Alternative CAD Tools

Sometimes you just need a different tool. No judgment calls about why, you just might for whatever reason need a different tool. I’ve looked at a few CAD tools, and found things that were important improvements over my current tools, and also things that were impossible compromises. After having used mainly one CAD tool for the last 11 years, it can be difficult to be objective about it or alternatives, but I’ll try.


What do you need your CAD tool for? You know, not all CAD tools try to be what SolidWorks tries to be. SolidWorks seems to try to be a one-stop-shop. To some extent it succeeds, but sometimes you might just need specialist tools. For example, I’d say that SW is pretty good for stuff like machine design and sheet metal. It’s great for machined parts. SW certainly has capabilities in complex shapes and plastics, but it is far from ideal for these functions. SolidWorks isn’t great at piping or wiring, either, but it does it. I wouldn’t use it for architecture, but you might make it work.

Anyway, here is a little list of things I put together about a few CAD products. I’m not directly familiar with most of these, and I’m not shilling any products or trying to promote any ultimate solution, just talking about alternatives for various purposes. I encourage people with specific experience with some of these products to share what you like or don’t like about the tool, and what kind of work you think it is best suited for. The categories aren’t meant to be definitive, just to give an indication of where I see the tool fitting or not fitting into what I do. The categories certainly oversimplify things. Don’t get worked up about the categories. (Geez, why am I getting defensive about this already? Premonition?) I’m sure I’ve left something out or miscategorized something, and this is the kind of junk that some people get really upset about, so please, no flame war here. I’m looking for considered opinions, not dogma.

General purpose modeling

Complex surfaces (nurbs)

Digital sculpting (mesh)

Simple concept models

 (Moment of Inspiration – MoI)


Reverse Engineering

Geomagic Raindrop


Of these, there are a couple of products that I want to have a closer look at. I’ve used Rhino off and on, but in the next weeks I will try to write about how Rhino can fit into the workflow for a product designer, plastic part designer or complex shape modeling scenario that is somehow tied to SolidWorks.

I obtained a trial license for SolidThinking, a seemingly overlooked piece of software from the Altair company that is involved in some pretty high end software. This looks interesting to me, and could possibly have my type of modeling more squarely in its sights than does SW. Complex surface modeling is at best a niche sideline for SW. For SolidThinking, it appears to be dead center.

Maybe its just the similarity in the names, but Think3 is another product that I get confused with SolidThinking. A recent interview on Novedge rekindled my interest in this product.

Other tools interest me as concept modelers, such as MOI, Shark, and modo. If I had multiple lives to live, I’d love to be a digital sculptor. It’s one of those things that looks like fun, but I’m not sure I could make a living at it.

In conjunction with the digital sculpting is the reverse engineer sofware. Rapidform is one I’ve played with and threatened to do a review of, but have never done it. The connection between digital sculpting and reverse engineering is the point mesh data that both work with. Reverse engineering software enables you to take mesh models from CG/digital sculpting applications and make them into NURBS models compatible with SolidWorks.

modo is hot news these days too because they come from the Luxology company, who is responsible for the PhotoView360 software. I think it is a bit overkill that SolidWorks has sunk so much development resources into rendering, and they have a half complete simple renderer, along with a too-complex, halfway renderer – both about half finished after all of this time of delivering half finished product. It;s like going to my brother’s house. He has 4 construction projects half done. What a mess. Anyway, modo is a newish CG/digital sculpt/mesh modeler, and it looks pretty good.

So you can see I have no end of curiosity, but not near enough time to play with all of this stuff enough to say something useful about it. Any suggestions or favorites from the list for different applications?

0 Replies to “Alternative CAD Tools”

  1. Hi Matt.

    I just thought I just should comment a little bit more about TopSolid 7.
    When I posted, I haven’t tried it yet, cause it wouldn’t run. It needs the latest .NET framework patches, since it’s programmed in C#. I must confess that I don’t usually like software that’s intended to run on virtual machines, be it Java, or C#, and I don’t like managed programming languages in general. I know that they are easier and quicker to program for, but have the drawbacks of being slower. Anyway, for a CAD program, since the main calculations/computing are made by the kernel, in this case, the Parasolid kernel, which is a C or C++ programming API, I guess we can live with a software like this. The C# / .NET programming mainly has to deal with the user interface, and the management of the relational / parametric entities. And the fact that they used C# over C++ for this piece of software, is one of the reasons for them being so quick to bring it up to the market, and that will also allow them to outpace and grow the software a little bit faster than some of their competitors in the marketplace.

    I know you are too busy at the moment to even try it, so I’ll summarize what I found out about the program with some 5 days of experimenting with it. And while doing it, I must say that I’m very eager to read more about your findings about SolidEdge ST3, and in comparing it with SolidWorks. I’m not a SolidWorks user, but if I was, I would certaintly buy your books on the subject. But I do hope that maybe after a book on Solid Edge ST3, in a few years you’l find the time to write also a book about TopSolid 7, if it keeps evolving further for me to become a TopSolid 7 user.

    Well, so far I’m very pleased and surprised by the ease of use of TopSolid 7. It seemed somehow shallow at first glance, with so few icons/commands, that it seemed rather limited. But not really so, at least for the market at what it’s targeted at, and it’s definitly a lot more powerfull than when SolidWorks just started. Specially on the surfacing side of things. It’s very powerful but always with an easy of use as it’s main goal, to allow for the user to experiment with it, and avoid having lots of complex features buried that are not used by most users, as would be a case with let’s say, Pro/Engineer. That’s one of the reasons that allowed SolidWorks to steal some thunder from Pro/E, and I knew a lots of companies that had several seats or licenses of Pro/E that were not in use, bacause of lack of knowledge of the users to use it properly. With Wildfire revisions, things were improving for Pro/E, but due to a dificult to understand UI, that lost marketshare, and lots of potential new and existing users, having to lower their license price quite significantly.

    One of the most pleasing things with TopSolid 7, is the integrated, and not bolted-on add on PDM. I know that “PDM” nomenclature is mostly hype and marketing, because it’s “just” a central database to store and manage CAD files, or whatever. But marketing aside, it’s also an extremely usefull feature, and least for medium to big sized companies. As a valued thing, it has been traditionally sold as an add-on, and a very costly one. And since it was expensive, it was marketed as an option, to lower CAD license costs, for small/medium sized companies. So, the software had to be designed around the file based concept. And the “PDM” integration, as a bolted on interface on top.

    The good thing about TopSolid 7, is that they decided to design from the ground up the new software, around the concept of PDM, so there’s no such a thing as a fyle system “file” when saving a part or an assembly. All is managed by the integrated PDM, that is very easy to work with, and avoids most of the frustrations of having to manually manage lots and lots of files. Since it’s integrated, and no way to opt out of PDM, it costs the same, ie, it means we don’t have to spend a lot more cash to have a PDM system, besides the cost of the main CAD software.

    Other good impressions I get from TopSolid 7, it’s the already mentioned easy to use user interface. I did find some small glitches and inconsitencies, and differences from documentation to what was implemented, but so far nothing really overwhelmingly buggy. It’s more shinny than some good CAD software, as Pro/E, but not excidingly focused on “shininess” as seems the case with SolidWorks. I mean… make it pretty, and easy to understand, but avoid spending to much development efforts to make useless UI tricks, to focus on essential things for a CAD user.

    On the less good aspects of TopSolid 7, I have to say that as far as I could find, it cannot yet be used on the tool/moldmaking industry yet. It might already work for the design of plastic parts, depending on the complexity of it, since it already has the most important basic/medium complexity surfacing tools, but obviously it’s not targeted to the hign end market, so there are still lots of things that are missing, and probably will never be added to it.

    But one of the things for it to be used in the tools / moldmaking industry, and that is lacking, is the ability to create silhouette curves on the parting line. And I could not find a command to do this. It has a Sillhouette comand, but it’s only in the sketcher, where it projects the curves on a plane, instead of on the affected surfaces. Without this ability, there’s no way to make a cavity/core with this software, unless on simple parts, or parts that only have parting lines on sharp edges. And also, it has no draft analysis command, but I could be wrong on this one.

    Other must have feature for the cavity/core split, is the ability to collect surfaces for triming, or copying, or changing layers. To be trully parametric the surface selections, and preserve “design intent”, it must be allowed to select a seed surface and a boundary limiting the surface gathering process, à la Pro/E, nistead of a long and boring list when we would have to pick each surface one by one, even small and tiny hard to locate ones. It must be said, that TopSolid do allows to “window” drag select the surfaces, to select all of them at once, or small portions of a solid’s surfaces… but this is hardly parametric. specially when the original part gets modified, with new faces added, or some faces removed. At least TopSolid does allow to select one surface, and parametrically all the surfaces tangent to the initial picked surface. But they’d better implement also a “Seed and Boundaries” face selection method, and better yet, with an inclusion and exlusion select boxes.

    For plastic product parts development, a Rib or Rib network feature might also be usefull, although not as critically needed, since there are ways to do the same thing, with simple extrudes. And they do allow extruting with draft and filleting at the same time, which Pro/E lacked until the rib network feature in WF5.

    All in all, I’m very pleased to have tried this TopSolid 7 demo, and I only hope for them not to take long to at least implement a projected Curve Sillhouette command, for it to be an option be taken seriously as a competitor to the other products on the market that you had mentioned.

  2. Hello Matt.

    I’m no SW user, but still I must congratualte you for your hardwork in providing some good advices on modelling techniques, that can be employed by users of a lot of different CAD programs to improve handling of large assemblies. It was specially good the article about the Master Model approach.

    Commenting specifically about this blog entry, I was hoping for some kind of pros and cons of each package, at least as far as you knew it, or have hard about it. Still, nevertheless, it’s always good to read your posts.

    For the sake of completeness (or at least add a little bit into it), I would like to hear your oppinion of a missing CAD program from that list: TopSolid. It also uses the licensed Parasolid kernel. Or MasterCAM, that inspite it’s name, I also think it also handles a little bit of Solid modelling (licensed Parasolid kernel), and had also some basic surface modeling some few years back. But like VX, I think it’s used more for mould toolmaking and CAM programming.

    The recent program that I only just saw, and seems revolutionary in a lot of things, and programmed from scratch to allow an innovative approach to CAD software, is the new TOPSOLID 7 by Missler Software, a french company. Even though it may be lacking on the geometry side and surfacing side of things, on the usability side, it’s really refreshing to see lots of good ideas well implemented with a tight level of integration. I don’t know how it compares to SolidWorks or SolidEdge, but comparing it with Pro/Engineer, it really takes lots of good ideias that have been existing since a very long time, but that were not really user friendly, and with the right UI makes lots of things very productive compared to useing the same funcionality in Pro/E. One example of that, is the easy use of Family of Parts, or Configurations as that seems to be the name used in SW.

    They have a 30days trial of TopSolid 7, but I was unable to try it myself yet.
    I don’t know it capabilities to handle molded plastic parts with easy, or complex ones, but for purely mechanical projects, seems like it really deserves to be in the runner-up category, and has a lot of good ideias that would be rather usefull to get implemented in a lot of different CAD programs. Pro/E included…

    Here’s the official site where the 30days Demo Version can be downloaded:

    1. Steve Joe,

      Thanks for the TopSolid link. I’ve heard about it before, but never used it. I’m in over my head right now with trial software and learning new stuff. I’d be interested in hearing your impressions.

  3. I checked out the Sensable system a few years back and there was a version for about £2500 designed for modelling and animation set ups in Maya. The CAD integration at the time was around £16k. Having said all that if you do that kind of work it is the only tool for you – seriously. One of the features I particularly liked was the fail safe shelling- yes – it will shell anything. The Freeform Plus software had loads of tools for creating tooling from the wildest models – and it was fast.

    Pity it costs so much though – if it was £4k it would be a no brainer for many.

  4. I was glad to see someone mentioned SensAble Technologies. I used to be VP of Development there and even though I left in 2002, I can’t help but feel that FreeForm is absolutely the coolest software on the planet. A couple points of note:

    1. It uses the sense of touch to do your work. That is you feel the shape of the clay as you sculpt it. Sounds like science fiction but its not – -there is a real science to how its done. The first time you “touch” an object in the computer it will blow your mind (no porn jokes please, heard them all already!)The downside of this is that you have to be a skilled sculptor to use it. The upside is that if you can sculpt you can do cool stuff on your first day. I saw a sculptor from Hasbro create a a pretty detailed head and shoulders in 20 minutes!

    2. Because it uses Voxels to represent the model and not NURBS you can create ANY shape in no time at all (again, assuming you are a sculptor). If you like CAD you HAVE to see the stuff it can create. See

    3. If you need to interface with CAD you can wrap the Voxels in NURBS and export to SolidWorks or wherever. This used to be manual (but was fast cuz you could touch the model to lay down the splines) but it looks like they’ve automated it since I left.

    4. The speed of creation is mind-blowing. There is stuff on the website that was created in 4 hours that would have taken 2 weeks in regular CAD.

    5. Its not as expensive as it used to be. The device that does the “Touch” was 10K, so that pushed everything up. Now, they have a model that is about 1K and they have plugins for Rhino and Alias I think also.

    Anyhow, I don’t work there any more, so I am not trying to sell you this stuff, other than it is fabulouslly cool. You MUST check it out if you do early stage conceptual stuff or are in footwear, collectibles, jewerly, or other things that are most often sculpted by hand but give CAD hell(Hallmark for example, uses it to do collectibles; gillette did Fusion with it; converse and Adidas both do sneakers; and Creata did the McDonald’s Simpson toys with it).

    OK, back to my real job…making Synchronous Technology rule the world! 🙂

  5. HI,

    I’am a 13 years experience industrial designer, I spent all those years working on small industrial design office. That mean I do a lot of different things and I work on a lot of different projects.

    What I fear the most is starting to think like the sofware, not like me. So flexibility is for me a very important thing.

    First I worked with Keycreator(cadkey)then I switch to Think3 now I am working with Pro/e.

    The first two were used at my former job, most of the parts I draw was plastic parts and it work very fine.

    Now i work with pro/e, it is ok for the kind of design we are doing here, mostly basic shape and small assembly. (less than 50 parts including hardware)

    below a list of what I like ans don’t like about those software:

    -No history tree ( I don’t like that, I’am always amaze to see how much time I spent working on the tree and not doing design!)
    -Work great with imported files
    -small files

    -assembly file
    -User interface, similar to autocad 10 but with icons.
    -Difficult to understand if you are an history tree fan.


    This is my fevorite, because it is very close to the way I think! Designer not engineer.

    -Solid, surface, both at the same time, seemless integration.
    -Design like a designer or an engineer, depend of what my needs are.
    -small files.
    -User interface.
    -Assembly file flexibility.

    -Difficulte to find someone who use it!
    -import/export could be improve, especialy with SW
    -Difficult to understand if you are working with SW/Pro-e style CAD.
    -Solid are less powerfull than SW.



    I hate it!

    -Solid, solid, solid!
    -New interface are good, when available.
    -Assembly file.
    -Strong even on though job.

    -Difficulte to find someone who use it!
    -Display is bad
    -Bad integration with Windows, Unix link window popup with
    strange messages.
    -Saving file may be the most complicated think!

    even if I hate it, I must admit that it does a great job here, maybe it is because it is used for almoste 20year.

    Sorry for my english, french translation available upon request!

  6. Yeah, the high end system runs about the price of a new car (under 30k, but not by too much). You would think that after 10+ years on the market they would be reasonable and knock a few grand off.

    One of the biggest side advantages is that with scanned data you don’t really have to worry about normals, surfaces, or things that would take a program like Geomagics, Raindrop, or something like that to fix. The Voxels just fill it into the scanned data and you can go from there. Items that would normally take hours to get through the normal data clean up process take 1/3 the amount of time.


    Sounds so cool. I’d love to have a job just playing with stuff like that.

  7. Matt,

    As long as this tool has been around, it really hasn’t gotten it’s just due. Sensable. From a Product Designers point of view, this tool really can let you “feel” what you’re designing. The voxel based geometry handles very differently than any other 3D Package out there. If you get the high end version of the system, it has the same auto-surfacer that Next Engine has to export out the data as a NURBS patch. (Lic from Rapid Form)

    I have been using it for about 7 years now, and hands down the Sensable to Solidworks combo is amazing. The haptic feedback that you get while designing give a sense of insight that, in some ways, makes it one of the most intuitive design tools out there.

    Just 2cents worth


    I had an opportunity to play with it a couple of times. I know two groups that have it. It is cool. Kinda pricy, isn’t it? I forget.

  8. Hey Matt,

    forgot to add a couple of other apps to your list:

    3D Architecture – Archicad, AllPlan and VectorWorks (
    Product Design – Ashlar-Vellum Xenon and Cobalt (
    Sub-Division modelling – Cinema 4D (
    Solids and Sub-Div – FormZ (

    All the above are Mac and Windows apart from AllPlan.

  9. The fill surface stuff is from CATIA and is actually fairly unique in the industry. Other apps have heal commands that do similar things but nothing has the kind of feedback you get in SolidWorks (apart from maybe CATIA of course).
    I have it on good authority that NOBODY who licenses parasolid uses vanilla parasolid to drive all the geometry.

  10. matt, i have a question here, NX and solidworks are build on the same kernel, so when you invoke for example the fill surface feature,solidworks actually calls a parasolid function, and the kernel creates that surface. so things must not be that dramatic for solidworks. am i right? so why solidworks lacks many surfacing features which NX offers?


    That’s a great question, and one I’m not qualified to answer. Still, it won’t stop me from taking a poke at it. Some of the SolidWorks functions are not from Parasolid, as I understand it. Some are actually from Catia. So they’ve got multiple geometry engines in there. I doubt they have the entire Catia kernel, but they have at least a part of it.

    I’m not sure about why SW would not have implemented something that is in Parasolid. It could be that NX also uses functionality that is not in Parasolid. The whole Synchronous Technology things is said to not be from Parasolid. Could be that there are other things too. Siemens knows that their Parasolid is licensed to competitors, and they may not put all of their best tricks in that bag, but I don’t really know.

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