Posted March 27, 2016

How to Get CAD Software for Mechanical Design (Free or for Cheap)

Here at Plethora we believe that everyone should have access to the tools they need to create the things they want to see in the world and we’re building a manufacturing system to help realize this vision. We want to give people the power to start with an idea, instantly get feedback on manufacturability and price, and receive their parts as fast as possible.

One of the first steps in bringing an invention to life is modeling it accurately. Usually this requires parametric CAD software, which can be expensive. Small businesses, students, and hobbyists may not be able to afford licenses for this software, which can cost several thousand dollars per person per year. Thankfully there are some ways to get professional grade CAD software for free or cheap.

In this blog post, we’ll describe some options for getting access to CAD programs that will allow you to design dimensionally accurate parts. At the moment, you can only use SOLIDWORKS or Autodesk Inventor with Plethora, but we’ll go over a number of additional programs that we don’t yet support. If you’d like to be the first to know when we add support for more CAD programs, sign-up for Plethora and we’ll keep you up-to-date.

Students and Teachers

Students and teachers are eligible for free Autodesk Inventor educational licenses (nearly all of Autodesk’s software is available for free via an educational license). This license gets you access to fully featured software with the caveat that you can’t use it for commercial purposes. Inventor is a powerful tool and it’s one of the two CAD packages currently supported by Plethora.

Dassault Systemes doesn’t offer a free student license for SOLIDWORKS, but students are able to purchase this industry standard CAD package for a steep discount. For $150 you can buy the SOLIDWORKS Student Edition. This is a 12-month license for a fully featured and up-to-date version of the software. The only caveat is that you’ll need a DVD-drive to run it. SOLIDWORKS is the other CAD package currently supported by Plethora.

Siemens offers a student license for their professional grade CAD software Solid Edge. The educational version carries the same core functionality as the commercial version, but files created in the educational version can not be opened in the commercial version and 2D drawings produced in the educational version are watermarked. Plethora doesn’t support Solid Edge yet.
Students can also snag a free copy of PTC’s Creo. Creo is a suite of design applications that includes some professional grade 3D CAD software. Plethora does not yet support Creo.


U.S. Veterans are able to purchase the SOLIDWORKS Student Edition for $20 by uploading a copy of their DD214, DD256 or DD257.

Small Businesses and Hobbyists

Small Businesses (making less than $100,000/year) and Hobbyists are eligible for a free 12-month license of Autodesk Fusion 360. While you won’t be able to use Fusion 360 with Plethora (yet), it’s a great 3D CAD software package with some interesting cloud storage features. It’s available for OSX and Windows.

Onshape is a browser-based CAD software with a very similar feel to SOLIDWORKS. Because it’s browser-based you can run it on Windows, OSX, Linux, iOS, or Android. Best of all, you can get a fully featured license for free. The only restrictions on the free version are the number private documents you can have at a given time and the amount of your allotted cloud storage. Onshape is a fantastic CAD program for mechanical design, so long as you have a fast internet connection. Plethora does not support Onshape at the moment, but you can export SOLIDWORKS formatted files from Onshape.

FreeCAD is an open source 3D modeling package available for Windows, OSX, and Linux. As it’s name implies, it’s completely free for everyone. Although it’s still in its early stages of development, it has a vibrant online community and most of its functionality is accessible to Python, so you can automate tasks or even contribute to the project. If you enjoy participating in an open source project and don’t mind dealing with bugs or a system that’s a little rough around the edges, then you should definitely check out FreeCAD. Plethora does not support FreeCAD and we don’t have plans to add support for it anytime in the near future.

For $200, 3D Systems Design allows you build build dimensionally accurate models and assemblies for a fraction of the cost of some big brand parametric CAD programs. It also integrates well with 3D Systems CubePro 3D printer. Plethora does not support Design and we don’t have plans to add support for it anytime in the near future.

Check out Plethora

If you end up using SOLIDWORKS or Inventor, go ahead and sign-up for Plethora today and try out our on-demand manufacturing service! If you use a different CAD program, sign-up anyway and we’ll let you know when Plethora becomes available for your CAD.

We’d love to hear from you – if you have any questions or feature requests, drop us a line at hello@plethora.comand tell us how we can best accommodate your needs.

Topics: CAD, Design, DFM