Comparing SolidWorks to AutoCAD is like asking to compare Star Wars against Star Trek.
They are both powerhouses in their own right, with missions of fans the world over.
And like the two aforementioned sci-fi franchises, to an outsider, both SolidWorks and AutoCAD may seem to be cut from the same cloth – after all, they’re both CAD software right?
How different could they be?
The answer is, very different indeed.
While both solutions can achieve many of the same goals in terms of design, how they achieve them are very different.
Let’s take a look at both of these mighty CAD products, and see what those differences (and similarities) are, and more importantly, let’s see which one is the best option for 3D printing.
Introduction to SolidWorks and AutoCAD
Let’s start with Autodesk’s AutoCAD, because it is arguably the Daddy of modern CAD, and as such, we should pay a little homage to this mighty software tool.
Introduced way back in 1982, AutoCAD was the first commercially available CAD software that didn’t require a mainframe computer to run on. You could run it on a home computer.
For this reason, it quickly rose to become the most popular CAD solution available in the 1980s, and it has not really budged from that spot to this date.
Even in 2023, AutoCAD is the most used CAD software on the planet.
This is due to its popularity among architects who favor the software for use in drafting 2D plans and elevation drawings. It is highly detailed and produces editable, dimensioned drawings in file formats used across the industry.
It is also still widely used in manufacturing, especially if the things being manufactured only require 2D drawings, such as items fabricated with laser cutters.
AutoCAD has always been capable of creating 3D models, although back when it was released it was only capable of churning out mesh-based wireframe models.
This has changed over the years, with the addition of surface and solid modeling capabilities.
SolidWorks (from Dassault Systèmes) was released back in 1995 as an easy-to-use CAD software to run on the Windows operating system and quickly rose to become very popular among engineers and product designers.
SolidWorks, as the name suggests, was designed to focus on solid modeling from the very beginning.
This means that the virtual models produced in the software were water-tight volumes representative of the parts to be manufactured.
With the solid modeling approach, a 3D representation can be modeled directly for manufacture without the need for thickening or any other post-processing steps, as you would need to do with a mesh-based or surface-based modeling system.
SolidWorks is primarily a 3D CAD solution, although it does have 2D drawing capabilities. This is in exact opposition to AutoCAD, which is primarily used for 2D work but can also do 3D work when needed.
SolidWorks is used extensively for the production of parts and components in a wide range of industries ranging from product design to automotive, and even the space industry.
Both software solutions have evolved significantly over the years, with each offering features above and beyond what each respective software was initially designed for.
Key Differences Between AutoCAD and SolidWorks
So, we know that architects love AutoCAD, and engineers are partial to SolidWorks.
But what exactly is it that sets these two software products apart?
Read on, and we will tell you the main differences between them.
Features and Capabilities
One of the key differences between AutoCAD and SolidWorks is the type of modeling they support.
AutoCAD primarily uses wireframe modeling, which involves creating a 3D model using lines and curves to define the shape and size of an object.
In contrast, SolidWorks offers both solid and surface modeling, which allows users to create more realistic and detailed models by using actual solid shapes and smooth surfaces.
Another key difference between the two programs is the simulation and analysis capabilities they offer.
SolidWorks includes a range of tools for simulating the behavior of mechanical parts and assemblies under different conditions, such as stress, strain, and temperature.
These tools allow engineers to test the performance and durability of their designs before they are built, saving time and resources in the design process.
AutoCAD, on the other hand, does not have these advanced simulation and analysis features.
Additionally, SolidWorks is really an end-to-end solution for designing a wide range of products and systems, from concept to manufacture. As a result, it has features for electronics design, injection molding work, sheet metal forming, and a whole lot more.
AutoCAD excels at 2D drafting, but it also has some industry-specific toolsets, including Architecture, Mechanical, Electrical, Map 3D, and Plant 3D.
Both software solutions are capable of rendering, although the SolidWorks Visualize Pro add-on offers faster rendering of higher-quality images thanks to its AI-assisted denoising feature.
User Interface and Ease of Use
One of the unique features of AutoCAD is its traditional interface which includes menus, toolbars, and a command line.
The menus and toolbars provide users with easy access to a wide range of tools and features, while the command line allows users to enter commands directly to manipulate objects and perform various tasks.
The traditional interface of AutoCAD is familiar to many users who have been using the software for a long time, and it allows them to quickly access the tools and features they need.
However, for new users or those who are not familiar with the software, the traditional interface may seem intimidating or overwhelming (I can confirm this from my experience of trying to use AutoCAD after a decade of using SolidWorks).
Despite this, AutoCAD provides extensive help resources, including tutorials and online documentation, to help users get started and become proficient in using the software.
SolidWorks came after AutoCAD, and so it was designed from the beginning to not be like AutoCAD. It has a strong visual element and a user-friendly GUI.
The SolidWorks interface consists of a main graphical area where the sketches and 3D work are performed. There is a menu bar at the top of the screen, which provides access to all of the software’s tools and features.
Below the menu bar is the standard toolbar, which contains buttons for commonly used tools and functions.
To the left of the main window is the feature manager tree, which displays the hierarchy of the model being edited (because SolidWorks is a history-based modeling system).
The feature manager tree shows the different parts and subassemblies of the model and allows users to easily navigate and edit them.
In addition to the main window, SolidWorks also has a variety of floating windows and palettes that provide access to additional tools and features.
These windows and palettes can be moved around the screen and arranged to suit the user’s preferences.
Overall, the SolidWorks user interface is designed to be user-friendly and efficient, providing users with easy access to the tools and features they need to create and edit 3D models.
AutoCAD uses the DWG and DXF file formats, which are widely used in the engineering and architecture industries.
They can be opened and edited in a wide range of other software also.
SolidWorks uses the proprietary SLDPRT format for parts and SLDASM file format for assemblies.
While they can be opened in other CAD software products, they work best in SolidWorks. It should be noted that both SLDPRT and SLDASM parts cannot be used in older versions of SolidWorks than the version in that they were created.
This is very annoying. However, SolidWorks does offer import and export in a range of other CAD-neutral file types such as STEP files.
AutoCAD can be bought on both subscription and flex payment models.
The price for a subscription is:
- $5,595/paid every 3 years
- $1,865/paid annually
- $235/paid monthly
The flex plan uses a token-based system, where the software can be used for the cost of 7 tokens per day. The minimum quantity of tokens that can be purchased is 100 tokens for $300.
SolidWorks pricing information is slightly more nebulous and difficult to find, as the software can only be purchased through its reseller network.
Resellers can basically sell the software for whatever price they like.
There are also multiple different versions of SolidWorks (Standard, Premium, and Professional), so this adds to the confusion.
The software can be purchased as a persistent license or on a subscription basis.
SolidWorks Standard will cost $3995 for a perpetual license, minus the optional annual maintenance subscription fees. On the other side of the scale, an annual license for SolidWorks Premium will set you back $8,995 per year.
There are a lot of variances there. We recommend that you speak to your local reseller to get the exact figure, as Dassault Systèmes does not publish this information on their official site.
Support and Documentation
Both AutoCAD and SolidWorks come with comprehensive documentation in the form of tutorials and guides, both within the software and on the official company websites. In addition, the internet is full of communities that are friendly and willing to help.
AutoCAD vs SolidWorks: Feature Comparison
SolidWorks and AutoCAD are similar in their goals, yet take different paths.
Let’s take a look at some of the main features in each, and how they compare.
2D and 3D design
Both AutoCAD and SolidWorks are capable of 2D and 3D CAD work, although the workflow for AutoCAD is focused on 2D.
This means it has a lot more specialized features for 2D drafting including blocks, hatching, arrays, multi-lines, and text features for annotation. This is in addition to the standard drawing tools including lines, circles, and arcs.
Another benefit of 2D files exported from AutoCAD is that they will just work with other versions of AutoCAD.
If you create a DWG file in AutoCAD 2023, and send it to a contractor who is using AutoCAD 2017, you can rest assured that they will be able to open it. The same cannot be said for SolidWorks.
3D modeling in AutoCAD requires switching to a dedicated 3D workspace, where sketches can be transformed into 3D shapes by means of features such as extrude or revolve.
SolidWorks features 2D sketching for the creation of 3D parts, and also can transform those 3D parts back into technical drawings. SolidWorks also has the ability to convert existing 3D models into 2D technical drawings at the push of a button.
SolidWorks features a much wider (and easy-to-use) array of 3D modeling features. These also include extrusions, sweeps, and lofting. SolidWorks also has a range of surface modeling features, including boundary surfaces.
While it seems like they both have the same features (and they do, up to a point), it’s really how these features are accessed and used that makes the difference.
Our best advice is to try both.
In terms of simulation, there is no comparison. AutoCAD doesn’t have any. It’s primarily a drafting tool, and so it doesn’t need it.
SolidWorks on the other hand has a variety of simulation tools including static, linear/non-linear dynamic, frequency, buckling, thermal, flow, fatigue, and motion simulation.
Another big difference between AutoCAD and SolidWorks is the ability to work with assemblies. To be blunt, AutoCAD is here not the ideal choice.
SolidWorks can do it, and it can do it well. Depending on your processor, RAM, and graphics capability, SolidWorks can handle assemblies of hundreds (if not thousands) of parts.
And when the parts have been arranged in the assembly mode, they can have various simulations and motion studies performed on them.
Both SolidWorks and AutoCAD are excellent software with a wide range of features tailored to their respective industries.
Comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges. They are both great at what they do best, which is why they are some of the most favored software choices for professionals in their own domains.
But when it comes to 3D printing, there is a clear winner, and the winner is SolidWorks.
While AutoCAD may be the number one used CAD software in the world (and has been for decades), it is better for drafting than it is for solid modeling.
And when you are designing parts that need to be manufactured with minimal post-processing steps for manufacture, you really do need a dedicated solid modeling solution.
AutoCAD does have solid and surface modeling capabilities, so if you are a long-time AutoCAD user, it will likely be easier for you to do 3D printing with AutoCAD rather than attempting to learn new software.
But given the choice, if you are new to CAD and are looking for a complete solution for designing watertight models with minimal fuss, then you should choose SolidWorks.
But as you have seen, it comes at its cost. Fortunately, there are other cheaper alternatives, like Fusion 360 you can use to design your 3D models.
It’s not just that SolidWorks is great for modeling, but it also has features that will help make all-around better products. Including advanced mechanical and motion simulation, the ability to work with assemblies, and even AI-assisted rendering options (Visualize Pro).
Verdict: SolidWorks is the clear winner for additive manufacturing. For 2D drafting, AutoCAD is and will remain, the CAD Daddy.