allowing the user to work through many initial problems faced during the early design phase, such as working out how the structure should be arranged or getting a feel for how a structure will look in three dimensions. It can also give a sense of the requirements of the finished piece in terms of how much material it will need and what sort of footprint it will have in the real world.

3D CAD software can be used for several design applications, from small 3D printed components to entire buildings. Furthermore, it can be used for more cosmetic applications, such as planning out the interior design of a room. CAD software tends to specialise. For example, software meant for engineering purposes might come with intensive physics-based stress-testing functions. CAD software intended for interior design won't have a stress-testing functionality, but it might come with a library of drag-and-droppable furniture models to speed up the design process.

Businesses can make use of CAD design software for a variety of purposes beyond designing things for manufacture. One example has been mentioned—visualising interior design plans. It can also be used for presentations, particularly if the CAD software supports the creation of animations. Users can generate a rough Bill of Materials (BOM) using CAD packages. This type of software is traditionally sold as a software package to be installed on local machines, though some developers now offer cloud-based alternatives that run in a web browser and store information in the cloud. It should be noted that, due to technological constraints, the browser-based CAD options tend to be more limited than software packages.

What are the benefits of 3D CAD software?

The benefits of 3D CAD are focused on making it easier to accurately design real-world items and structures, sometimes taking into account things like the stresses placed on the structure by its weight or other external forces. Ultimately, this type of software removes a large amount of waste in the design and prototyping process over more traditional design methods, thus reducing the costs of designing products or structures. This and many other specific advantages of using 3D CAD software are listed below:

  • Reduce waste during the prototyping process: The process of designing a physical item has traditionally been quite a wasteful one. This is because it is challenging to plan a design to perfection the first time using things like sketches and physical models. Invariably, there will be problems that only become apparent once the structure is built. CAD software significantly reduces these errors by giving the designer a higher degree of accuracy, detail, and control during the design phase.
  • Reduce error margins: Even the most talented architects, engineers, and other professionals of that nature can only design things to a certain degree of accuracy. Unfortunately, this means that designing things "by hand" limits what can be designed, particularly when it comes to larger structures. CAD software allows the user to design with much greater accuracy, meaning they can take advantage of smaller margins when designing structural components.
  • More possibilities for experimentation: Being free of the restrictions of physical prototyping practices allows users to try far more variations and styles of the thing they are designing without having to worry about the cost of building prototypes and models first. Other than the cost of the software, the only expense involved with this part of the process is the time it takes to make the design, so there is far more freedom to try things.
  • Faster manufacturing processes with CNC machinery: Though more applicable in engineering and 3D printing than things like architecture or interior design, the overall prototyping and manufacturing process can be much faster thanks to CNC machinery. Using these machines, data can be exported directly from the CAD software to the machine, which can then produce the part in question automatically. This process is considerably faster than traditional methods, such as creating a technical drawing by hand and using that drawing to make the part by hand.
  • Run complex physics-based simulations: Some CAD packages will provide the ability to run complex simulations to test the stresses of the structure being designed. These simulations are often used in architecture and engineering, ensuring that the structure is sufficiently strong within itself and can withstand external forces, such as wind.
  • Track material usage in a prospective build: Many CAD packages will allow the user to keep an accurate record of the materials used in the design. This record is generally accurate enough to be used in a bill of materials (after factoring in things like wastage) and makes estimating the cost of a project much easier and faster.
  • Create detailed technical drawings: Despite the ability to export all the necessary data to CNC machinery, technical drawings are needed regularly in engineering and construction. CAD software makes creating these drawings much easier than doing it by hand. In some cases, there are even automated features to create technical drawings.
  • Use 3D models for presentations and sales pitches: The designs created in 3D CAD software can be used as visual aids to show how a finished project will look. The models can often be exported to specialist software that is designed to render the design realistically, and some CAD packages even have a rendering feature built-in.

What are the features of 3D CAD software?

3D CAD software will typically feature a set of core features and a set of common features. The core feature should be available in all CAD solutions, whereas the common features can vary from software to software. Here are some of the most common features of 3D CAD software:

  • 2D drawing: While the primary focus of this type of software is on 3D design, most packages will still allow for the design of objects in 2D. This may be a straight two-dimensional technical drawing, but it is a prelude to a three-dimensional part. For example, a user might design a flat pattern that, once complete, can be extruded out to a three-dimensional shape. Another example of designing in 2D would involve drawing a "path" that a 3D profile can be extruded along, such as would be the case when making complex tubular frames.
  • Bill of materials management: CAD packages intended for production use will often provide the ability to manage a bill of materials. This allows a user to see what materials will be required for the designed build, even factoring in wastage in some cases. Seeing the bill of materials before proper construction or manufacturing has begun can make the planning phase of a project go much more smoothly.
  • Data import/export: There are many reasons why a user might need to import data to or export data from their CAD package. One reason was mentioned above—CNC machinery. Other examples of the need to export include sending the design to a 3D printer or exporting it to a 3D rendering application for presentation purposes. A user may also need to import a CAD file from a different application.
  • 3D printing functions: In CAD packages intended for use with 3D printing, there will often be automated features to make the process easier. One of the most common 3D printing functions automatically adds a sacrificial support structure to the design to prevent it from sagging or collapsing during the printing process.
  • Animation and presentation feature: CAD software can be used increasingly in pitching and presentation processes. Many CAD packages feature built-in rendering functions that can create lifelike images of the 3D models in the software. More still allow for exporting the models into a format that can then be rendered in a different application. These images can be used in presentations or pitch meetings, allowing the user to give others a clear idea of what the structure will look like without having to build it for real.
  • Assemblies: In certain fields—particularly in engineering and construction—it is common to re-use specific designs many times, both in a single project and across other projects. Many CAD packages will allow users to create assemblies that can be saved independently of the larger models they are being used in. Additionally, these assemblies can remain linked when imported into a design so that any changes to the assembly will automatically update the parts that the assembly included.
  • Collaboration tools: Larger projects will invariably have more than one person working on them, which is why CAD packages intended for large-scale projects typically feature some form of collaborative functionality. This may be as simple as allowing users to leave annotations for the designer but can also include the ability for multiple designers to work together on the same project simultaneously.
  • Simulation tools: Most common in engineering and architecture, some CAD solutions feature simulation functions that can calculate various stresses imparted on a structure—such as wind or the structure's weight—and report on whether the structure would adequately withstand those forces.

What should be considered when purchasing 3D CAD software?

When purchasing 3D CAD software, it is critical to consider what the company needs from their CAD software. This type of software is still commonly sold as a per-seat license, and can quickly become very expensive, so a business will need to make sure it is only paying for features it needs from its CAD software. Smaller businesses may get everything they need from a Software-as-a-Service option, whereas—for the time being, organisations that need full physics simulations and rendering capabilities will likely need to purchase a complete solution. Listed below are some more specific things a business should consider when looking for 3D CAD software.

  • Is the software designed for the correct industry? Not all CAD software is made the same, and the industry that software is for will make a substantial difference in its features and the way it works. Some CAD packages serve more than one industry, some attempt to cover all bases, however many specialise in a certain area. Therefore, it's critical to ensure the chosen solution is suitable for the industry and the use case it will be applied.
  • How much does the software cost? As mentioned above, CAD software can get quite expensive, especially when dealing with high-end software that can perform complex physics calculations. For this reason, it would be wise to only pay for needed features. Some software providers mitigate this problem by offering modular software. In this case, a "base" package or subscription would be available, with subsequent features such as add-ons or plugins. By carefully selecting the features that are needed, a substantial amount of money could be saved on the cost of the software.
  • Does the business need to make presentations? If the CAD software is intended to be used as part of a pitching process, or if the resulting models will be used to report to management or other parties, the buyer will need to ensure the software can provide those materials. Animations will be crucial for engineering firms that deal with moving parts. The ability to render a design into a photo-realistic image will be beneficial. However, these features add to the cost. If the business does not need this ability from its CAD software, it would likely be better to choose a package that doesn't include them.
  • Does the software store data securely? CAD designs are considered sensitive information and need to be kept secure. Locally-deployed applications will mostly be the responsibility of the company and their infrastructure, but cloud-based alternatives will be storing that sensitive information online, so it's worth ensuring they will be storing it securely.
  • Is the software compatible with other software solutions the company uses? If an organisation needs their CAD software to work with other software packages they already have—such as 2D CAD software used in the past—research should be done into whether the potential new software will work with those applications. In most cases, this is just a matter of file compatibility—whether or not the new software open the files exported from the old software—and shouldn't be a problem. It is certainly worth making sure before purchasing expensive CAD software.
  • Is the software being actively developed? CAD is an area of software that is advancing fast, and there will undoubtedly be many changes in the coming years. This makes it vital to choose software from a developer actively working on and improving their product. Failing to do so could see a business missing out on important new features and, ultimately, having to buy more software to keep up.

Because 3D CAD software progresses quickly, it helps to be aware of the trends around this software category to make a more informed purchase decision. Therefore, the most relevant trends related to 3D CAD software are:

  • Cloud CAD: While traditional software packages are still common in this category of software, the capabilities of cloud computing and browser-based applications are likely to make cloud-native CAD applications the norm going forward. This will likely lead to a shift toward subscription-based payment rather than a per-seat license system.
  • Artificial intelligence: Artificial Intelligence (AI) is leading to major improvements in many categories of software, and CAD is unlikely to be any different. Generative design is one area where AI is being used in CAD. This system allows designers to generate optimised versions of a design based on various parameters, such as cost.
  • Additive manufacturing: It was mentioned above that some CAD solutions feature 3D printing-specific functions. This is likely to become less of a specialist feature going forward as additive manufacturing becomes more common.