Free CAD software packages: 4 excellent options for makers and hobbyists to get started without spending a cent
Previously owned by Google, SketchUp is a design suite primarily focussed on architectural and interior designs—although it can deftly handle smaller models as well—with a low barrier of entry. The free version of SketchUp is browser-based, which means it can be a little limited in some regards. On the other hand, being browser-based means that there is no downloading, and compatibility or performance issues are unlikely. If you're keen to give it a go, simply head to the SketchUp website, create an account, and get modelling.
SketchUp Free is far more limited than a lot of its competition, but if you're not looking to spend a lot of time and money getting into 3D modelling, it's a good place to start.
2. Siemens Solid Edge Community Edition
Siemens Solid Edge is a CAD package that competes on the same level as the big players, like AutoCAD, SolidWorks, and Inventor, although its approach to modelling puts a unique twist on the normal parametric workflow. The Community Edition of Siemens Solid Edge is designed exclusively for hobbyists and cannot be used to produce commercial content, but there is also an option to apply for a free licence if you have a start-up that's under three years old. Community Edition cuts down on a handful of advanced CAM features, but offers a perpetual, offline licence—a feature that differentiates Solid Edge from the competition. Solid Edge is great for all manner of 3D and 2D modelling applications, from architectural layouts and mechanical assemblies, to 3D modelling and printing.
While it isn't particularly user-friendly for beginners, Solid Edge Community Edition is a solid piece of modelling software that lets you take your time and grow into it before you commit to buying a paid plan.
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FreeCAD is a free, open source parametric CAD modelling suite with the general FOSS woes—some of which are a somewhat clunky UI and intimidating learning curve. Being free and open source means you get the full experience right out the gate, and there's a sizeable community of users to rely on for help and support. FreeCAD supports a variety of file types for both exporting and importing, though you're bound to encounter some compatibility issues when you're trying to import more complex files from proprietary CAD programs like Autodesk or SolidWorks.
While FreeCAD may not be as feature-rich or neatly presented as some of the other options out there, it is plenty powerful for someone just getting started, and the development team is always working on features and updates to make it better. Furthermore, you can create add-ons or add community-made add-ons with the built-in add-on manager.
4. Blender 3D
Those who are familiar with Blender will almost certainly baulk at the idea of including it in a list of CAD programs for beginners, so it's important to preface this with a warning that Blender is not at all user-friendly. On the positive side of things, Blender's complexity is solely due to the fact that there's so much stuff in it. Blender allows you to make 3D models—using more than one workflow, mind you—as well as create animations, static renders, textures, video clips, and even hand-drawn cartoons.
Blender is also open-source software, and the user interface has evolved in leaps and bounds since the release of Blender 2.8, now featuring separate workspaces for each workflow, and a pleasant dark mode. Python integration allows for powerful customisation with add-ons and scripting support for more advanced users. Blender is another great software that you can grow into as your design skills and proficiency with it improve over time.