A comparison of the popular CAD software for 3D-printed designs.
Hopefully, this will give you an insight of both softwares and what to expect from them.
Most of us will find ourselves scouring one of many 3D model websites such as Thingiverse, MyMiniFactory, or Pinshape for models to 3D print. But what happens when you get bored of all the STL files you can find online? Or what if a downloaded 3D model doesn’t quite fit your requirements? That’s when you turn to every seasoned 3D printing hobbyist’s best friend: CAD software.
Simply put, CAD (computer-aided design) software allows you to create 3D objects and export them as STL files for printing. In this guide, we’re going to take a look at two very popular CAD programs: Blender and Fusion 360.
All CAD software come with their own pros and cons. We’ll be choosing between Blender and Fusion 360 based on several criteria, including:
Before we move on, let’s have a quick look at the history of both programs.
First, we’ll talk about Blender.
Born in 1998, Blender is an open-source 3D computer graphics suite. It’s open-source status means that its source code is freely distributed and openly available to customization, which has led to widespread adoption of this software in the hobbyist community. It’s designed to create 3D art, visual effects, animations, video games, and 3D printable models.
All-in-all, if you want to do 3D work on a computer, Blender has you covered. The good people at the Blender Foundation has everything covered, including features for 3D modeling, exporting STLs, animation, image editing, video editing, physics simulation, and game development.
On the other hand, Fusion 360, is a much younger, much more specific software. Autodesk created the software in 2012 and made it available for public release in 2013. Fusion 360 is a design, machining, and engineering platform. Though it can’t build games or edit video, Fusion 360 is one of the premier programs for 3D printing and is extremely popular among hobbyist makers.
Autodesk announced that Fusion 360 would be made available for free to hobbyists or start-ups generating less than $100,000 per year in total revenue. (This option becomes possible after the trial period is over) If you don’t fall into one of those two categories, then Fusion 360 costs $495 per year, though if your business is earning more than $100K per year, then you can probably afford that fee.
Creating 3D objects in Blender feels natural and intuitive. The viewport can easily be manipulated, the default colour scheme is stylish, and the hotkeys make modeling intricate objects quick and easy. An extensive array of modifiers and community-built add-ons can quickly alter your shape into an entirely new being in a matter of seconds.
Blender has an undeniably “organic” feel to it. It’s easy to see why many fantasy 3D artists and digital animators prefer Blender, and even why huge studios such as Ubisoft are moving to Blender. Modeling natural shapes is extremely smooth with Blender, and you can distort, deform, and otherwise modify your shapes with unparalleled fluidity.
Fusion 360, on the other hand, feels precise. The default white background, intuitive units, grid, and snapping system make Fusion much more mathematical. It has a significantly more streamlined workspace, with many of the tools safely tucked behind a clear menu system.
Modeling is exact and pinpoint – perfect for functional printing. For instance, a built-in thread generator tool enables you to turn any cylinder into a threaded housing for bolts and screws, a process which is rather complex in Blender. The sketching tools of Fusion 360 are very powerful and can help you cycle through multiple iterations of a design quickly.
A history of your actions runs across the bottom of the Fusion 360 workspace, making it easy to retrace your past steps and correct any old mistakes that later arise. When combined with the dynamic Autodesk Cloud Storage, you have excellent control over versions and varieties of your model, which is extremely useful for prototyping ideas.
The most efficient workflow of Fusion 360 is drawing a 2D sketch and extruding it to three dimensions. Whilst Blender makes it easy for users to dive straight in and add 3D objects with little planning. The trade-off here is precision.
Modeling a realistic tree in Fusion 360 would take a very long time. You’d need to go through a complex series of random sketches and boolean operations to get natural-looking angles.
In Blender, you can use one of the tree generating add-ons, or sculpt a series of cylinders and spheres into your desired shape. By sculpting spheres and cylinders, a low-poly tree can be completed in minutes, while a high-poly one could take a few hours. The tree generating add-ons, on the other hand, can take between a few seconds and a few minutes, depending on your computer’s processing power.
If you’re an aspiring product designer and want to prototype something in several iterations, quickly and effectively, then Fusion 360 is perfect.
Fusion feels as though it was designed with the functional product designer in mind. The hole, rib, web, and thread tools can quickly modify solid shapes accurately, whilst excess geometry is cleaned as you go. One of the most frustrating aspects of Blender is removing duplicate vertices, floating edges, and internal faces – all things which cause issues in 3D printing. In contrast, geometry created in Fusion 360 usually feels cleaner and much less likely to cause problems when 3D printing.
As previously mentioned, Blender focuses heavily on animation, modeling, sculpting, and VFX. Whilst it’s excellent for generating three-dimensional art, it definitely neglects 3D printing. You can however activate a 3D printing add-on in user preferences which allows you to find intense overhangs, non-manifold geometry, and other design flaws that will prevent a 3D print from working.
That being said, creating organic shapes and structures is incredibly easy in Blender. Dynamic sculpting tools allow even beginners to create complex shapes with little time or trouble.
Features of Blender:
Fusion 360 was built for designing products. It’s precise and has great tolerances. If you’re an experienced draftsperson or have spent a lot of time cranking out your own blueprints, then Fusion 360 is for you. You can quickly create 2D drawings, extrude them into three-dimensions, and print them exactly as planned.
One huge advantage of Fusion 360 is the integrated cloud platform. Projects aren’t automatically saved to your computer, but rather to the Autodesk online storage which enables easy collaboration with other designers in your team and saves your work in a safe online environment.
Features of Fusion 360:
Some programs are easier to get started with than others, but eventually if you’re serious about CAD design, it’s likely that you’ll get good at both Fusion and Blender, with some practice. A lot of the skills you learn in one toolset are usually transferable to another.
Blender has a great many features and toolsets, which can make the user interface daunting to new users. In fact, since Blender 2.8, Blender has revamped their user interface and created a more visually pleasing program that’s a bit easier for new users to navigate. Blender also features an intuitive set of hotkeys that are praised by the 3D modeling community. Once learned, these hotkeys become great tools to quickly manipulate 3D objects.
Fusion 360 is easy to get started with and has a user-friendly interface. Large drop-down menus clearly state what they can be used for and hold 90% of all the tools you’ll ever need in 3D printing. Fusion 360 is more simplistic and streamlined, with a smoother learning curve than Blender.,
Blender has developed a huge community around it, with mountains of information and user-based support. If you have a problem, there’s a very good chance that someone else has had the same problem, found a solution, and documented it in great detail. In fact, searching “Blender tutorial” in a Google search gives you approximately 68,000,000 results.
Fusion 360 is maintained and run by 3D design giant Autodesk, a multinational software corporation. On the Autodesk website, you can find detailed tutorials, official documentation, and a community forum.
Searching “Fusion 360 tutorial” only yields around 14.3 million results. Without a shadow of a doubt, Blender has a much stronger community, and because it’s open-source, external developers are constantly building amazing add-ons to enhance your experience.
The answer is.. both.
Both of them are fantastic programs and are better at different things. Both are (essentially) free and perfectly capable as CAD software.
If you’re interested in digital animation, VFX, and game design on top of 3D printing, then Blender is one of the best modeling suites available. It has a wealth of tutorials and community support available. And although the user interface can take a bit of getting used to, it’s a very powerful program.
If you want quick and easy 3D printing, Fusion 360 is perfect. You can be up and running with your own designs in a matter of minutes. Autodesk rolls out updates often and the software is more tailored to product design.
Many 3D printing enthusiasts recommend using Blender for artistic or organic-looking prints, and Fusion 360 for functional prints. After all, they’re both free for us hobbyists, so why don’t you try and use both to their respective strengths?