Top 10 Best Free General-Purpose CAD Software

Best Free General-purpose CAD Software in 2023

Computer-aided design (CAD) software allows engineers, architects, designers, and makers to create detailed 2D and 3D models for prototypes, manufacturing, and more. High-end CAD software can be expensive, but free and open source options are available that offer professional-grade tools and capabilities.

Best Free General-purpose CAD Software in 2023

This guide looks at the 10 best free CAD programs for different experience levels and design needs. We compare key features, capabilities, pros and cons, and more to help you find the right free CAD platform.

What is CAD Software?

CAD (computer-aided design) software allows users to create 2D drawings and 3D models of physical components and products. It is used across many industries including engineering, architecture, construction, product design, and manufacturing.

How does it work?

CAD software replaces manual drafting with an automated process using computers. It improves design precision, saves time, and allows users to easily edit and iterate on designs. CAD helps bring ideas to life.

Key capabilities include:

  • 2D drafting tools like lines, shapes, text
  • 3D modeling and surface modeling
  • Parametric modeling where designs update automatically if parameters change
  • Generating technical drawings from 3D models
  • Simulation, analysis, and rendering
  • File compatibility with manufacturing, 3D printing, etc.

Why Use CAD Software?

Here are some of the main benefits that CAD software provides:

  • Increased efficiency: CAD automates manual drafting tasks and makes it easy to edit and iterate. This saves significant time compared to traditional methods.
  • Precision: CAD allows for extremely precise 2D drawings and 3D models down to fractions of millimeters. Precision is also maintained when editing models.
  • Visualization: CAD makes it easy to create 3D models and photorealistic renderings to visualize and communicate designs. This helps identify issues earlier.
  • Collaboration: CAD files are easy to share allowing for collaboration between designers, engineers, manufacturers, etc.
  • Simulation: Many CAD platforms support simulation of stresses, fluid flow, motion, temperatures, and more. This helps test and optimize designs digitally.
  • Manufacturing: CAD files can be used to automate CNC machining, 3D printing, laser cutting, and other manufacturing processes.

How to Choose the Right Free CAD Software

With many free CAD options available, here are some key factors to consider when selecting:

  • Learning curve: Look for CAD software with an intuitive interface and features aimed at beginners if you are new to CAD. More advanced programs can have steeper learning curves.
  • 2D vs 3D: Some CAD software focuses on 2D drafting while others are made for 3D modeling and design. Choose based on your needs.
  • Parametric modeling: Parametric CAD, where designs update automatically if parameters are changed, is preferred for mechanical engineering but not always necessary for other applications.
  • Industry-specific features: Some CAD platforms are tailored towards specific industries like architecture or electrical design. Choose software with relevant features.
  • Compatibility: Ensure the CAD software can export file formats compatible with your prototyping, simulation, and manufacturing workflow.
  • Licensing: Verify license terms allow commercial use if you plan to monetize designs made with the free CAD software.
  • Community: An active user community is a plus for tutorials, troubleshooting, and development of the free open source program.

Top 10 Best Free CAD Software

Here is a comparison of the top free CAD software options across key criteria:

CriteriaLibreCADFreeCADFusion 360TinkerCADOpenSCADNanoCADQCADSketchUpSolveSpaceSolid Edge
Best For2D DraftingParametric 3D ModelingCAD, CAM, CAEBeginners, EducationProgramming CAD2D Drafting2D DraftingConcept ModelingMechanical DesignParametric 3D Modeling
Learning CurveEasySteepModerateVery EasyVery SteepEasyEasyEasyModerateSteep
2D DraftingExcellentGoodGoodSimpleMinimalExcellentExcellentGoodMinimalGood
3D ModelingMinimalExcellentExcellentSimpleGoodMinimalMinimalGoodGoodExcellent
Parametric ModelingNoYesYesNoYesNoNoNoNoYes
SimulationNoBasicExtensiveNoNoNoNoNoBasicExtensive
File CompatibilityFairGoodExcellentGoodLimitedFairFairGoodFairExcellent
LicensingOpen SourceOpen SourceFree for Personal/EducationFree Web VersionOpen SourceFree PersonalOpen SourceFree Limited VersionOpen SourceFree for Students/Educators
           

Best CAD Softwares – Let’s dive deeper

Now let’s look at an in-depth review of each platform and see which might be the right free CAD choice for you.

1. LibreCAD

LibreCAD is an open source 2D CAD program with DWG compatibility and a user interface that will be familiar to AutoCAD users. It’s easy to learn and great for quick 2D drawings.

  • Key Features: 2D drafting, DWG support, dimensioning and annotations
  • Reviews: 4.2/5 stars (SourceForge), 4/5 stars (Capterra)
  • Pros: Easy to use, very lightweight, active community
  • Cons: Windows look and feel, limited features beyond 2D drafting
LibreCAD

LibreCAD is an excellent free option if you need to create detailed technical drawings, floorplans, diagrams, and schematics. Its simple interface makes it easy to learn for beginners yet includes advanced tools like isometric drafting. Interoperability with DWG files allows exchanging drawings with engineers, architects, and designers that use AutoCAD.

The open source program has a small filesize and loads quickly even on underpowered computers. Community extensions expand capabilities for tasks like HVAC and electrical schematics. User forums provide peer support during the learning process. An integrated DXF import wizard makes it easy to start with scanned drawings or PDFs from other programs.

While LibreCAD focuses on 2D drafting, it lacks any 3D modeling capabilities. The interface looks dated compared to modern CAD software. Users looking for powerful parametric modeling tools would need to look elsewhere. But for straightforward 2D CAD drafting, LibreCAD is free, fast, and capable.

LibreCAD

Key Features

  • Full 2D drafting toolkit – lines, circles, arcs, text, dimensions, hatches, blocks
  • DWG file support to exchange drawings with AutoCAD users
  • User-friendly interface ideal for new CAD users
  • Lightweight and fast performance

Why Consider LibreCAD

With its easy learning curve and essential 2D drafting tools, LibreCAD is the best free option for basic CAD drawing needs. The active user community provides guidance for beginners.

2. FreeCAD

FreeCAD is a free open source CAD package for Linux, Mac, and Windows that focuses on parametric 3D modeling for engineering and design.

  • Key Features: Parametric modeling, extensive modifications tools, feature-based workflow
  • Reviews: 4.5/5 stars (Capterra), 4.3/5 stars (AlternativeTo)
  • Pros: Full parametric CAD capabilities, powerful modeling tools, highly customizable
  • Cons: Steep learning curve, complex UI, limited 2D tools
FreeCAD

FreeCAD uses a parametric approach for 3D modeling where shapes and features update when their defining parameters are changed. This makes iterative design easy and precise. The modular architecture interfaces various geometry engines for flexible CAD and allows Python scripting for automation.

While extremely capable, FreeCAD does have a steep learning curve. The dense UI and extensive modification tools require time to master. Those looking for quick 2D drafting would be better served by other options. But engineers, makers, and designers who need full parametric CAD for product design should consider the premium features FreeCAD makes available for free.

An active community contributes multiple workbenches (plugin modules) for disciplines like architecture and finite element analysis. The open source program can export STL and other files for 3D printing or CNC manufacturing. For advanced engineering CAD, FreeCAD delivers professional tools without the professional price tag.

FreeCAD

Key Features

  • Parametric modeling for flexible 3D design
  • Feature editing tools like fillets, booleans, arrays
  • Architectural and mechanical engineering workbenches
  • Open source extensibility with Python scripting

Why Consider FreeCAD

FreeCAD is the most advanced free CAD option, providing professional parametric modeling capabilities without limits for personal use.

3. Fusion 360 (Personal Use)

Fusion 360 by Autodesk is a full CAD/CAM/CAE package aimed at product designers, engineers, makers, and manufacturers. The free license has unlimited personal use capabilities.

  • Key Features: Parametric 3D CAD, CAM, simulation, rendering
  • Reviews: 4.5/5 stars (Capterra), 4.6/5 stars (G2)
  • Pros: Complete set of design, engineering, and machining tools
  • Cons: Can be overpowered for basic needs, limits commercial work
Fusion 360 (Personal Use)

This integrated platform combines solid modeling, assemblies, generative design, FEA simulation, realistic rendering, animation, manufacturing tools like CAM/CNC, and much more. Fusion 360 enables a complete digital prototyping workflow in one package.

The learning curve is reasonable for the extensive capabilities on offer. Fusion 360 is cloud-based, allowing easy online collaboration and sharing of design files. Community forums provide peer support.

The free license limits commercial use of files created in Fusion 360. But for personal CAD, engineering, school projects, 3D printing, CNC, and more, Fusion 360 provides professional tools worth far more than the $0 price tag. Just be prepared for advanced capabilities you may not need.

Fusion 360 (Personal Use)

Key Features

  • Combine CAD, CAM, CAE in one platform
  • Cloud-based collaboration
  • Parametric modeling with feature timeline history tree
  • Simulation, rendering, animation, generative tools
  • PCB design capabilities

Why Consider Fusion 360

This uniquely integrated and scalable platform will grow with you from beginner CAD needs to advanced engineering and manufacturing.

4. Tinkercad

Tinkercad is a free, easy-to-use CAD modeling tool focused on beginners and education. Models are created by combining and modifying primitive 3D shapes.

  • Key Features: Simple drag and drop 3D modeling, library of 3D objects
  • Reviews: 4.5/5 stars (Capterra)
  • Pros: Extremely easy to learn, great for absolute beginners
  • Cons: Limited features beyond basics, browser-only
Tinkercad

As a browser-based application requiring no software installs, Tinkercad is highly accessible. The block-based interface keeps the learning curve gentle. Young students can start modeling right away. Simple controls edit and combine 3D objects like cubes, pyramids, cylinders, and spheres to create low-poly meshes suitable for 3D printing.

While Tinkercad lacks advanced modeling capabilities, its focus on ease of use provides the perfect starting point for beginners. And key CAD techniques like constructive solid geometry can still be learned through the intuitive interface before transitioning to more advanced tools.

Tinkercad

Key Features

  • Accessible browser-based app needs no install
  • Drag and drop editing for easy 3D modeling
  • Library of ready-made 3D models and shapes
  • Export STL for 3D printing projects

Why Consider Tinkercad

This free and intuitive tool allows complete beginners to jump into basic 3D modeling with no prior experience required.

5. OpenSCAD

OpenSCAD is a free CAD software that focuses on creating 3D models parametrically through programming scripts rather than interactively.

  • Key Features: Parametric CAD via scripting language
  • Reviews: 4.3/5 stars (Capterra)
  • Pros: Precise designs through coded parameters, extensive customization
  • Cons: Text-based interface has very steep learning curve
OpenSCAD

Designs are defined in the OpenSCAD language, allowing complex 3D models to be created parametrically through code. Users modify design parameters and variables to iteratively refine models. OpenSCAD then renders 3D objects, animations, and technical drawings from the scripts.

This parametric CAD approach gives designers precise control for highly customized designs. But coding requires significant learning before any modeling can begin. OpenSCAD is better suited to engineers and programmers than casual users. The text-based interface lacks the ease of visual CAD software.

Yet OpenSCAD remains a powerful free option for expert users. Scripts define not just shapes but features like extrusions, fillets, and booleans. No monthly fees or usage limits constrain projects. OpenSCAD scripts can even generate STL files for 3D printing on demand.

OpenSCAD

Key Features

  • Parametric modeling by coding 2D/3D primitives
  • Mathematical functions for transformations and extrusion
  • Customizable via extensions, libraries, and scripting
  • Export 3D models, technical drawings, and STL files

Why Consider OpenSCAD

This free CAD software enables engineers and programmers to create complex designs parametrically through scripting.

6. NanoCAD

NanoCAD is a free 2D CAD program with an AutoCAD-inspired interface and toolkit for drafting and detailing.

  • Key Features: 2D drafting, community edition available free
  • Reviews: 4/5 stars (Capterra)
  • Pros: Familiar UI, extensive toolset, lightweight
  • Cons: Limited 3D capabilities, basic documentation
NanoCAD

Produced by a Russian company, NanoCAD offers DWG compatibility and an interface immediately familiar to AutoCAD users. This makes adoption easy for experienced drafters and engineers. Available for Windows and Linux, NanoCAD provides a robust set of 2D tools and customization options for free.

The community edition limits 3D modeling capabilities but provides all essential 2D drafting tools. Layers, Blocks, dimensions, hatches, tables, bills of materials generation, and technical drawing templates help boost productivity. Stable performance even on older computers makes NanoCAD suitable for budget-minded users.

Limited English documentation can slow learning. But the powerful free 2D drafting toolkit, familiar UI, community support forums, and interchangeable DWG files present compelling arguments to consider NanoCAD.

NanoCAD

Key Features

  • Classic AutoCAD-style interface and 2D toolset
  • DWG file compatibility to exchange drawings
  • Extensive customization options and CAD automation
  • Stable performance ideal for older computers

Why Consider NanoCAD

This free AutoCAD-like 2D drafting software will help experienced drafters be immediately productive with its familiar UI and robust toolset.

7. QCAD

QCAD is an open source 2D CAD platform with DWG support. An alternative to expensive commercial CAD software, QCAD retains compatibility while avoiding annual subscription fees.

  • Key Features: 2D drafting, community edition available free
  • Reviews: 4/5 stars (Capterra)
  • Pros: Cross-platform, scriptable with ECMAScript
  • Cons: Dated interface, limited support and updates
QCAD

QCAD aims to be a “CAD for everyone” using the OpenCascade geometry kernel. Users can create technical drawings, floor plans, schematics, and more with support for DWG, DXF, PDF, SVG, and other standard formats.

The open source program offers stability and reliability at no cost. QCAD runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux. But the dated interface and lack of new feature development for the community edition point towards other 2D drafting options for a better user experience today.

QCAD

Key Features:

  • Cross-platform 2D drafting
  • DWG support for drawing exchange
  • Customizable with CLI and Scripting
  • Print and publish drawings as PDF

Why Consider QCAD

It’s a free and reliable 2D CAD option for basic drafting needs across platforms, but development and support are limited compared to alternatives.

8. SketchUp Free

SketchUp Free is a popular 3D modeling program focused on conceptual massing, architectural visualization, and rapid prototyping. STL export capability also supports 3D printing.

  • Key Features: Conceptual 3D Modeling, Massing, Architectural Visualization, Animation
  • Reviews: 4/5 stars (Capterra)
  • Pros: Easy to learn, user-friendly UI, extensive resources and tutorials
  • Cons: Limited 2D drafting tools, lacks precision for engineering
SketchUp Free

This intuitive 3D modeling software is geared more towards shapes and concepts than technical precision. An extensive warehouse of free 3D model components makes it easy to populate designs with context. Models can be brought to life with materials, lighting, and classic rendering styles.

While convenient 3D modeling tools, open ecosystem, and gentle learning curve make SketchUp popular for personal use, the lack of parametric modeling and engineering tools limit utility for mechanical CAD and product design. But as an entry point to manipulating 3D geometry without needing to learn complex modeling workflows, SketchUp remains accessible and capable free option.

SketchUp Free

Key Features

  • Intuitive 3D modeling for architects and designers
  • Extensive component library and resources
  • Classic rendered styles and animation
  • STL export for 3D printing

Why Consider SketchUp

This popular and easy to use 3D modeling program allows anyone to quickly create architectural visualizations, scale models, massing studies, and concept prototypes.

9. SolveSpace

SolveSpace is a parametric 3D CAD program with constraints-based modeling for precision engineering design. It’s lightweight, fast, and freely available for Linux, Mac, and Windows.

  • Key Features: Parametric 3D CAD, constraints, 2D drawing extraction
  • Reviews: 4.6/5 stars (Capterra)
  • Pros: Precise and lightweight, feature-rich for free software
  • Cons: Steep learning curve, dated interface
SolveSpace

The parametric approach uses geometric constraints to define the relationships between design elements. Complex 3D models can be flexibly iterated by changing parameters and constraints. Precision is maintained throughout modeling workflows.

Powerful tools generate 2D documentation drawings from 3D models. The open source program supports common exchange formats like STEP and IGES for CAM. Extensibility options even allow scripting custom features in Lua.

SolveSpace lacks the refinement and ease of use of commercial CAD software. But the free parametric CAD capabilities are robust. For open source engineering design, SolveSpace is a hidden gem.

SolveSpace

Key Features

  • Fully parametric modeling with constraints
  • Generate 2D drawings from 3D models
  • Lightweight and fast
  • Standard format support for manufacturing

Why Consider SolveSpace

This professional-grade parametric CAD software is fully free including for commercial use, enabling precise engineering design with no limits.

10. Solid Edge (Free Student Version)

Solid Edge is a robust commercial CAD package that offers a free version for students and educators. This makes their premium parametric 3D CAD tools accessible for learning.

  • Key Features: History-based parametric modeling, assemblies, sheet metal tools, photorealistic rendering
  • Reviews: 4.5/5 stars (Capterra)
  • Pros: Professional-grade CAD capabilities for free, integrates with manufacturing and simulation workflows
  • Cons: Steep learning curve, limited to non-commercial school projects
Solid Edge

Advanced surfacing, reverse engineering, structural and thermal simulation features provide a production-ready toolset. Parts can be combined into assemblies then generated into photorealistic renderings and animations.

The free license is permitted only for personal education and cannot commercially distribute designs. But for student projects and developing CAD skills, Solid Edge provides professional preparation and training without the professional price tag.

Solid Edge

Key Features

  • Parametric modeling with feature timeline history
  • Design validation tools like interference checking
  • Assemblies, sheet metal, weldments, and surfacing
  • Photorealistic rendering and animation

Why Consider Solid Edge

Students and educators gain access to advanced commercial CAD software and learning resources for free.

FAQs

Can I use free CAD software commercially?

Some free CAD options like FreeCAD, SolveSpace, and OpenSCAD allow commercial use with no restrictions. Others like Fusion 360 and Solid Edge limit commercial use in their free licenses. Always thoroughly review license terms.

Is free CAD software safe to download?

Popular free and open source CAD options like FreeCAD, LibreCAD, and OpenSCAD are safe to download. Only use trusted sources instead of unknown sites. Many are available through official repositories like apt, homebrew, and snap.

What file formats do free CAD software support?

Most support standard exchange formats like STEP, IGES, DXF, and DWG for compatibility with other CAD programs and manufacturing workflows. STL and other 3D printing-ready files can also often be exported.

Can I collaborate on projects with free CAD software?

Many free options like Fusion 360 allow online collaboration for shared design projects. Users can jointly view and edit CAD documents in real-time with version control. Limits may apply on commercial use.

Are there limits on design complexity with free CAD options?

Capabilities depend on the specific software, but many free tools have no inherent limits on model complexity, part sizes, or other restrictions. Advanced programs like FreeCAD, SolveSpace, and Fusion 360 can handle very complex professional projects. Compute power becomes the limitation.

Conclusion

The best free CAD software provides diverse 2D drafting, 3D modeling, parametric design, engineering simulations, and more capabilities. Beginners can start with user-friendly tools like Tinkercad, while hardcore users can leverage fully featured packages like FreeCAD and Fusion 360 for personal use.

When choosing the right free CAD software, evaluate your experience level, project needs, and platform requirements. This guide highlighted top options across criteria like learning curve, features, capabilities, and limitations. The wide range of free CAD tools can empower any designer, engineer, maker, or student to create without cost barriers.

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