Moving away from Autodesk Fusion 360... to where?
Fusion 360 logo presumably (tm) Autodesk, used under Fair Use
I might not be the most proficient or the most frequent Fusion 360 user, but I consider myself more than a newbie.
Recently, I read the Local Simulation Feature To Be Removed From All Autodesk Fusion 360 Versions that details yet another cull of Fusion 360 features1.
I’m reminded of the First they came… parable:
- First, they came for the unlimited number of active documents… and I stayed silent, because I hardly ever edit more than one at a time.
- Next, they came for exports, generative design, etc… and I stayed silent, because meh.
- Then they came for local simulation… and frankly, I still wouldn’t care.
- Then they came for a feature I actually use… and I’m screwed.
And view this mostly by the optics that they removed a feature for all editions of the software, not just for free tier. If the current decision holds, the local simulation is gegone. Poof. Buh-bye. Now buy cloud credits or else!
And so I decided to spend some time to investigate what other options are there for 3D design for hobbyists, because not only do I not like the trend this is taking… but I also don’t particularly enjoy:
- All of my designs in a “cloud” (despite opensourcing plenty of it anyway)
- Forced upgrades with breaking changes every so often
- Online-only functionality
- Feeling not welcome by the platform
I think the main criteria for a CAD/CAM package for me are:
- Solid 3d geometries, mostly for additive design
- Parametric design
- STL export
- some form of “source” export2
- At least close-to feature parity with basic 2D/3D modeling in Fusion (a.k.a. “sketch, constrain, extrude, repeat” workflow)
and nice to haves:
- Nice visuals3
- Completely offline mode
- Free as in Beer
- Free as in Speech
- Versioning, ideally via svn/git
Options to explore
Given the lively discussion under the aforementioned HD article, there’s a bunch of options to explore: OpenSCAD, Freecad, Alibre Atom3D, SolidWorks, Siemens Solid Edge.
Le’ts dig in.
A biased run through
OpenSCAD logo by Marius Kintel, CC BY-SA 3.0, resized
OpenSCAD is an old acquaintance. In fact, it was the first tool I ever attempted to use for 3D design4… before I ran away screaming.
To me the premise of OpenSCAD is interesting – instead of a WYSIWYG tool, use code. This worked wonders for things like (La)TeX. But after spending some time with visual tools (Fusion), I find it too constricting.
For example – I can’t walk past the inability to reference existing geometry. I tried using OpenSCAD again (just for fun) in the door guard but it’s just not for me5.
To sum up:
- Pros: great file format (text file), free as in speech, excellent versioning
- Cons: spartan UI, horrid dev experience that’s a dealbreaker for me
FreeCAD logo, GPL
FreeCAD has one thing going for it right from
apt install freecad. And it seems rather capable on
the first look.
I’ll freely admit that I haven’t spent much time with it (yet) because my
original encounter many moons ago was rather short and sad (due to
the default “workbench”).
But with a simple tutorial video by Joko Engineeringhelp YT channel, I was able to pick up basics quickly and just the one tip of switching to “Parts design” workbench was worth the watch.
So, FreeCAD is certainly worth further exploration.
To sum up:
- Pros: free as in speech, OK file format (bunch of stuff in a zip file), okay versioning
- Cons: visuals (not pretty to my eyes), somewhat steep learning curve (rather far from Fusion smooth experience)
presumably (tm) of Alibre, LLC; used under Fair Use
Alibre Atom3D is a simpler brother of a professional CAD/CAM package from Alibre. Be forewarned, this is in the pay-to-play territory.
Despite being commercial, I very much like one of their core features (copy-pasted):
- Pay Once, Own It: No subscription nonsense - own your tools and use them offline.
Thank you! Holy moly, where do I sign up? ;)
I actually watched a 2 hour video titled Alibre - The Complete Beginners Guide by Joko Engineeringhelp and was feeling strangely at home with Alibre Atom3D.
At some points I actually felt that Fusion is behind Alibre in some aspects (helix seems to have a taper built in, there’s a primitive for polygon, loft seems super capable) and that the nested history view in Alibre makes more sense than the timeline in Fusion).
To sum up:
- Pros: capable (on par in features or better), no-nonsense pricing (pay to own), okay for commercial use
- Cons: commercial, proprietary file format (with STEP export), uncertain versioning, phones home for license verification
presumably (tm) Dassault Systèmes, used under Fair Use
SolidWorks for makers is another commercial offering. One of the big CAD/CAM packages. And unlike Fusion 360, this one is also paid – to the tune of $99/year.
The cad itself is basically on par with what you’d expect from a big CAD package. This tutorial exercise video by “CAD CAM TUTORIAL” youtuber gives you a nice feel for the flow. As a Fusion user, I wasn’t surprised by anything I’ve seen. Yes, switching would require some adjustment… but no alien technology.
To sum up:
- Pros: on par or better, nice UI visuals
- Cons: online6, monthly payments, proprietary format (but that seems to be understood by other CADs), uncertain versioning, only non-commercial use
Siemens Solid Edge
presumably (tm) Siemens, used under Fair Use
Siemens Solid Edge (Community Edition) is a name I heard for the first time in the comment section of the HD article. Particularly the mention of “Synchronous technology”. And I’m glad I did.
I went to check a Part design tutorial video by Mufasu CAD youtuber and felt more or less at home, just like in the SolidWorks case.
Where Solid Edge shines, however, is the Synchronous technology – direct modeling combined with dimension-driven design. Just go through a few of the examples from the link above to get a feel. I can’t count the number of cases when my parametric model broke due to a dimension change… and required extensive fixing. Synchronous technology seems like a very capable alternative that can mitigate this. Plus, the ability to intelligently import and edit other CAD formats seems amazing.
Beware: Community edition is free for non-commercial purposes (yay), but: the resulting files won’t open in the commercial version of Solid Edge, and 2D drawings are watermarked. Not a biggie, but worth noting.
To sum up:
- Pros: exceeds capabilities of Fusion (Synchronous technology), free as in beer
- Cons: proprietary format, uncertain versioning, only for non-commercial use, watermarked
Before embarking on this journey, I had no clue there are so many good enough options in the galaxy. I’m thankful to the commenters on the Hackaday article for the push down this rabbit hole.
In any case, without hands-on time, it’s hard to choose one solution. But I’ll be exploring at least some of them in the coming weeks7. Because I no longer like the free offering of Fusion 360.
If I had to choose just one package now, for the rest of time… I’d probably go with Alibre Atom3D8. It’s capable enough for what I need, the company comes across as very friendly (30 day trial, pay to buy, fine for commercial use, now even 40% discount on the license till end of August), path for future upgrades is clear and without obstructions, and it seems less daunting than FreeCAD.
This time it doesn’t affect only free tier… but rather everybody. But that’s somewhat beside the point. ↩
*.STEPat minimum; I don’t want lock-in anymore, thank you Autodesk for the nudge. ↩
Let’s face it – at least to my eyes – Fusion 360 sketches look good. Like yummy-yummy good. ↩
Having only prior experience with Autocad 2D on MS-DOS. ↩
And yes, I know about BOSL2. And if that floats your boat, great. Just replicate my original design from the door guard post in OpenSCAD and
tellshow me it was easy. Might be my lack of XP, but I found the process impossible. And settled for a horrible hack using
Seems there’s some mostly-offline mode, but not sure it applies for the Maker version. ↩
And when a particular source file starts popping up regularly under my 3D design articles, you will know I’ve made my choice. ↩
Especially knowing that FreeCAD is always gonna be there also, just
apt installaway. ↩