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Big Names Face Off

AutoCAD vs Inventor: Autodesk CAD Software Compared

Picture of Melanie Griffin
by Melanie Griffin
Sep 29, 2019
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AutoCAD and Inventor are both big names in CAD, but how do they stack up? Find out how they compare as we pit AutoCAD vs Inventor.

AutoCAD vs Inventor AutoCAD vs Inventor 101

AutoCAD and Inventor share the same parent company, Autodesk.
AutoCAD and Inventor share the same parent company, Autodesk. (Source: cadpoint.co.uk)

Since they’re both popular computer-aided design (CAD) tools, AutoCAD and Inventor often get grouped together in lists of best CAD programs. But although they share a lot of similar features, pitting AutoCAD against Inventor directly shows that there are quite a few differences.

AutoCAD and Inventor are both products by Autodesk, a company that’s been making design software for over twenty years. AutoCAD and Inventor were created to complement each other, so they’re not as much direct opposites as two sides of the same coin.

If you’re interested in learning the basics of each of these tools in detail, check out our AutoCAD guide and our Inventor guide.

This article is designed to help you navigate those idiosyncrasies to figure out which suits your needs and style the best.

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AutoCAD vs Inventor AutoCAD: The Pros

AutoCAD is available for both Mac OS and Windows.
AutoCAD is available for both Mac OS and Windows. (Source: O'Rielly Video Training / YouTube)

AutoCAD is a veteran CAD program. Its current iteration came on the market in 1982 and it quickly became the industry standard since it runs on PCs, unlike its predecessors which all required professional-grade machinery (such as mainframes) to work. AutoCAD brought CAD to the masses, and earlier this year it released its 34th edition.

AutoCAD is geometry-driven. That means it uses geometric designs as the basis for its creations, which you can use for 2D drafts and 3D models. It’s generally thought of as a program for people who design and create new objects. Here are a few details that make it beloved by the design and engineering communities:

  • Real-time editing: Once you make a change in AutoCAD, it immediately applies to the design. You can make as many notes, edits, and markups as you want, and it all sticks to your design as you make them. You don’t have to go to a separate document to see what all your team mates changed, either. It’s all on your one design, which makes it incredibly easy to collaborate and evolve your design.
  • Documents grouped by feature: This is going to be a controversial choice of an advantage, but hear us out. AutoCAD puts all the documents related to one drawing or one feature of an object on top of each other, which they call layering. Yes, that means you have to learn how to navigate that particular kind of design grouping, but in our experience it’s a easier than trying to find everything you need and hoping you remembered to put them all in a clearly labeled folder.
  • Industry-specific tools: AutoCAD has been around long enough to help shape the industries it’s built for, and that also means it keeps a close eye on what industry specifics are useful to have within a CAD system. Thus there are tools, commands, and versions that are specifically tailored for architecture, mechanical engineering, and other professions which make heavy use of CAD. It’s a great way to expand AutoCAD in ways that truly make things easier for its users.
  • Wide compatibility: It’s the small details that really tip a software program into useful or useless territory, and AutoCAD was smart enough to make widespread user accessibility a priority from the start. Plus it adds an extra dimension to AutoCAD’s ability to share: As long as you and whoever you’re working with have AutoCAD to open DWG files, it doesn’t matter whether you’re on Mac or Windows.
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AutoCAD vs Inventor AutoCAD: The Cons

AutoCAD is great for 2D but lacks a few key 3D modeling features.
AutoCAD is great for 2D but lacks a few key 3D modeling features. (Source: SourceCAD / YouTube)

Some argue that AutoCAD has become the industry standard simply because it was first and has stayed around so long. For all its widespread adaption and extensive range of professional CAD support, AutoCAD does have its downsides:

  • One file format: The DWG file type was specially created by AutoCAD which may explain why they haven’t branched out to become more compatible with other types of design files. The good news is the DWG format is widely used and compatible with other design programs. And if you’re bringing in a different file type from another program, it’s easy enough to convert that to DWG. But keep in mind that it’s an extra step you might have to take when working with a wide variety of file types.
  • Steep learning curve: AutoCAD is so broad that it can be intimidating to learn. Its ability to be many things for many professionals across many industries means you may never even touch a lot of what you see. However, most professionals consider it worth the study because of its industry leadership and comprehensiveness.
  • Missing key modeling features: Because AutoCAD began life as a 2D drafting program, its 3D features haven’t quite caught up to those that were developed with primarily 3D design in mind. Its surfacing, dynamic modeling, and cable and harness capabilities leave much to be desired, for example.
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AutoCAD vs Inventor Inventor: The Pros

Inventor has unprecedented prototyping and motion simulation abilities.
Inventor has unprecedented prototyping and motion simulation abilities. (Source: Tutorial45.com)

Inventor is a program with a much narrower focus: Digital prototyping and simulation. It’s manufacturing-driven, meaning its users are looking to get an experience as close to the real world as possible to know how their objects will perform.

Although it does cover less ground than AutoCAD, Inventor is no less popular with those who benefit from its features:

  • Advanced motion simulator: Inventor’s most innovative feature is its motion simulator. With this, you can put your objects to the test in all sorts of real-world scenarios of friction and driving features to see how they’ll interact with each other once they’re all together. It takes a lot of the guesswork out of final details, which is why users love it so much.
  • User-friendly interface: In contrast to AutoCAD’s text-driven tool menus, Inventor offers a simple, graphics-based interface that’s said to be much more intuitive. This is partly due to its specificity of use, but it also benefits from years of user experience with other computer-aided drafting programs and the ability to incorporate what worked and what didn’t from its predecessors.
  • Widely compatible: Inventor is compatible with DWG, but also IPT, IAM, IDW, and IPJ file formats. And that list of compatible file types is growing and evolving all the time. This fosters teamwork across multiple programs, which means more creativity can flow freely through the whole design process.
  • Adaptation support: Another major plus of Inventor is its ability to adapt changed details of your design to the design’s new proportions or shape changes. In other words, the existing geometry knows how to update itself based on changes to the original geometry. Your design is also broken down into parts within its file, so if you want to change an aspect of your design, you can save the original part in the parts/feature browser to come back to later.
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AutoCAD vs Inventor Inventor: The Cons

Inventor gives you a deeper but narrower dive into end design.
Inventor gives you a deeper but narrower dive into end design. (Source: robotics.org)

As the younger sibling of the two programs, Inventor hasn’t had the time to evolve into an industry-standard giant like AutoCAD. It’s also got other own flaws that may trip you up when you try to use it as an AutoCAD substitute:

  • Platform limitation: For all the file format diversity within Inventor, you can’t run the program itself on a Mac. Depending on your personal computing preferences and needs, this can be a major flaw especially if you want to collaborate within Inventor on the same project with a group of people who have committed to the incompatible operating system.
  • Less design control: Inventor is easier to learn because it gives you less control of your design than AutoCAD. This functionality is designed to take a lot of the tedious tasks off your plate when you’re ready to get prototyping, but it doesn’t always let you change what you find out through your testing.
  • Narrower focus: This program is definitely a niche product. It’s great at what it does but if you’re looking for an all-in-one CAD toll, it’s going to leave you frustrated. If you’re focused on testing and tweaking final designs, Inventor will help you tremendously. But otherwise, you’ll have to go elsewhere.
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AutoCAD vs Inventor The Final Summary

The ideal tool depends on what you need it to do.
The ideal tool depends on what you need it to do. (Source: digitalschool.ca)

The question of which tool is better really comes down to what you need your CAD program to do.

  • If you’re looking for something to support creating your design from the start, AutoCAD is the way to go. It’s got a great range of features, even if it falls a bit short with end process details.
  • If you’re looking to see how your design will perform, Inventor is your best choice. Its narrower focus simplifies its interface and adds power to your prototyping and simulations.

Both are widely-recognized as leading software tools in their realms, so either way, you’ll be working with a quality program.

If you want to explore these tools further, check out our topics dedicated to each:

(Lead image source: josemiguelmendez.com)

License: The text of "AutoCAD vs Inventor: Autodesk CAD Software Compared" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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