Whether you are new to 3D design or at the professional level, there are several 3D modeling software packages to meet your needs and level of expertise. Having the correct 3D design software is essential to help create the perfect 3D model. Here is a guide to help you find 3D modeling software that is the best fit for you. These programs are categorized by those looking to create models for artistic purposes, and those interested in the engineering aspect of creating a 3D model. Let this guide help your decision, don't be afraid to try more than one.
Just Getting Started? Try this Free 3D Modeling Software:
If you are just starting and want a solid option to spark your design interests we recommend TinkerCAD. TinkerCAD is the best 3D modeling option for beginners. It is as easy as creating a account (https://www.tinkercad.com/) and follow the online tutorials. You can design basic parts quickly. There are limitations to the program but it is a great place to get started. Saving as an STL for 3D printing is fast and easy.
Purpose: 3D modeling software can be geared more towards artistic/sculpting OR engineering. Often it can be tough to achieve a design goal if you are using the incorrect software.
Cost: Ranges from Free to $5,000 +. Make sure you stay within your budget. For a beginner, most of the free 3D modeling software is the best for learning. Also, be warned: you get what you pay for in some cases.
Ease of use: Some programs are easy to use and have great tutorials while others require some background in drafting or engineering which make it tougher (though not impossible) to pick up.
File Conversion: If you are looking to 3D print the parts you design make sure the files are robust when saved. 3D Printing uses the STL file type.
Definitions: Creating three-dimensional models using computer software can be referred to using many terms, but they all generally interchangeable: 3D modeling, 3D drawing, 3D design, 3D computer aided design (3D CAD). In conversation feel free to drop the "3D" and your friends will still understand.
Parametric vs. Explicit Modeling: If you are weighing these options you are already an advanced user, never the less it may be good to know that there are two distinct methods for 'defining' 3D geometry. The parametric approach is typically used by engineers and architects because the file contains more specific dimensions, relationships, and can include a design history. The explicit approach is typically used by artists and industrial designers because it can be more flexible. Explicit modeling allows changes to be made on the fly and small changes are not necessarily related to any other defined point of the geometry.
Breakdown by Category
The programs are listed from simplest to most complex.
If you are looking to create an artistic 3D model, here are a few 3D modeling software programs that will get you headed in the right direction.
Blender (Free, Open Source - Linux, Mac, Windows) This 3d design software is typically used for creating animated films, visual effects, art, 3D printed models, interactive 3D applications and video games. This program is powerful, and can be quite difficult to learn. This software is handy to have for fixing and making simple changes to STL files.
ZBrush ($795 - Mac, Windows) This 3d modeling program is an all-in-one digital sculpting solution designed for those looking to create a work of art. This tool is used for creating high-resolution models for use in games, models, and animation. ZBrush is most known for being able to sculpt medium to high frequency details that were traditionally painted in bump maps.
Lightwave ($995 - Mac, Windows), 3DS MAX ($1470/year - Windows) and Maya ($3,454.00 - Mac, Windows, Linux), These professional 3D modeling and graphics packages are typically used for movies and TV. They are typically geared for the true 3D modeling professional. They include fast rendering engines that supports such advanced features as realistic reflection and refraction, radiosity, caustics, and render nodes. These packages have been used in dozens of large budget blockbuster films such as Avatar, Iron Man, and the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
If you are more interested in the engineering aspect of creating a 3D model, we would suggest looking into these 3D modeling Programs.
TinkerCAD (Free - Online) This easy-to-use tool runs in your web browser. It uses Boolean Modeling to make objects using shapes as building blocks. Combine or subtract the basic shapes to create more complex designs. Really one of the more mature and fantastic 3D modeling software platforms that is robust and easy to approach, even for kids and beginners.
123D Design (Free - Mac, Windows, iOS) This is a slimmed down version of Autodesk Inventor and part of a suite of apps that includes tools for scanning, sculpting, electronics, 2D design and more. This 3D modeling software is powerful yet easy to use.
Sketchup (Free basic version, $590 pro version - Mac, Windows) Originally made for architectural design, this software is easy to learn, but it will not provide all the tools that you will find with other software. File robustness can be hit or miss when it comes to 3D Printing.
FreeCAD (Free, Open Source - Linux, Mac, Windows) Parametric 3D modeling allows you to easily modify your design by going back into your model history and changing its parameters. Good program for converting STEP files to STL and with some training (see guides/videos) the price is right for some serious 3D modeling.
Rhino ($1,000 - Windows, Mac; 90 days free trial) This program is one of the most reliable programs for converting file types. Rhino’s open architecture allows users to also utilize Rhino as a development platform: a C++ SDK and a series of scripting methods (RhinoScript) allow programmers of any level of expertise to customize and automate Rhino and extend its capabilities.
If you are an experienced designer or just can't have anything less than the best of the best when it comes to the newest gadgets, these Professional programs are the answer.
Solidworks ($3,500 or more - Windows) and AutoDesk Inventor ($450/year - Windows) Professional grade 3D modeling/CAD software; both Inventor and Solidworks are typically used by professional design engineers. With that said, they are top of the line 3D design tools. If you do not have an Engineering background and are headed down this path, it may be worth investing in the Solidworks Bible.
Since this article was published in February 2015, we've received lots of feedback about other programs that weren't included.
This section includes some of our commentors' favorites and others that have come to our attention.
*Not in any particular order.
MoI (Moment of Inspiration) ($295 - Mac, Windows; 30-day free trial)
Designed to have an intuitive UI to replace complicated CAD programs, this 3D modeling software aims to provide rapid model creation for designers and artists. From the creator of Rhino.
AutoDesk Fusion 360 ($300/year or $40/month, free for students, educators, and startups - Mac, Windows 64-bit; 30-day free trial) A favorite 3d design software amongst the community, this powerful program has both engineering design capabilities and form creation tools, as well as useful features for the 3D printing world like the ability to generate CNC toolpaths.
Designspark Mechanical (Free - Windows) This 3d design software is designed for engineers to be easy to use. Features include the ability to link to RS/Allied parts for easy BOM creation.
Sculptris (Free - Windows, Mac) From the makers of ZBrush, this 3d design software gives artists lots of freedom to sculpt models with simple tools. Takes a few easy minutes to get started and the process gets more in-depth as the user becomes accustomed to the controls.
Cinema 4D ($995+ - Windows, Mac) This product is used heavily for creating models for use in the entertainment industry, but its powerful sculpting module can be used to create meshes for 3D printing.
Onshape ($100/month, free for students and hobbyists - Web-based) This entirely cloud-based product runs on all major operating systems within a web browser. Its features are on par with most of the industry leaders. Created by the 'original SolidWorks team plus elite engineers from the data center, cloud computing, security, and mobile industries.' This package is gaining quite a bit of traction recently. If you are familiar with Solidworks, this free, online package will be very easy to use.
MODO ($1799+ - Windows 64-bit, Mac, Red Hat) With a hefty price tag, this program combines several functions in one: model sculpting, rendering, and animation with other useful features like physics for real-world simulation.
Metasequoia (Free-$150 - Windows) A product popular in the Japanese CAD market with a nice look and some very intuitive artistic tools for quick design using primitive shapes.
Bryce 7 Pro ($10 - Windows, Mac) While not a typical 3D modeling software, this program is typically used to create 3D landscapes. It has been suggested that it could be useful for creating a base on which to place other models.
trueSpace (Free - Windows) This now freeware program has lots of fun features for 3D animation and modeling, but having been purchased and discontinued by Microsoft in 2009 support is no longer available.
Hexagon ($10 - Windows, Mac) Aims to be a competitor to some of the more tool-heavy engineering 3D modeling programs out there for a fraction of the price. Includes some artistic sculpting tools as well.
Antimony (Free, Open Source - Mac, Linux) A new programmatic 3d design software that can build very mathematically-specific models. If you like formulas, functions, and flowcharts you'll want to check this one out.
Autodesk Meshmixer (Free - Windows, Mac, Linux) Another in the line of free Autodesk editors. Good functionality, clean interface. One user says: "great for modifying existing models to make them 3D printable."
Strata Design 3D (Subscription starting at $20/mo, license starting at $595 - Windows, Mac) A combination modeler and animation studio, Strata has a large feature set for creating models for printing or use in digital media.
AC3D ($89.95 for home/student, commercial $109.95+, Windows, Mac, Linux) A simple and effective program with a nice UI.
Crobics (Free, Web-based) A simple web-based 3D CAD program, Crobics has some good basic functionality. Worth looking into if you need a simple model quickly.
Houdini ($1,995 license, $995/year, Windows, Mac, Linux) High-end solution used often for VFX in the entertainment industry. One user says: "great procedural modeler."
VariCAD ($650, 30-day trial, Windows, Linux) A comprehensive 2D/3D CAD system with lots of practical features including BOM management. One user says: "An excellent value for money. No yearly license fees, just buy it and use..."
Morphi (Freemium, $9.99, Mac, iPad) An Apple-product-based CAD solution with a simple-enough interface and good functionality.
Cubify Invent ($49, 30-day trial, Windows) 3D Systems' UI-based CAD editor designed specifically for creating 3D-printable parts.
IronCAD ($3,970, 30-day trial, Windows) A high-end CAD solution. Lots of functionality, intuitive interface. One user says: "This is the future!"