Free and open source software for the maker/designer (1/3)

In this post I want to go through some free packages that I often use for my personal projects.

Although I believe that “you get what you pay for”, there are some free hidden gems, performing as paid alternatives.

It’s great to use free software, but be aware that there is not always a free option available for your needs.

How much can CAD software cost ?

Just to put it all in perspective, let’s have a look at some prices and license options of CAD and design software. Some licenses are for a one-off purchase (like buying something), and some licenses are subscription-based (like renting).

A subscription can be good and bad.

Do you only need a license for a two month project ? Great and way cheaper than buying. But if you pay for a subscription for years and then you stop, you end up with nothing. Some companies also have a maintenance subscription, which keeps your software up to date.

A professional Parametric CAD package can easily cost between $4,500 to $100,000 or more. (From a full blown Catia at the top end, SolidWorks in the lower end) and then there is the yearly maintenance fee and add-ons.

Keep in mind that Catia is used to design air planes, and SolidWorks for complicated assemblies of products such as electronic power tools.

Some cheaper alternatives are the paid versions of Fusion 360 for $400 a year, a one-off fee of $800 for the non parametric Rhinoceros 3D, or $300 for Moment of Inspiration.

On the animation and mesh modellers side, a LightWave licence cosst $1,000.

A yearly subscription for Maya/3D Studio costs $1,470.

As CAD and design software can be quite costly, there are some good and professional low cost and even free packages available, that are great for product and jewellery design, but less suited if you want to design a fully function F1 car. As I said, you get what you pay for.

Let’s now have a closer look at the free options.

Free CAD and design software: What is the catch ?

You might think, if those are the prices for professional packages, why is a certain package free, and what can I do with it?

In a nutshell, there are several scenarios.

-Free software from software companies.
-Educational licenses.
-Open source software.

Free software from software companies.

There are software companies that have free software packages next to their paid options.

This can be a stripped down version of a package that you can upgrade to, or a version that can’t be used for commercial work. Or, it might be a separate product to make people familiar with CAD, such as Autodesk’s free web based TinkerCAD.

What you should keep in mind is that a software version can get retired, and support and updates will end.

This is what happened with Autodesks’ 123D Make software series, and Nettfab’s free STL repair software.

It can also be that a beta version is released, that is free to use, until there is a fully and bug free function. This is what happened with Rhinoceros for the Mac, it was in free Beta for years, until the product was ready to sell. It’s a good way for software companies to test and promote a product.

Educational licenses.

If you are a student, or you work for an educational institute, you might be able to apply for free student software.

Autodesk is quite generous with educational licenses; most of their software is free for educational use.

Open source software.

Open source software, like Blender is full, functional software, with no restrictions or a business model behind it to encourage you to buy another product.

Also open source is more than just software you don’t pay for: it is a community software project.

The beauty of open source is that the software is, beside free to use, also free as in “open”.

The source code is available, people are welcome to add improvements and share the new version with the community. Don’t like something? Just post a feature request, or if you are lucky enough to have coding skills, just change it and share it with the community.

Open source software is updated and owned by the community, or has a group of programmers behind it, that work voluntarily or get paid through funding and donations.

An example of non CAD open source software is Firefox, or the Linux operating system used in Android phones.

I also think that there are quite some interesting open source packages that are so unique and niche, that it wouldn’t be interesting for a commercial company to sell.

In the next posts I will write about open source and free 3D CAD and design software packages.