5 BEST free CAD software for Sheet Metal

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two metalworkers cutting sheet copper

Have you ever searched for a free CAD software to design parts, in particular for sheet metal?

If so, you’ll know that’s difficult because there are many software tools that might look like the coolest and simplest solution, but after you finalize your design, you realize it’s just not really suited for the goal. (looking at you, Blender!).

Finding a CAD solution specifically for sheet metal products design is a bit tricky because you’ll either need a simple 2D CAD system, or ideally: a parametric or direct 3D modeler that allows you to design flanges and work with bend deductions: In short, a CAD-system with a dedicated sheet metal module.

If you intend to use your CAD software just for some basic part design or learning the skills, you’re in luck – you can do this for free! There are few strong options out there such as FreeCAD, Onshape and Fusion360

But if you’re looking to design sheet metal for professional applications, chances are you’ll face some limitations in the free editions. That being said, let’s dive into how you can get started today.

This article will show you five free CAD software programs that are easy to use, outstanding at their jobs, and suitable for 2D or 3D sheet metal design.

SoftwareLicense typeSheet Metal Module(s)Operating System3D
FreeCADOpen SourceYes, WorkbenchWindows, Linux, macOSYes
OnShapeFree for personal useYes, DedicatedCloud BasedYes
Fusion360Free for personal use YesWindows, macOSYes
LibreCAD Open Source No (2D)Windows, Linux, macOSNo
QCAD Open Source No (2D) Windows, Linux, macOS No

Table of contents

What is CAD software?

Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software is an interactive digital design tool used to make models for engineering. It permits to draw 2D/3D models that can be used for engineering documentation, as well as the models that are used for CNC Manufacturing.

It helps users create designs in either 2D or 3D so that they can visualize the construction.

CAD has replaced manual drafting often, resulting in significant productivity improvement by eliminating many manual actions and streamlining the design process. As well, it helps engineers make their designs more accurate and easier to modify for later improvements.

The use of CAD software has grown exponentially in the past two decades because it covers many aspects of design, including architectural design, mechanical engineering, product design, and more.

Today, manufacturers use modern PLM and PDM systems and store their designs on the network or in the cloud. CAD-files are typically also used to send directly to CAM-systems to create NC-codes, for example for sheet metal laser cutting or sheet metal die bending.

What are requirements for Sheet Metal Design?

It is hard to find the best free CAD software for metalworking in 2022.

As a consultant, I have been on the lookout for the best CAD software that will fit the needs of my larger clients. But I know that not everyone is looking for the Rolls-Royce of sheet metal design solutions. Sometimes you just want something simple, and ideally free.

For example, if you are designing simple folded sheet metal parts, you are only needing to design some flanges with rounded radii: a simple sheet metal module.

What are the most important factors in the selection of a CAD software?

First, you could draft in an old-school way and do it all in 2D. Many legacy manufacturers still work in 2D DWG and DXF drawings. So, there is a high chance you’ll be fine with just drafting some 2D designs quickly. The saying might go like this: if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it, right?

Another reason for this is that most metalworking schools still teach students how to design flat patterns themselves, calculate bend shortenings based on material thickness, and k-factors. So if you’re lucky enough to know your way around this, you should be fine off with a free 2D CAD system.

But if you’re looking for a modern, faster way, you probably are better off with a 3D CAD solution.

Requirements for a 3D CAD solution:

Let’s take a look at some of the most important factors that should be considered when making the right CAD software decision:

  • Design in X Y and Z planes
  • Ability to fold and unfold flanges
  • Ability to configure radii for flanges (Tip: a radius of 0 is not possible)
  • Ideally: Configuration of k-factors

We can often summarize this as a dedicated sheet metal module, or workbench.

Now that we know what the software needs to be functional, let’s look at the different versions of free software since not all are truly free or created equal.

Student, Personal, Open Source or Paid? 

architect working with sketch pen tablet and cad

CAD software for students

If you’re a student, there are many more options for you than we have listed here below.

Students can typically get a student license to the larger CAD-software systems such as the most popular SolidWorks Student edition, CATIA Student, CREO student edition, and Inventor Student Edition, completely free of charge.

All you need is your university email address and sometimes a university name. This might take a bit longer, but in the end, you can get the best solutions to learn with for free.

In most cases, if you’re a student, you might be better off learning the larger CAD-software’s and jumping straight into them.

If you’re not a student yet or if you’re just learning by yourself without being signed up for a university, you can still apply for free trials and access most of the tutorials and documentation.

CAD software for personal use

Personal use usually means you can’t give out copies, use them for business purposes, assign them to an organization, or make money from it. It’s just for you.

Free for personal use means the same thing in this context, so you can download the software and use it, but it should not be installed on your company’s computers.

…. and yes, this also means that personal use is not meant for your next little shop on Etsy.

Personal use can be used for your hobby and if that’s what you’re looking for, then you’re in luck since a few CAD-vendors like OnShape or the free FreeCAD will be perfect for this application.

Open-source software

Open-source software is software that uses an open-source license, which allows the user to run, study, share and improve the software.

This means that the code behind the software is freely available, and the software is created by and for the community. All open-source software can be used for commercial purposes, and the Open-Source Definition guarantees this. You can even sell open-source software.

In this article, we will explore FreeCAD as an example of this

When to consider a paid alternative

For professional use, you’re better off with a paid solution because your product has extensive support, and higher-end CAD solutions come with significant extra functions.

There is a huge gap in price between the most expensive and free solutions. For metalworking companies, it’s often worth considering cheaper licenses and software.

For example, you should then look at SpaceClaim, BricksCAD, and SolidWorks all of which come with a FREE trial (click on the links to find out more)

SolidWorks also offers a hobbyist license through EAA memberships, which is the cheapest non-commercial license. And Fusion 360 is also available at reasonable price tags.

You might also want to consider paid solutions that don’t break the bank, such as Alibre

In the near future, we’ll publish another article about professional CAD software for sheet metal. Stay tuned for this one. Meanwhile, have a look at my free guide:

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    Best Free 3D CAD Software

    We compiled a list of 3D CAD programs that are free for most purposes and work for sheet metal design. If you’re looking for a great 3D CAD program for personal, hobby, or even professional use, start below:

    FreeCAD

    freeCAD logo

    Overview

    • Operating system: macOS, Linux, Unix, and Windows.
    • License: Free, Open Source
    • Sheet Metal Module: yes, Workbench

    FreeCAD is an open-source 3D modeling software that has been gaining more popularity over the years. It is a completely free software alternative for expensive CAD programs and best of all: it can be used for commercial purposes.

    Freedom to build what you want

    It is preferred and recommended for 3D and parametric design because of the variety of tools it offers. FreeCAD is one of the most popular alternatives to SolidWorks. Its open-source parametric nature makes it a great choice.

    In our experience, the software can be learned rather quickly with common features and design approaches that you see in the industry. It offers you the most popular 3D modeling tools, including Boolean, extrudes, etc.

    FreeCAD is the only truly open-source software that also comes with a sheet metal workbench to design sheet-metal parts. The library is still being developed by enthusiasts all around the world, and therefore it makes a fantastic starting solution.

    People looking to become a CAD designer can use FreeCAD as a stepping stone before moving onto the expensive 3D modeling software. It is the perfect CAD software for someone looking for great functionality without having to pay for a CAD program.

    • File types: SVG, DXF, STEP, STL, IFC, SCAD, OBJ, IV, DAE, and IGES.
    • FreeCAD’s native format is .FCStd.

    Onshape Free Plan

    onshape logo

    Overview

    • Operating system: Cloud based, any device with a Web Browser
    • License: Free for personal, Yearly subscription professional use
    • Sheet Metal Module: yes, dedicated functions.

    The biggest revolution in CAD software right now is Onshape: a fully cloud-based software with exceptional collaboration features.

    The modeling environment is very familiar, coming from a CAD software like SolidWorks. That’s no surprise, since the founders are coming from SolidWorks themselves.

    Onshape saves you time with Parametric Modeling 2.0, a fundamentally better way to model using multipart design, configurations, simultaneous sheet metal tools, standard content, and managed in-context design.

    With all of your CAD documents visible to the public and available for copying, it is easier than ever to share designs and simultaneously collaborate with your community of contributors.

    Your design data is anywhere you are – it’s accessible from any computer via a web browser or from any mobile device running iOS or Android.

    Onshape’s rich, self-paced training content and active community make learning Onshape’s modern CAD system practical and enjoyable.

    We highly recommend this solution for hobbyists and students, as it is great for a trial, as it is completely free.

    For professional users, the subscription starts at around $1500/year at the time of writing. This may sound expensive, but note that it’s cloud-based, so you don’t have to worry about extra IT and networking issues.

    In addition to these apps, Onshape can load feature scripts from the community.


    Fusion360 For Personal Use

    autodesk fusion 360

    Overview

    • Operating system: Mac OS, Windows
    • License: Free for personal, Yearly subscription professional use
    • Sheet Metal Module: yes, dedicated functions.

    Fusion 360 is a cloud-based 3D CAD/CAM/CAE software first released by Autodesk in 2013.

    It is by many engineers considered the best CAD software around because of its advanced features. In our opinion, this is true in many regards, but it does have a lot of competition from Onshape and has some limitations in the free version.

    Fusion 360 is more advanced than FreeCAD in many ways, which is no surprise with having such a large company behind it. The user interface looks a lot like the popular inventor CAD-software.

    It is often easier to learn and use than other systems. While Fusion 360 can do almost everything that SolidWorks and Onshape can do, at the end of the day, it all comes down to what the purpose of your software is.

    On another note, the software is great for mechanical or technical designs, and the sheet metal functions are well established. It works on both cloud and device. Thus, if you do not have an internet connection you could work on your project as well.

    Fusion 360 is free for personal use. In our opinion, the free option is a bit limited these days, but if you just want to design parts in it, it’ll probably do what you want. Limited file output types and access to machining strategies on the free tier, though.

    One tip from our side: make sure to check the privacy settings of the software once you install it, since it sends a lot of diagnostic data to Autodesk’s servers. You can uncheck these from the settings menu.

    Best Free 2D CAD software

    If you don’t feel comfortable working in 3D and just want a simple 2D solution, we have selected two pieces of software for you that you should have a look at.

    Both can be used for free and allow you to make 2D designs. For example, if you want to edit flat patterns, or just make 2D laser cutting files, such as editing DXF files.

    LibreCAD

    libreCAD logo

    Overview

    • Operating system: Windows, Apple and Linux.
    • License: Free, open source

    LibreCAD is a free Open-Source CAD application for Windows, Apple and Linux. Support and documentation are free from our large, dedicated community of users, contributors and developers.

    It comes with partial support of the Autodesk DWG format (importing only), but full support of the Autodesk DXF open format (import and export). LibreCAD uses this as its main format.

    You can easily use it for the most common 2D operations: Line, circle, arc, polyline, spline. As well, Entity modification: move/duplicate, mirror, scale, offset, trim, fillet, etc.

    Plugins are also developed to ease some tasks. The user interface is available in several languages.

    The best thing about this is that it has a great community, and you can count on regular support. As mentioned, it’s 2D, so you’ll have to know some in’s and out’s about design sheet metal parts.


    QCAD

    QCAD logo

    Overview

    • Operating system: Windows, Apple and Linux.
    • License: Free, open source

    QCAD is a free, open-source application for computer-aided drafting (CAD) in two dimensions (2D). With QCAD you can create technical drawings such as plans for buildings, interiors, mechanical parts or schematics and diagrams.

    It is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux. The source code of QCAD is released under the GPLv3, a popular Open-Source license.

    The software was designed with modularity, extensibility, and portability in mind. But what people notice most often about QCAD is its intuitive user interface.

    QCAD is an easy to use but powerful 2D CAD system for everyone. You don’t need any CAD experience to get started with QCAD immediately. You can download QCAD today for free!

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    What is the best CAD software for sheet metal?

    freeCAD demo screenshot

    FreeCAD is for the tech-savvy 

    If you’re looking for a more comprehensive tool set, check out FreeCAD, which has been around since 2012, but is still in active development by a small group of engineers. You can actively contribute to the development and find a great community. 

    If you are a maker and love to support Open-Source development, this is perfect for you. We love this so much since it’s the only truly free solution with a dedicated sheet metal module.


    onShape demo screenshot

    Onshape is great for personal projects

    If you’re looking for a modern solution and don’t care about anyone seeing what you design, you might love Onshape. It’s fantastic for its ease of use and modern interface. 

    If you want to get good at 3D modeling and collaborate with some of your friends or fellow students, we recommend starting here.  


    fusion360 demo screenshot

    Fusion 360 is great for learning as a stepping stone

    Lastly, we think Fusion 360 is best for aspiring engineers who see themselves entering the workforce in the near future. If you want to work with software like Inventor, it’s a great starting point. 

    Also, if you’re solely working on personal projects, and it has to be in 3D, and you feel it would be better not to share your design with the world, this might be your best pick.

    Conclusion: Pick a solution that fits your needs

    Now that you know what the best free CAD software for sheet metal design is, you’re ready to design the products for our future without worrying about having to spend a fortune.

    We’ve written many more articles on the topic of sheet metalworking, such as an ERP-buyer’s guide (there is a free one too) and on digitalization so make sure to check out the other articles.

    Lastly, we have a gift for you, my free guide:

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      About the author
      Luke Van Enkhuizen

      Luke Van Enkhuizen

      Luke van Enkhuizen (pronounced "van ekh-/œy/-zen") is a former mechanical engineer who became an IT consultant who helps sheet metalworking businesses to automate their processes with IT simple solutions– so that everything runs as if by itself.

      He helps factory owners navigate the Fourth Industrial Revolution and understand which IT decision is the right one. He helps them examine the alternatives and provides well-founded advice.

      Luke believes that having just one software for everything in your factory is a bad approach, and often discusses the downsides of buying expensive and large ERP-systems instead of having a factory built up out of specialized software systems integrated through simple and modern integrations.

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