CAD CAM allows you to design, model, and create almost anything using Cad/Cam software and compatible tools. As a result, it is rapidly rising in popularity in manufacturing, prototyping, and even in hobby industries. Unfortunately for many, getting started is often expensive, as Computer-Aided Design programs, Computer-Aided Manufacture Programs, and Computer Numeric Control (CNC) mills and lathes are each costly on their own. However, if you are just getting started and want to cut costs, you can take advantage of some of the free CAD/CAM software on the market. While these programs are typically not suitable for professional manufacture, they are the right choice if you want to learn Cad/Cam, are getting started with the industry, or want a cheap temporary solution.
Importantly, you will have to purchase a CNC lathe, mill, or other machinery to bring your CAD designs to life.
Free Computer-Aided Design Programs
CAD software can help you to create computer models of designs, reduce flaws that will show up during production, and can ensure that your model is ready to go. You can also transfer programs from CAD design directly into a CAM program to modify it for CAD/CAM production.
FreeCad – FreeCad is an open-source computer-aided design program designed for mechanical engineering and product design. The open-source software is modular, and you can adapt it to meet your needs, whether beginner or advanced, to produce a variety of models including 3D solids, meshes, and 2D drafting. FreeCad does have a high learning curve, meaning that it is difficult to get started with at first, but offers almost everything you need in a design program. FreeCad uses parametric modeling, allowing you to smoothly go back to update or modify your model at any time to fix flaws and design errors.
Google SketchUp – While not quite a CAD program, Google Sketchup allows you to draw in 3D to create files that you can use with a CAM program to create GCode for modeling. It’s also effortless to use and allows you to practice 3D and 2D modeling in a forgiving environment.
Blender – Blender is a free modeling program that supports CAM. While the primary function of Blender is not 3D modeling, it does work well, and the developers sometimes upload daily builds. As a result, it’s one of the most updated options available and has a lot to offer if you’re more into the design than the manufacturing part of CAD/CAM.
Wings3D – Wings3D is a subdivision modeling tool designed primarily for the creation of 3D models, which can then be imported into a CAM program. The program supports mesh tools, a range of design and editing features, auto-surface to help with creating realistic dimensions for surfaces, and a context-sensitive interface.
DraftSight – DraftSight is a free CAD program that offers a simplistic, stripped-down interface, minimal features, and is much easier to use for beginners than FreeCad. However, DraftSight also comes with fewer features but does offer drafting tools, built-in entities, and a range of drawing and editing tools. It also works with DWG files.
NanoCad – NanoCad offers 2D, 3D, and parametric design, allowing you to build anything from machine parts to blueprints. A variety of shaping and editing tools will enable you to get started on the design quickly, but there is a learning curve. The program is free, but there are many add-on features that you can access with the premium versions, which include Pro, Plus, Construction, and Construction Site.
If you’re looking for a permanently free program that has a lot to offer, FreeCad is still your best option.
Free CAM Programs
If you want to manufacture using CAD/CAM, you will have to transfer any designs you make into a CAM program to be transferred into G code for your CNC machine. Unfortunately, most CAM programs are not free, mainly because CAM is primarily used in industries that earn a great deal from the manufacturer. In short, there are no simple, easy to use, or full-featured free CAM programs. However, you can make do with some of the free options for a short period.
PyCAM – PyCAM is the highest rated free CAM program and offers toolpath generation for 2D and 3D models, in a variety of formats. PyCAM works with 3-Axis CNC machines, as well as a variety of tool controllers.
FreeMILL – FreeMILL is a free CAM program created by MecSoft, which can be used to generate toolpaths from 3D models. The program does have issues, mainly bugs, but it is generally fast and does produce simple toolpaths in GCode that you can use directly with CNC.
Finally, you will need a machine controller if you intend to produce your designs. There are a few free machine interface programs for CAD/CAM design. But like many other free software programs, they are buggy.
LinuxCNC – LinuxCNC is by far the best free machine interface program available. Unfortunately, it is only available for Linux or with use via a real-time extension on another computer. The program can drive milling machines, lathes, 3d printers, laser cutters, plasma cutters, robot arms, hexapods, and more, making it extremely versatile and useful for most industries.
KCam – KCam is only intended for hobby use and should not be used with professional equipment. The application is multi-functional and can help you to program paths using a G-code editor, versatile application, and support for a variety of programs. KCam primarily only works on Windows or a Windows extension.
While there are a few free CAD/CAM programs in almost every category, most of them will not perform to the specifications of a professional program. A license to SolidWorks is well worth the investment if you’re using it for work. If you’re not making money off of it yet, these free CAD/CAM tools are a great place to start.