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Affordable 3D Mechanical CAD Directory

I’ve just created a Trac page with my directory of free, affordable, and semi-affordable 3D MCAD programs.

I’ve been wanting to create some directories for a while, so I can have a central place for information, instead of having it spread out among various blog posts.  In the past, I’ve used WordPress pages (for Piezo Motors and Industrial Robot Resources), but I’ve decided I like using Trac better, so I will be creating my new directories on my Trac site.

As I come across new or updated information, I will update these directories.  I use them myself, and I hope they are useful to others, too.

July 2, 2014   No Comments

New Cheap But Limited 3D MCAD Choices

If you want to learn MCAD or make models to build in your garage, there are a couple of new choices:

  • Siemens PLM Systems is making the student edition of Solid Edge available to basically anyone for free.  Limitations include no commercial use, files incompatible with commercial Solid Edge, and watermarked drawings.  See Deelip’s post for more details.
  • ASCON has introduced Kompas 3D-Home for $50.  David Levin says that Kompas 3D-Home cannot be used commercially, but otherwise has no limitations.

September 7, 2011   No Comments

The Turbulent MCAD Market

I’m not interested in being a 3D Mechanical CAD (MCAD) journalist, but since has lot happened in the last year, it’s time for my summary.

The “Big 4” have been up to a lot:

  • SolidWorks is being brought closer to its parent (Dassault Systèmes).  It’s highly probably that a new version based on the CATIA V6 CGM kernel is coming, possibly cloud based.
  • PTC has put Pro/E out to pasture, and is busy trying to get its new Creo components out.  Creo is supposedly to be modular (including history based and direct modelling modules) and app-oriented.  The vision sounds nice, but I suspect that the actual operational and pricing details will make it evolutionary, not revolutionary.
  • AutoDesk is adding direct modelling to Inventor via the Fusion program.  The free 123D program is a cut-down, stand-alone version of Inventor fusion.  123D looks quite useful, but I expect it’ll be neutered if it starts to impact Inventor revenues.
  • Siemens PLM Systems is finally getting its Solid Edge act together.  They’re concentrating on making Solid Edge the best program for machine design, and Synchronous Technology V3 (direct and history based modelling) has been getting good reviews.

There’s been even more change with many of the smaller players:

  • 3D Systems recently bought Alibre.  A few months ago Alibre introduced a $1500 bundle consisting of a RapMan 3D printer, Alibre Design Personal, and MoI.  I’ll be interested to see what happens next.
  • The $97 Alibre Design Standard deal really was a great deal, just for the translators and 3D PDF output alone, but the recent pricing and capability changes (e.g. removing almost all import and export options from AD Personal) really neutered the entry level version.
  • I’m hopeful that 3DS will provide resources so Alibre can keep improving (especially since I just paid for Alibre maintenance!)
  • ZWCAD of China bought VX, and renamed it ZW3D.
    • On the positive side, ZWCAD is trying to treat customers well, there have been no US layoffs as far as I know, they have been investing money into ZW3D (licensing more components, adding more developers, etc), appear to be listening, and probably have a good upgrade policy.
    • On the other hand, it’s taking a  (long?) while for them to get up to speed, they’re going to a reseller-only approach (e.g. you have to contact your reseller to upgrade), and they really need to spend some money and hire some good US marketing folks.
    • For example, when ZWCAD took over, they gave all customers a free upgrade to the next level.  So if you had VX Innovate, you got upgraded to ZW3D 2010 Standard, if you had VX standard, you were upgraded to ZW3D 2010 Professional.  I think this was a great gesture, but ZWCAD never received any publicity for this.
  • Think3 users are in a huge mess, and should start looking elsewhere, since there are now two versions, one from Versata, and one from the Italian bankruptcy trustee.  Deelip is the place to go for all the details.
  • I plan on discussing my experiences with Alibre, ZW3D, and 123D, but I won’t make any promises on how often I’ll have time for such posts.

    August 2, 2011   No Comments

    Autodesk 123D MCAD and PCB Models

    Autodesk just released the beta version of the 123D 3D mechanical CAD program.  It’s meant for hobbyists, but Autodesk surprised me by including both STEP file import and export.  (Free or low cost commercial CAD programs almost always don’t include free STEP file export).

    123D is the standalone version of Inventor Fusion, so it is a direct modeler (not a history based like SolidWorks or Alibre).  So put together free, easier to use (direct modeling), and STEP file import/export, and it should work great for creating 3D PCB models.  There could be some problems, such as assembly limitations (such as a low maximum number of parts), or the EULA (so far the 123D End User License Agreement appears to be the standard Autodesk one, with no mentions of restrictions on commercial use).

    I haven’t been able to check out 123D’s PCB prowess yet because I haven’t been able to get it to start successfully.  I’ll give it another try in a while.

    May 22, 2011   No Comments

    Affordable 3D MCAD

    These are low cost programs suitable for designing mechanical assemblies.

    Don’t forget you can use multiple programs to overcome the limitations of one program.

    Open Source

    Both NaroCAD and FreeCAD are under active development, but I’m pretty sure neither one is anywhere close to ready for production use.

    They are still worth checking out, because they might have enough functionality for what you need to do.

    Free Commercial MCAD

    These programs typically have a lot of limitations, the terms can change at any time, but they are still potentially useful.

    1. PowerSHAPE-e.  Very powerful, but costs money to export.
    2. Autodesk 123D.  Appears to be good match for modeling personal PCBs; has STEP import and export.
    3. CoCreate PE, now creo elements/direct PE.  Limited import and export, limited to 60 parts, but good to see PTC has moved it into the Creo world.
    4. MEDUSA4 Personal.  Available for Windows and Linux.
    5. Autodesk Labs Inventor Fusion Preview.  Time limited preview of the Fusion direct editing MCAD software.

    MCAD Under $500

    1. Alibre PE ($199).  Very limited import and export options.

    MCAD Under $1500

    1. IronCAD Draft ($595).  Not a full MCAD program (e.g. can’t create parts), but can create assemblies.
    2. Alibre Professional ($699).  Adds import/export options and more.
    3. VariCAD ($710).  Available for Windows and Linux.
    4. IronCAD INNOVATE XG (~$1300).  Meant for conceptual design, but according to the product comparison it includes “assembly modeling within  a single scene”.
    5. Alibre Expert ($1399).  Adds CAM, Motion, MoI, and more.
    6. The combination of Rhino ($995 list, available for less) and RhinoWorks ($595, adds parametric and assembly capabilities) might work well.

    Other Options worth considering

    1. ZW3D ($2500 for Standard).  ZW3D 2011 adds direct editing.
    2. IRONCAD ($4000 and up).  Innovative MCAD.
    3. SpaceClaim ($2450 and up).  Well known for easy direct editing.

    Update 4/18/2011: Added Rhino/RhinoWorks

    Update 5/22/2011: Added Autodesk 123D, updated Alibre PE price.

    April 1, 2011   No Comments

    MCAD Update: VX, Alibre

    I don’t write much about the latest mechanical CAD news, because others (like Deelip) already do it better than I can.  But, since I write a lot about affordable MCAD, it’s time for a brief update on two players:

    • Alibre has replaced the $97 Design Standard with the $99 Personal Edition.  The PE is useless for my uses (such as modeling PCBs) because it won’t import or export STEP or IGES files, although at least you still can do a basic file export to 3D PDF.
      • The cheapest version that can handle STEP files is Design Professional, which is currently $599; Alibre’s price do move around a lot.  Since Alibre runs a lot of specials, especially for existing customers (e.g. PE or Standard users), you should be able to upgrade for less if you wait a while.
      • But I’m very happy Alibre is keeping the Standard edition alive for current users.  I plan on staying on maintenance as long as Alibre continues to provide Standard upgrades.
    • VX dropped the VX Innovator and Innovator Light products a while ago without saying anything at all.  So if you’re interested in Innovator, well, too bad.
    • My guess is that this is related to the news that China’s ZWCAD ZWSOFT (maker of the ZWCAD AutoCAD clone) has bought VX; VX will be staying in Florida, but the VX product line will become ZW3D, possibly with significantly lower prices.

    September 2, 2010   No Comments

    The SolidWorks World Effect? Alibre’s Lower Prices, VX 50% Sale

    SolidWorks World 2010 just finished.  Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe it’s not, but at the start of SolidWorks World Alibre announced “permanent” lower prices (no guarantees they won’t change prices again, but I suspect they’ll stay the same for a while).  And VX has just about everything 50% off until March 1.

    Alibre’s prices now include Alibre Translate (which was $499).  (Alibre pricing info via World CAD Access).

    Alibre Product Base Price Annual Maintenance With Maintenance
    Design Standard $97 $97 $194
    Design Professional $497 $147 $644
    Design Expert $997 $197 $1197

    VX’s current sale (through March 1, 2010) is VX Innovator for $495, VX Designer for $2000, VX Mold & Die for $3000, VX 3D Machinist for $4000, and VX End To End for $5000.

    VX definitely looks more capable than Alibre, but it’s significantly more expensive (including, I’m sure, the annual maintenance fees).  So far, I’ve been able to do some things in VX Innovator I can’t do in Alibre, but Alibre has very few license restrictions.  For example, VX Innovator limits assembly creation to 40 parts maximum (it can import models with more), while Alibre Design Standard does not have any hard limits.  Also, Alibre lets you install Design on up to three computers, which is very nice for those of us with multiple PCs.

    I think that if you do anything with 3D solid modeling (not surfacing), then Alibre is definitely worth a look due to its low price, lack of artificial limits, and good import/export options (especially now with Alibre Translate).  If Alibre can improve the ease of use, maybe it can become what SpaceClaim originally claimed to be: MCAD for the rest of us (non-designers), people who need to occasionally work with 3D, but aren’t designing complex parts all day long.

    Right now, I’m still sticking with Alibre Design Standard V11 and VX Innovator; if I do a lot of CAD this year, I’ll look at upgrading to Alibre V12.

    NOTE: Updated 2/4/10 to reflect Max Freeman’s comment.

    February 3, 2010   9 Comments

    Mechanical CAD, Special Deals, and Me

    When I look at my traffic stats, I see there’s a lot of interest in affordable mechanical CAD.  I think that interest is good: I do not believe in pirating software, and I believe there is a place for affordable MCAD (and affordable CAM for desktop CNC machines), especially for personal use and as a tool for people who aren’t primarily mechanical designers.

    I own licenses of Alibre Design Standard V11 (which I bought during the $99 sale) and VX Innovator V14 (which I bought on sale for $195).  I also have free licenses for DoubleCAD XT and CoCreate PE.

    I mainly plan on using Alibre and VX Innovator, and reporting my experiences here.  They are somewhat complimentary; Alibre is a pretty standard history-based parametric modeler (with some nice features such as Acrobat 3D output), and VX is a hybrid modeler (solid and surface).

    DoubleCAD looks very capable for 2D CAD, but I don’t expect to use it a lot.  I mainly use it for viewing and experimenting with DXF files created by Eagle PCB.

    I do like CoCreate PE, but don’t plan on using it much now that I have Alibre Design and VX Innovator.  It’s limited to 60 parts per assembly, which I could easily exceed when modeling a PCB, and cannot export STEP files.  PTC has offered some very big discounts in the past to upgrade to the full version, but the annual maintenance  cost is way too high for my budget.

    However, this is not a MCAD blog; my interest in still primarily in automation software and system integration (including PCBs).  OK, I do plan on writing more, but mostly I want to write about my experiences with affordable MCAD.  I do not have the time or interest to keep up with all the latest deals.  But I still might mention deals or MCAD news occasionally.

    If you want to keep up on the latest special offers, you should visit MCAD sites such as and World CAD Access.  Also, if you register for the free versions (e.g. Alibre Design Xpress, CoCreate PE, DoubleCAD XT) you will receive e-mail offers.

    Alibre has had a lot of good deals (maybe too many).  I’m currently sticking with V11 because I haven’t used it enough, and the improvements in V12 aren’t compelling for my uses.

    VX had another sale on VX Innovator around Christmas, but they aren’t as good at marketing as Alibre; if you’re interested in a deal on VX, you should check their web store frequently.

    Kubotek has had some sales, too, such as Kubotek Spectrum for $99; current deals include $700 off KeyCreator.

    My latest MCAD news is here.

    January 14, 2010   3 Comments

    Expiring MCAD Deals: VX Innovator 9/4, Alibre 9/29

    Update 9/9/09: VX Innovator is now $295 (Americas, India, Africa) until September 30, 2009.  Check here for my latest MCAD news.

    Since I’ve been posting a lot about affordable Mechanical CAD software, here’s an update on two great deals:

    • Alibre’s $99 offer for Design Standard V11.2 ends on September 29, 2009; also on sale for $99 are Alibre Translate and Alibre Training Bundle.  The maintenance contract is still $299, and includes the upgrade to V12 (due on 9/29/09).
    • Time to give some attention to VX Innovator: it’s on sale for $195 until September 4, 2009 for Americas, India, and Africa (with a note that price will increase to $295 — we’ll see if that’s a permanent price cut).

    I’ ve been playing with Innovator for the past couple days, and will probably buy it, too.  Some initial comments:

    • I’ve had problems installing it on two XP systems, but did get it to install on a Vista (yuck!) system.
    • There’s not much about it on the web.  I’ve tried searching for VX topics, and had a hard time coming up with useful results;  there’s much more information available on Alibre and CoCreate.
    • I was able to get it do some basic stuff without reading the manual, but with a fair amount of fiddling; overall, I’d say it’s not too difficult to use.
    • It can do some things Alibre can’t do, and works in a very different manner (which is good — if it was very similar to Alibre, Solidworks, Solid Edge, etc I wouldn’t be interested).

    BTW, I’m not interested in running cracked copies of software (e.g. Solidworks).  I’m interested in using software that’s affordable for anyone to use commercially, and I think that companies that produce good software should be rewarded.

    September 2, 2009   No Comments

    Alibre’s $99 Deal Is Good for PCB Design

    I’ve blogged recently about Alibre’s crippling of Design Xpress.  Well, for a limited time, Alibre is now offering Alibre Design Standard for $99; I like this deal and have already paid for a license.

    I am using MCAD software to model the PCBs I design because I can catch several types of design errors, including incorrect footprints and mechanical interference.

    My requirements are pretty simple; what I want is an affordable system that can:

    • import STEP and IGES files, since I want to use the manufacturer’s models if at all possible
    • import and extrude DXF files, so I can easily create a model of the printed circuit board itself
    • create assemblies using a fair number of parts (>50 should  be enough most of the time)
    • export to STEP file (required) and 3D PDF, so I can share my work with others who aren’t using the same CAD software
    • be fairly easy to learn and use — I’m primarily a software guy, occasionally designing PCBs, but I’m definitely not a mechanical designer.
    • cost under $250

    None of currently available free commercial MCAD programs meets all these requirements.  For example, I am fond of CoCreate PE, but it does not export to STEP or 3D PDF, and is limited to 60 parts per assembly.

    At $99, however, Alibre Design Standard meets all these requirements, so I will be using it now for all my PCB modeling.  I still want to experiment with and blog about other possibilities, but I don’t expect to get around to that anytime soon.

    Some commentators feel this is a desperation move by Alibre.  I think it is a good deal, because:

    1. Alibre is getting a lot of publicity
    2. They are getting cash flow from Design Xpress users they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise (I’ll call these people, including myself, the non-serious users).  In my case, Design Standard currently isn’t worth $999 (or even $500) to me, so Alibre received $99 from me that they wouldn’t have earned otherwise.
    3. Since Alibre has not cut their other pricing, and support and maintenance is not included (Design Standard + 1 year support and upgrades is $398), their support costs are not going to skyrocket, and they probably won’t be devaluing their products.
    4. They will still be getting more money from the “serious users” (who would be willing to pay >$500) because these users will be paying annual maintenance.
    5. They have increased their chances of upselling in the future.  Once I am used to modelling with Design Standard, I am more likely to pay for maintenance or upgrades in the future.

    Go here for my latest MCAD news posts.

    August 17, 2009   5 Comments