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With the advent of mobile games, augmented reality, and 3D printing, headhunters are moving full speed ahead to recruit expert 3D modelers. Even for self-starters or hobbyists, 3D modeling is a worthy skill to acquire.
Software offerings have branched out to include not only the reliable workhorses but also several niche solutions as well as free entry-level suites. Our advice is to invest a bit more and go with one of the five following packages.
Since 1995, SolidWorks and its solid mathematical underpinnings promise reliable performance, no matter the application. It’s not without reason that most universities have adopted it as their primary modeling environment.
Modeling is constraint-based, which means that geometry is defined by 2D sketches which in turn depend on explicit internal dimensions and interrelationships. Each development of a sketch into a 3D object creates a feature in the history tree, so that it remains modifiable at any time.
Despite its technical approach geared toward mechanical engineering and product design, you will find enough design freedom in working with curvature continuous surfaces, projected 3D curves, and patterned elements. Robust Boolean and roundover functionality as well as detailed text features and vector import make incorporating embossed logo designs straightforward.
Once you’ve mastered the basic commands, SolidWorks provides a bevy of additional tools such as the Visualize renderer, technical drafting, 3D scanning import, sheet metal workbench, composer for user manuals, and mold flow analysis for injection molding.
It can work with large assemblies, do motion simulation, and import OEM components from associated part libraries.
2. Fusion 360
Fusion 360 leads the new generation of cloud-based CAD suites. Complex computations are queued to the network, so it can work on your home computer as well as an industrial PC. The modeling engine is comparable to SolidWorks — and similarly, it is Windows-only. However, it has fewer features and less parametric control, which is relevant if you’re a surface modeler.
The hybrid approach between solid and mesh modeling stands out, offering users both parametric and direct sculptural control over the workpiece. There are seven workbenches, targeted to meet the demands of Industry 4.0:
- Design. Create base geometry and assemblies. Use the Create Form command for organic shapes. Import standard components from McMaster-Carr and other suppliers.
- Generative design. Deploy the power of artificial intelligence by inputting a set of mechanical loads, and the algorithm finds the optimal shape. Optimized biomimetic structures can be generated in minutes instead of weeks.
- Render. Visualization capabilities are on par with state-of-the-art render engines.
- Animation. Create exploded views and basic animations.
- Simulation. Apply loads, mechanical and thermal stresses, and frequencies to objects and obtain FEA-based analytical results.
- Manufacture. Extensive toolkit to generate 3D printable or CNC machinable files.
- Drawing. Automatically convert part designs to technical drafting layouts.
Fusion 360 is an increasingly popular choice for independent makers and small businesses, not least because of the pricing: $495/year and free for students and startups.
3. PTC Creo
Once known as Pro/Engineer, Creo offers powerful capabilities such as the FreeStyle surfacing module, shape optimization, and polygonal modeling. Even more so than SolidWorks, Creo is parametric. So when a dimension or feature earlier in the history tree is altered, the entire construction will dynamically update to match.
Professionals do well to invest in the Advanced Plus version that includes advanced surfacing, 3D printing preparation, mold design, and finite element simulation. It exports models for VR headsets and AR apps.
When linking up Windchill, PTC’s PLM system, you’re granted high-level management of assemblies, part lists, supply chain partners, and revision control. You can also pair CREO with Mastercam for CNC machining.
Combine these reasons with its competitive pricing, and it is understandable why Creo is the top choice for industry giants like Volkswagen, John Deere, and Amazon.
Rhino3D lacks history-based modeling but makes up for it with its incredible feature count, a low price, and NURBS-based modeling. This Swiss Army knife of surface modeling empowers designers with sublime control over complex curvatures, allowing freeform surfacing effects such as dummy surfaces, two-rail sweeps, and A-pillar blends.
It is a must-have package for concept designers of hypercars, jewelry professionals, architects, designers in the maritime industry, and footwear designers.
In addition to its expert-level user interface, Rhinoceros knows a rich collection of plugins. The most valuable additions to the zoo are:
- Flamingo for photorealistic rendering.
- Penguin for cartoon-style rendering.
- Python for scripting.
- Grasshopper for computational geometry and customizable objects.
- Peacock for jewelry design.
ZBrush is ideal for the starting artist who needs picture-perfect results for rendering and 3D printing of organic models like characters, landscapes, and concept vehicles.
Its hybrid approach of freeform sculpting and direct modeling makes it an indispensable addition to the 3D designer’s inventory.
ZBrush stands out from other sculptors in that it includes advanced surface control like selective creasing and dynamic subdivision. Its object libraries and custom brushes enable modelers to establish stunning 3D textures.
The software embeds several other smart features:
- ZSpheres lets you import a wireframe skeleton onto which virtual clay can be added.
- ZModeler to control edge operations like pinches, bevels, and creases.
- Nanomesh for randomized scattering of objects across a surface.
- GemCut Studio for jewelry design.
- GoZ for a bridge to Keyshot, Maya, 3ds Max, Poser, DAZ Studio, or Modo.
The value of a 3D modeling package can be evaluated based on the following factors:
- Versatility. Suitability for various product categories, manufacturing processes, and large assemblies.
- Control. Feature count and depth in terms of input values.
- Usability. Learning curve, workflow intuitiveness, and interface customizability for beginner vs. expert users.
- Accessibility. Popularity in companies and schools, import/export formats, and price.
Parametric modelers inherently offer more control than polygonal ones such as ZBrush, 3ds Max, Maya, Modo, and Cinema4D. They are also more versatile and easier to learn.
Rhino3D scores wonderfully overall, especially when paired with its prime free tool, Grasshopper. Still, it remains confined to concept work because of its inability to recalculate based on a history tree. Few professional designers are willing to accept undo commands as the only way to revert to a previous state.
However, SolidWorks remains at the top. It is also a gateway to its bigger brother CATIA for the automotive and aerospace industries. But the playing field is changing and alternatives like Creo and Fusion 360 are catching up fast for their touchdown moment.