Best way to learn about solid creation / which CAD program

I’m sure I will get a different opinion from everyone I ask about this, but here it goes…

I am a web developer/graphic designer at my company who was tasked to be in charge of our 3D printer. We have an outside contractor who supplies me with the .STL files. I simply import into Preform and print. It has been quite a learning curve…but I want to learn more.

I have limited access to a laptop with Solidworks 2012 on it at work and again limited access to a desktop with Mastercam X7 (both I know are a few versions old).

Being a total solids noob (and keeping in mind I have access to a Form2), what’s my best route to go about learning how to create solids? Solidworks? Mastercam? I’ve also heard other names thrown out there, Blender, Sketchup, Makerbot,…I’m sure there are dozens!

As usual money IS an object, although I could afford $100-$300 for some software if its justifiably better than free. Oh and a mac platform would be preferable although not necessary.

  • Kevin

I too am new to 3D software. FL suggested Tinkercad but it’s limited in a lot of ways.
I am now using Blender it’s free.

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Hello @kevinduhe,

Both Fusion 360 and Onshape are free (with restrictions). The former is available with full features for anyone (including commercial) as long as you have under $100k revenue. The latter is available for home use with a limit on the amount of files you can use. They are both full featured parametric CAD packages that have a ton of how-to documents and tutorials available.

Hope this helps!


I guess my biggest question is (and thanks for the input @alan1950 and @Aaron_Silidker ) is:

IF my career decides to transition more into the 3d printing arena (which my company has a HUGE need for right now) and since a lot of people in my circle use either MasterCam or Solid Works, would I get a solid foundation in say Blender, Fusion or Onshape, and then I could start using MC or SW? Or should I just begin with what I might end up using?

I guess the analogy in my current field would be: should I learn graphic design in Corel paint and then move into Photoshop…or just dive in and learn Photoshop?

If the models you plan on creating are mostly mechanical, industrial designs etc. you should be looking for a solid modeller. Solidworks is probably one of the most common used 3D CAD modellers for prototyping and industrial design and manufacturing. But there are other options like Autodesk Inventor. But you did say you already have access to Solidworks, so I would concentrate on that

If your modelling is going to be of natural forms, people, animals, characters etc, then you’re looking for a NURBS modeler, you’d probably be better off using something like Blender, 3DS Max, Maya, etc.

If you’ve ever had any sculpting experience, I would recommend MeshMixer, as it has a fairly easy learning curve, and it has sculpting tools analogous to those used in clay sculpting.

I personally use Solidowrks for most everything I design from scratch, and MeshMixer for when I need to retouch or re-sculpt a scan.

Are you making “art” or creating functional mechanical models of something?

You can’t beat free, and there are some decent free modeling packages. Something like Sketchup or Blender is good, or AutoDesk’s 123D Design. Actually, this last one seems like a good bet, though I haven’t used it myself (I have fiddled with Sketchup and Blender). It’s been implemented with 3D printer model creation in mind, and is targeted at users with little or no CAD experience (though I suppose you could say the same of Sketchup, maybe not so much, Blender).

The learning curve for SolidWorks is steep. Parametric modeling is, at least IMO, not as intuitive of a process. I have a copy of SW2013 I use for the few tasks that require accuracy, that are complicated enough to justify the effort required. Though mostly I just use it to translate between different CAD formats. Honestly, the amount I use it, it wasn’t worth the $. For the vast majority of my 3D printer projects, absolute precision is not a requirement and I use Lightwave3D, which is a CGI modeling program with some CAD-like features. It can create models as accurately as SW, but it requires a little more effort if the model is complex (and a lot more effort if you have to change anything in a complex model). Lightwave does a good job on CSG operations, though, which is why I’ve stuck with it for so long (I originally bought it as an animation package). For banging something out quickly, it’s a good tool. But Lightwave is >$1K so it’s more a “use it because I have it” than “I bought it because it was particularly useful” for 3D print modelling.

Functional/mechanical models. I can’t see myself doing art. The company I currently work for makes water filtration systems and related parts/components. The parts have to be very accurate (although we aren’t talking aerospace requirements of course). What we are talking about is creating parts with threading which can screw onto a standard plumbing fixture. Or creating internal water filtration parts. (Disclaimer, I know the resin is not food safe…its just for demo purposes of course)

Thanks for all of your input @Randy_Cohen & @Dudemeister

Given what you are designing,… if you have access to Solidworks, use that.

IF you need a free package to learn parametric modeling on. Use Onshape. It will translate pretty well to both Solidworks and CREO. Onshape has no surface modeling at the moment, so your design’s will be limited, but since you are just beginning,… you won’t have to worry about the more advanced 3D modeling tools until later, anyways.

I use all three… but Onshape is just a toy. I’m very hopeful they will expand their modeling capabilities so they are competitive with the other two big players.

I’d be happy to transfer my CAD money to them instead of the other two.


The two primary programs I use are SketchUp Make and Zbrush. SketchUp Make is free, and available on both Mac and PC. I sometimes start out with SketchUp, then transfer the models to Zbrush. Zbrush is GREAT for freeform modeling (it’s like starting out with a blob of clay and molding it on the screen), and can be used for hard-surface or mechanical modeling with the “ZModeler” function. I use Zbrush primarily for jewelry, and SketchUp for woodworking or more technical drawings, but have been learning ZModeler for technical models in Zbrush.

The main drawback I could see for you is the price…Zbrush is $799, works great on a Mac or PC, and you have a generous 45-day trial. There is a steep learning curve, but many of free tutorials are out there.

Also, SketchUp Make has free tutorials…I did the “Toolbar” help videos for the Trimble. You can add plugins to the free SketchUp Make version that allow you to import/export files, add spline functionality…there is even a “thread” plugin and tutorials on YouTube.

The tolerances seem to be very good in both programs…when I print something that I created in Zbrush or SketchUp that’s 25mm (I make jewelry), it actually comes out on my Form 2 as 25mm.

I have used Blender for quite some time, about 7 years now, I modeled everything with it because it was pretty accurate. When I started 3D printing it transitioned fairly well into exporting stl files for that. One of my prototype models sold to a company and they wanted all the dimensions laid out so they could injection mold it, that’s when I realized that I couldn’t just output the data for them, it took a while to get something they could use out of Blender. I then went with solidworks, which once I got the hang of it…sort of… the models were much easier to build and make deep changes that were reflected throughout the model which blender couldn’t really do. I still like blender and will use it for rendering, but solidworks is sooooo much easier to adjust something quickly and then print it.


If your new to cad modeling or want an extremely stable and highly intuitive modeler the try Moment of Inspiration
You can run it easily on a laptops, most Windows tablets, desktops etc. It doesn’t require any high end video card. I use it quite a bit on a Dell Inspiron i5 2:1.
It is a direct modeler with some limited parametric like features ie revolve then edit the profile but as soon as you do another function that shape is finalized. Low level editing of surfaces is easy with line projections, trimming, separation and joining alone with blending of edges. Exporting of models gives you incredible control with tessellation with angle subdivision, long surface subdivision, min/max detail.
MOI handles I/o of step files nicely.

You can use pretty much any 3D software but there’s some differences in the results that things create that might change what you like more–Something like Blender/3ds Max/Maya are more suited to polygonal modeling, so that means you have a specific smoothness to each mesh which can be a problem for 3D printing because you can see the facets of a curve if there’s not enough polygons. In those cases, there’s some techniques you can do to increase the polygon count and smooth things or you have to keep the smoothness in mind when you make the model so that you won’t have to do a lot of work later.
Other programs like Solidworks or Rhino are more for engineering, the results can be whatever smoothness level you need without having to do any extra work, but they are more technical.
If you want to do more then just 3D printing then it might be worth learning a program like Blender/3ds Max/Maya because you could do game design/visual effects with those programs as well if that interests you.

MOI3d is written by the guy that wrote Rhino. It is a down and dirty cad modeler with low system requirements. If your starting out, it offers an intuitive interface and is dependable. Blender has an unconventional interface and the learning curve can be overwhelming for new users. There are also stability issues with Blender and plugins may or may not work between versions because it is open source and dependent on the many developers to keep them up to date.

Cost wise MOI is pretty inexpensive $295 especially when compared to Rhino in the $789 mark, FormZ Pro around $915 and Xenon 9 at $949.
MOI has the shortest learning curve due to the simplified display whereas using Rhino you will find it easier to use the command line to access common functions rather than dig through tabs and menus. Formz Pro is also a great product and the interface is pretty intuitive but system requirements may be an issue. Xenon is nice but it is also a parametric modeler with visual performance a little chunky.

What I love about MOI is the snap system is excellent, all the tools you need are right in front of you with minimal or no digging. Export of models gives you absolute control on tesselation. You don’t need a Quadro or FireGL card to run it. Downside to MOI is it is only 32bit at this time but there is a 64bit version in the works.

Rhino had some nice analytic tools but you can also find similar tools freely with MeshMixer.

Personally I take licensing into consideration also. Some programs are sub only and even worse, some are cloud save only. If you do any patent work or r&d, cloud based and save is probably not a great idea…

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Thanks all for the replies. I have been playing around with Solid works at work and I have to say its pretty daunting, but I am able to create some basic shapes and feel I will eventually get the hang of it.

If I end up doing CAD work at the company I am at now, I will be engineering finely tuned parts, accuracy is a must and so far, of the parts/products I have printed a few are being refined for r&d and one has just been filed for a patent.

I guess my follow-up question is this. Are all of the programs above compatible with Solid works? i.e. could I create a file at work, go home and work on it (depending on which app I choose), come back, finish and print it? Or are they all proprietary formats (I suppose export as STL could be a workflow but I imagine that could run into problems?)

  • Kevin


None of the other programs will be compatible with Solidworks if you want to modify a file in another program and then continue to update it in Solidworks. So you can export a step or .stl file and carve on it in another program but it will lose all of the parametric definitions that you set up and it will become a dumb solid when you bring it back into solidworks.

You should try to find the Solidworks reseller that sold the license to your company and ask them if they have a home license bundled with your work license. This will allow you to install Solidworks on your home computer and continue to edit the part in its native format. If that’s not available, ask if there’s an option to borrow/check-out a license that you can use at home. This basically lets you electronically transfer your work license back and forth between work and home. It’s a little more tedious than a home license but still a good option.

Learning Solidworks can be a tough climb at the beginning but it’s a great skill to develop and it sounds like your company would definitely benefit from a pure cad format that can be used with existing models that they might have. Plus, once you learn Solidworks, you’re well on the path to using other cad programs like Pro/e and Inventor. None of cad companies will admit it but they’re all very similar and easy to pick up once you learn one of them.

Good luck,

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with the online cad “” you can export/import solidworks files and work with them on both programms.
The handling of onshape is very near at solidworks.


Most of the time even if you export to a format that another program can use it might not really be editable in a way that you would want. Like if you exported STEP to 3ds Max it wouldn’t be great

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I use step files to jump between cad programs. Keep in mind imported objects will not have parametric history and not all cad programs have a good low level editing of imported bodies. My first choice for something like that would be FormZ Pro. As good as Xenon is it only shines with objects created within it. Moi is pretty good at tearing a model apart but at this time lacks the ability to select faces and generate draft angles.

For the type of work it sounds like your doing try the fully functioning demo on FormZ.


100% what Jaime said.
Skip the free and cheap programs, If your going to do this for a company as a professional, you’ll need professional tools.
Also if your near a big city check the local community colleges for classes
Think of the cost as a investment into your future.

This will sound like a weird consideration…I would also ask if you’re a Mac or PC person and level of experience (pain threshold!) with traditional CAD programs. There were some CAD programs that I’ve tried that had functions only accessible through a command line…and as a Mac person that makes me get all twitchy! I actually stopped using AutoCAD around 2004 and swore off CAD because of the command line…