Is Autodesk Winning the Free CAD War?

By on July 20th, 2018 in Ideas

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 Battle of the low-cost 3D CAD providers? 
Battle of the low-cost 3D CAD providers? 

I’ve noticed a bit of a trend, at least informally, regarding use of free 3D CAD suites.

3D CAD tools, at least the good ones, tend to be significantly expensive, particularly the ones providing the most function. They’re hard to learn and thus once a designer begins using them, they don’t frequently switch to another tool to avoid more learning curve and additional licensing fees. 

Thus it is quite critical for 3D CAD software providers to “lock up” users as soon as they begin using 3D CAD tools. 

One important strategy for doing so was to offer the tools at a discount to higher level education students. Students, of course, have few financial resources and definitely could not afford to buy the regular versions of such tools. In some cases the companies offer discounts to the educational institutions, who would then grant free licenses to their students. 

The idea is that once the student leaves the educational environment, they take with them an appetite for the 3D CAD tools they learned. While they may have to use the tools standardized by their new employer, they can always ask to use their familiar tools. An employer may even shift their standards to a different tool if it makes things easier to recruit new staff. 

For years Solidworks was offered in an educational version that was sharply discounted. However, discounted does not equal free. 

When Onshape launched a couple of years ago, the online-only 3D CAD system offered a free tier for anyone. However, that was discontinued, leaving no free or inexpensive options for those wishing to use Onshape unless you are in an educational institution, where they still offer a free plan.

A few years ago I would almost always hear of new designers using the educational version of Solidworks, and that would be their tool of choice after they left their academic life. Some, of course, were surprised at the actual price of Solidworks when they were accustomed to the educational version. However, it’s the tool they knew, so often they ended up purchasing the product. 

However, in more recent years I’m beginning to hear a bit of a different story. Autodesk’s Fusion 360 cloud tool now seems to be the choice among this same group of young designers and entrepreneurs over Solidworks, at least in the circles I travel. 

The reason for this switch is that although Fusion 360 may be a less powerful tool than Solidworks, it is more than sufficient for most projects undertaken by these individuals. And it’s offered for free, not only for students, but also for startups: any company with annual revenue under USD$100K qualifies for this program under Autodesk’s pricing regime. 

This seems to have attracted a great many people, at least in my informal survey. I’ve also observed shared spaces such as makerspaces changing their standards and training programs to focus on Autodesk Fusion 360 for these same reasons. 

It may be that in future years Autodesk may see a boost to their sales as these young people graduate or their ventures grow into bigger operations. It seems like a good strategy for Autodesk. 

What’s Solidworks to do? 

They still offer their educational discount, but I see them making more direct deals with institutions to effectively cut out Autodesk as an option, even though it’s a free tool. But there’s nothing stopping Autodesk from doing the same, and I expect they will do so in the future, if they haven’t already. 

The good news is that if you’re in a position where you cannot afford a good 3D CAD tool, there are options.

By Kerry Stevenson

Kerry Stevenson, aka "General Fabb" has written over 8,000 stories on 3D printing at Fabbaloo since he launched the venture in 2007, with an intention to promote and grow the incredible technology of 3D printing across the world. So far, it seems to be working!