What is the “Best” drafting program to use?

As a drafter for a number of years now, this is a question I get asked quite a lot. The simplest answer to this is; “the one that suits your needs the best”. However when I say this, it is often mistaken as being dismissive of the question or just generally being sarcastic. So I will attempt to elaborate on what I mean by this and hope that others can benefit from it.

Before I get started I should state that I first started to use AutoCAD, about 10 or so years ago, then moved onto Autodesk Inventor shortly after and finally have worked with Dassault Systems SolidWorks for the last 3.5 years. So I have a bit of a soft spot for the Autodesk products, however I will try to be as unbiased as possible here. Also this means I will try not to comment too much on the strengths or weaknesses of the programs I have had very little exposure to.

The first, most important question that anyone buying a drafting package needs to ask themselves is what do I want my end result to be? Are you looking to only make detailed 3D models for machining? Do you need to “only” produce 2D drawings of simple small items? Are you producing detailed architectural drawings? Or are you designing and modelling whole large industrial facilities or buildings in 3D and out sourcing the 2D drawings from those models? Answering the “what do I want my end result to be” question will raise a whole lot of other questions, but once answered, it will reduce the programs you have to pick from drastically.

Some other really important questions to ask yourself are things like, how much do I want to pay and how am I happy to pay that? (pay per use basis, monthly, annually, as I need/want the updated version.) How much will I be using the program? Do I need the “full blown” or top tier version or can I get away with a lower tier or light version of the software? Do I need a copy of the main software at all? Does the software company offer a free viewer that I can view the models/drawings in like Autodesk Design review or Dassault Systems eDrawings that will allow me to review, measure and mark up models and drawings? That last one might mean you don’t need to buy anything if you don’t intend on actually creating any content!

One question that most people never think of until it is too late is, what support/help is available for my chosen software? This is a big question that should be thought about almost as much as the first one in the case of people starting out with any drafting software. A setback in the early stages of learning can mean you will either give up or hate your choice. Either way support is a major thing even for the more experienced drafties.

There are so many drafting packages available on the market now that it is impossible to pick one as a stand out because they are getting to the point now that they are so highly tailored to do specific tasks. Most people have heard of Autodesk’s AutoCAD. It was one of (if not) the first electronic drafting package available and to this day is an amazing work horse for a wide variety of sectors. Due to the length of time it has been around and Autodesk’s continual improvement of the program, it has so much functionality that anyone that works with it will be quick to tell you they typically only use a small portion of its broad spectrum of functionality. While this might sound like an easy pick for the best drafting program to use, due to its flexibility and range of functions, it’s size and complexity can often make it harder to do things than other software if you only want to do that one specific thing all the time. It can also make “fault finding” when you run into problems very difficult, and tends to be a bit clunky on slower/older computers due to its size and system requirements. Some of AutoCAD’s best features can be its biggest weaknesses depending on what your final output needs to be.

When it comes to 3D modelling you are spoiled for choice in today’s market. There are so many great programs out there that it would be hard to list them all, let-a-lone give any kind of comprehensive review on them all. But sticking to what I know I will offer this advice. It depends heavily on two factors as to which program you use, what the model is of and what you want to do with the model. a great question to ask the sale people is what was the program originally designed for? If you are doing highly complex surface modelling, SolidWorks or a program like Autodesk Fusion 360 is probably your best bet. These programs have been designed from the ground up with surface modelling in mind and as a result do it very well. While SolidWorks has evolved over the years to include a vast amount of other features including things like solid modelling, Finite Element Analysis and even a comprehensive mold making section, which could all help with downstream use of the model, but you may not need all that functionality for what you are doing. Also Fusion 360 is only a new(ish) product and as such might not be able to produce a usable end result for you depending on what you want to do with the model. If you are producing large plant or building models, a program like Bentley’s Microstation or Autodesk’s Plant 3D might be more in order as they are designed to handle larger models of this type and can easily output a wide variety of information that is required when working on these types of jobs, not just 2D layouts. While it is possible to do plant layouts in Inventor or SolidWorks, they often struggle with the amount of information due the fact they were never really designed with this complexity in mind. Likewise if you are trying to deal with highly complex mechanical designs like that of a large commercial plane or boat, then something like Dassault Systems Catia would be better than SolidWorks. Then Architects mainly seem to use either Autodesk Revit or Graphisoft Archicad. I could go on and on and on and on, but for the sake of everyone’s time and eyes I won’t.

The second factor is, what do you want to do with the model? Do you want to be able to produce 2D drawings off it? Do you want to be able to produce bill of material lists? Do you want to do any BIM modelling with it? Does it need to be able to be imported into other programs for contractors/clients to use? Do you need to be able to import other peoples data for your use? These are just some of the factors to take into account and will be as individual as your use for the program. Take the humble Bill of Materials (BoM) for example. While most programs that produce 3D models can do a BoM, some of them can be very painful to set up and use while others are almost completely automated.  So if BoM lists are important to you, than you will want to check out how the program produces them, and how hard it is to change them once they are done. In the case of SolidWorks, they can take a bit of setting up, but once going, are very user friendly. Likewise with Inventor, but Inventors BoMs can be a little tricky to update/change at times. As for AutoCAD BoMs are 100% manual both to create and alter. While this one factor is unlikely to be a deciding factor of what program you end up with it is a great example of how one small function can make or break a workflow in the different programs.

I am almost finished I promise, hang in there!

I have mentioned a few times that there is a possibility that you may need to export or send the files you create to others for downstream use. In my humble opinion this is a huge consideration that is often overlooked. Especially if this is something that may have to happen a lot for you or your business. With Autodesk being such an early and dominant player in the electronic drafting world, their .DXF and .DWG file formats have become industry standards for most programs to be able to output or use. However this doesn’t mean that all .DWGs are created equal. In fact, even the amount of information you try to export/import between programs can have a massive impact on the success of a file transfer. If this is something you do a lot of than you really should get some examples of the exported information and try importing into the other programs to make sure it will work before getting stuck with a program that outputs something that no one else can use. I have actually seen contracts won and lost because of this, so I can’t express how critical it can be in some situations.

Final point, I promise!

Last but not least, you really need to find out how long it will take and how hard it is to set your drafting program up to do what you want. AutoCAD is a great example of being able to do a million and one awesome things, but it can do almost none of them “straight out of the box”. This would probably be the biggest trap I see people fall into, and to the best of my knowledge none of the drafting packages on the market are exempt from this fact. You will be able to watch all these well produced demonstrations on YouTube of how easily these programs can do all this amazing stuff at more or less one or two clicks, but, what you don’t see is the amount of time it takes to set this amazing stuff up so it can be done in one or two clicks! While the functionality might be there the software developers will never be able to make an out of the box solution that suits your business. 99.99% of the time you will need to spend some time and effort in doing things like setting up file and drawing templates with things like layers, title blocks, material libraries, custom content libraries, etc. etc.. The amount of set up will depend heavily on what your end goal is, but you will need to do it to get a decent result in a timely manner.

A great example of this is just recently, I personally got caught where a job that we estimated should have taken about 170hrs ended up taking me more like 400+hrs because of the fact that as I scaled up the use of some functionality in Inventor it required more and more knowledge and customization of the program. That knowledge wasn’t easily available! On the surface and in the demos it seemed like the perfect solution, and now that it is set up, it works amazingly well, also if i had to quote the job a second time, now that everything is working properly i would probably be able to complete it in about 120-140hrs. But there is 200+hrs of research and set up time that I had to shoulder and as a result has not only cost me time and money, but pushed my clients job back considerably! Thankfully I let my client know before hand this was a possibility as we were trying out a new method of doing the work and i had to work all this out. I am also very thankful that I have a great, understanding client who was happy to let me do it because they could see the pay off for when it worked out!

While there are a number of other factors to consider when getting a drafting program, like how user friendly is the user interface (how well are the buttons laid out) and how easy can that be customised, if at all? Or what other support programs come with or are available for the software? (Like the Autodesk suites for example.) And a more recent issue is, does it work with point cloud data?  I think the above outlines the most important questions to be asking the software sales people. I was lucky enough to learn a lot of this “on the job”, while working for other people. I would hate to have made the mistake of shelling out thousands of dollars for a drafting program only to discover that one or more of these questions should have been asked at the start, and as a result meant I couldn’t use the program for the main thing I wanted it for.

My final final piece of advice would be to get a trial version of the software and try and actually do a job or two with the program before shelling out the sometimes seemingly insane prices you have to pay. make sure you are 100% happy with it.

I would love to hear some others opinions on this matter. Please post thoughts and comments below. have you brought a copy of AutoCAD, Inventor or SolidWorks and need help setting it up to do what you need it to? We might be able to help, check out our CAD Management services on our Website and get in touch.

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