3D modeling is the representation of an object in software form. It essentially involves transforming an object into mathematical data. 3D modeling software is used in a variety of fields such as 3D printing, architecture, animation, gaming, and industrial design. A good 3D modeling software is very important in a graphic designer’s toolkit because it allows the designer to create rich and detail oriented illustrations for his/her client. It also allows the designer to create a realistic blueprint and see how it blends with the environment in which the designed product is intended to be used/placed.
3D modeling software packages come with a range of features and tools and each one offers a solution to certain specific kinds of use cases. Choosing the right software depends on understanding those features. Following are a list of some of the best 3D modeling software packages along with a brief explanation of their main features.
Beginner level software packages
TinkerCAD: TinkerCAD is a free 3D modeling software optimized towards beginners and designers/non-designers who are completely new to 3D modeling. Its interface is great because it allows a new user to combine the most basic shapes and build a model that is complex. Think of it like a lego building activity, using basic building blocks, but on a computer. It is understood that one can build impressive 3D models with results comparable to those achieved in software programs like Raspberry Pi. TinkerCAD is probably not the software that a designer will use on a long term basis. It can be looked upon as a stepping stone towards eventually graduating to a more sophisticated software like AutoCAD. TinkerCAD works on a web browser in any OS.
SelfCAD: SelfCAD is another great 3D modeling software for beginners. It allows 3D modeling and slicing via its intuitive graphical user interface. SelfCAD is known for its simple design where anyone can start creating models without going through a very steep learning curve. It is geared primarily towards 3D printing and allows preparation of 3D models for printing, slicing, and piping of the g-code. It has a marketplace feature from where one can download pre-made 3D printable objects housed in a library of over 45,000 objects. DIYers and students are the major users of SelfCAD. Its subscription costs $15 a month, but students and teachers can get a 65% discount making it a very affordable price. SelfCAD works on a web browser in any OS.
3D Slash: If you like Minecraft, then 3D Slash is going to be fun. It uses the same concept of block-building, as in the game, to create models. It is free software and pretty easy to use. With some light training, one can start building models. You can even import existing models into the software. What is different about this software as compared to other traditional modeling software packages is that there are no features like extrusion, revolution, sweeps, etc. The modeling in 3D slash is based on working with cuboids that can be subdivided into smaller blocks. Tools provided in the software are named hammer, chisel, drill, trowel, etc. For example, a hammer can be used to remove individual cubes while a trowel can be used to add individual cubes. The software can connect to online printing services or model repositories. You can even export your design file to STL and print it on your own 3D printer. 3D Slash works with Windows, Mac, Linux, and even Raspberry Pi. DIY enthusiasts and hobbyists will enjoy working with 3D slash.
Intermediate level software packages
Sketchup: Great for making renders and animations for free. It is free to download and it’s a great option for beginners and intermediates. It has a clean and simple user interface which allows relatively inexperienced designers to explore 3D modeling at their own pace. Sketchup does have paid advanced versions, but the free version can do a lot of things as well. This software is used in industries such as architecture, interior designing, construction, urban planning, and engineering for visualization and planning-related tasks. One of the best features of this software is 3D Warehouse, which is a library of 2.2 million pre-made downloadable models. Sketchup works on Windows and Mac.
FreeCAD – As the name suggests, FreeCAD is a free open-source 3D modeling software that is compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux. If you know programming, then you can use that knowledge to implement new features to your software copy as the program is built partially on Python. FreeCAD has a modular design where you can add plugins over the core application depending on your requirements and use case. You can 3D design real-life objects, simulate robot movements, modify your design by changing the parameters of the old design, and even sketch 2D shapes. FreeCAD is more oriented towards the CAD community. Hence, it can be a bit overwhelming to a new user initially. Overall, FreeCAD is a good parametric CAD modeler that will be appreciated by mechanical engineers or designers who can program a bit as well.
OpenSCAD: If you are a die-hard coder who also likes to see your coded models come to life with a 3D printer, then OpenSCAD is for you. It is not a typical modeling software but rather a compiler. The software is based on the concept of constructive solid geometry and 2D outline extrusion. It specifies the geometric primitives of a model and defines how those primitives are altered or manipulated in order to create a 3D model. All of this is done via code. The advantage of using this code-based approach to modeling is that you can save and reuse the code for other projects. Obviously, not everyone will find the coding approach workable. Hence, this software is not for everyone. But it is free and available on Linux, Mac, and Windows.
Meshmixer: If fixing 3D meshes and optimizing them for 3D printing is what you are after, then Meshmixer is a pretty good software to do just that. Meshmixer has a distinct focus on the mechanical functionality of 3D models. You can model solid prosthetics with mechanical parts using this software. You can connect different parts into a single model by automatically generating joints using this software. The overall cost of printing can be saved by trimming down unwanted mass from the core 3D design using Meshmixer. You can even repair mesh designs using functions such as hollowing, scaling, and mesh simplification. Judging by its special focus on fixing and optimizing meshes, Meshmixer is not a beginner level software, but rather an intermediate level package. It is a free-to-download software and works with Windows, Mac, and Linux.
Professional level software packages
AutoCAD: AutoCAD is considered by many to be the gold standard of 3D modeling software. It is perhaps the best known software in the industry. AutoCAD has been around since 1982. It is a desktop application, but now has a mobile, web, and cloud version on offer. It has one of the widest arrays of features among all software packages that we reviewed and that range allows it to serve a bunch of industries, from architecture and graphic design to engineering and manufacturing. A beginner can benefit by using the core basic features while some specialized training can unlock the potential of the advanced features that AutoCAD offers. For those interested in 3D printing, AutoCAD is connected to Print Studio which allows seamless connectivity to your 3D printer. The software is not cheap and will cost you over $1500 a year. AutoCAD is compatible with Windows and Mac.
Rhino3D: Rhino3D (also known as Rhinoceros) is a software used in CAD, CAM, prototyping, 3D printing, architecture, industrial and product design, and other applications. The basis of the modeling done in Rhino3D is NURBS, which is a mathematical model that focuses on producing numerically precise representations of curves and other shapes. Hence, you will have to enter numbers when you shape your models or place them somewhere within the software. This may slow down the workflow in certain situations. Designers looking for mathematically precise designs will appreciate Rhino3D. Pricing starts from around $200 and goes up as per the version of software selected. Rhino3D works on Windows and Mac.
Blender: Blender is perhaps the most popular 3D modeling software within the 3D printing community. Due to that popularity, you will find lots of search results related to Blender on Google, YouTube, and discussion forums. All that information and help will be definitely helpful because Blender is known to have a steep learning curve for beginners. But once you put in some effort, you will like the freedom that Blender gives you in terms of the wide variety of tools and design possibilities that you have on the table. You can use features like UV wrapping, texturing, rigging, skinning, soft body simulation, etc. It can also create animated films and visual effects. Best of all, the software is open source and works on Windows, Mac, and Linux.
Zbrush: Zbrush is a popular digital sculpting software. If you are looking to create creatures, figurines, and organic objects, then Zbrush does a great job. The makers of Zbrush have borrowed concepts from clay sculpting when designing this 3D modeling software. It works on the principle of progressive detailing in which you first start out with a primitive model or a generic model that you either make or import into the software. Next, you define the features of the body such as arms and legs. You then move onto smaller brushes are work on details like muscles, fingers, and so on. Then you move onto more minute details like wrinkles and scars. All these phases of modeling and features result in a steep learning curve for new users. But, if you are willing to put in the time and effort, then you won’t find many software packages that are better at 3D sculpting than Zbrush. The pricing on this software is mid-level with educational packages priced at around $500 and professional ones starting from around $900. Windows and Mac operating systems are both compatible for Zbrush usage.
Industrial level software packages
SolidWorks: A very popular 3D modeling software among engineers, Solidworks is a household name in the engineering industry. It is optimized towards the creation of parts and assemblies that one would eventually build in a manufacturing plant. It was designed keeping in mind industries like aerospace, industrial equipment, automotive, architecture, medical, energy, and shipbuilding. This software runs on Microsoft Windows. Being an advanced software package with advanced features, it requires a fair bit of training and engineering knowledge for the most effective use. It is not cheap either though one can get an educational license for around 10 euros a year. Solidworks is compatible with Windows.
Fusion360: Fusion360 has really grown in popularity over the last few years. This Autodesk product not only offers designing and modeling options, but it can also simulate the construction of the models designed and the stresses that the model will undergo when it is used. Fusion360 is also great for 3D printing because the models designed can be directly imported into Autodesk Printing Studio and a 3D printable file can be created. If you have a team of designers that are collaborating remotely, then Fusion360 has a cloud file-sharing feature as well. This software does extensive training if one plans to use its advanced features. It also costs about $500 a year for a subscription. Fusion360 runs on both Windows and Mac operating systems.
Inventor: Another Autodesk product, Inventor is a direct competitor to Solidworks. Subscription prices start from $1935 and a fair amount of training is necessary to master this software. One also needs to have a reasonably advanced knowledge in engineering to get the most out of inventor. It is used for 3D mechanical design and product simulation. Someone who is not satisfied with the 3D printers available in the market and wants to build his/her own 3D printer will like using Inventor as the modeling software. Windows and Mac operating systems are both approved for Inventor use.