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SolidWorks vs AutoCAD: The Differences (2020 Update)

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by Melanie Griffin
Feb 21, 2020
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SolidWorks and AutoCAD are both industry leaders in CAD software, but your choice will depend on your style of design. Read on to find out!

SolidWorks vs. AutoCAD

Apples and Rutabaga?

AutoCAD and SolidWorks both help you design your projects, down to the last detail
AutoCAD and SolidWorks both help you design your projects, down to the last detail (Source: SolidWorks Eğitmeni via YouTube)

In the computer-aided design world, you may hear people comparing SolidWorks and AutoCAD. But the truth is, once you get into the details, you’ll find two different tools that run similarly but focus on different aspects of design.

Both SolidWorks and AutoCAD give you the ability to design the latest feats of engineering on your computer, a huge step up from the slide rules and manual measurements of the early drafting era. Both have established standards in the field, through decades of solid development, adapting to the needs of their users. And both are compatible with almost any industrial machine and process needed to manufacture your final product.

Yet, SolidWorks concentrates on “building up” your 3D models, while AutoCAD is the standard for 2D drafting. Each can do both, but there are nuances in their performances that clearly demonstrate their strengths. (For two platforms that are more similar, check out our article comparing SolidWorks to Autodesk’s Inventor.)

We’re here to help you untangle this overlap and distinguish between two of the most recognizable names in computer-aided design. Read on to discover the differences and which works best for your ideas!

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SolidWorks vs. AutoCAD

SolidWorks: A Solid Choice for Solids

SolidWorks gives you great 3D visualization of your project
SolidWorks gives you great 3D visualization of your project (Source: Kris Bunda Design)

First released in 1995, SolidWorks quickly became the industry-standard solid modeling software, and Dassault Systèmes bought it in 1997. In 2001, it incorporated simulation into its CAD features, which became its signature strength.

The kind of computer-aided design employed by SolidWorks uses standard engineering features like bosses, holes, and slots. These are put together in specified designs and rendered into real-world models.

SolidWorks is best known for 3D modeling, but it uses a 2D drawing system to start on each design, so those functions are available as well. They just aren’t as fully realized as they are in AutoCAD, which uses 2D drafting as its main focus.

  • Core feature: Simulation options
  • Other features: 3D solid modeling, weldments, 2D drawings, conceptual design, mold design, bill of materials, large assembly design, design automation, interference elimination, advanced surfacing, configurations, collaboration, and sheet metal simulation
  • Usability: The biggest user base for SolidWorks is engineers. They use it to test designs in simulated real-world applications of stress, such as high traffic over train tracks and bridges, and to evaluate prototypes before wasting physical materials on something that may not work.
  • Professional use: Mechanical engineers make up the biggest SolidWorks user base because of the prototyping possibilities. This includes computer hardware designers as well as those designing more traditional machines. Medical device companies and automotive and aerospace engineers use SolidWorks for this same reason – to make sure their designs work under the real-world stresses they’ll be facing. Mining industries also take advantage of SolidWorks’ 3D modeling capabilities to create accessible work areas.
  • Cost: One-time license fee of $3,995, and $1,295 for the annual subscription to tech support and upgrades
  • OS compatibility: Windows only

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SolidWorks vs. AutoCAD

Advantages of SolidWorks

With SolidWorks' simulations, you can put your design through all sorts of real-world tests before it's made
Put your design through all sorts of real-world tests before it's made (Source: Engineers Rule)

SolidWorks has developed a wide variety of useful features to stay a favorite of users. Most notably, users have relied on consistent upgrades of the simulation modes to render their designs as close to the real world as possible.

  • Simulation options: SolidWorks is the undisputed champion for machine simulation. Whether you’re designing a better bedpan or the next rocket to take humanity to Mars, SolidWorks makes sure you know exactly how your design will behave. Its Standard software includes static linear, time-based motion, and high-cycle fatigue simulations. Upgrade to Professional, and you get design optimization, mechanical resistance, heat transfer testing, topology, natural frequencies and buckling instabilities, and sequential multi-physics simulations. Premium adds nonlinear and dynamic response, dynamic loading, and composite materials.
  • Freehand sketch on compatible touchscreen devices: The 2018 version brought SolidWorks together with users who enjoy the intuitive design interaction of a touchscreen. Now you can freehand sketch your ideas on-the-go with the same support as a desktop.
  • Computational fluid dynamics: Liquids have their own specific way of interacting with the world, and SolidWorks recognizes this as a crucial testing point for its simulation modules. You can see how your designs work within a liquid, how things flow, and what happens when it’s faced with fluid forces. You can also test your design’s heat resistance.
  • Life cycle assessment: If you’re making a part that’ll be expected to hold up to years of use, SolidWorks’ life cycle assessment can tell you exactly how long that will be. Using its liquid and other elemental force simulations, including the calculated pressure from other machine parts, SolidWorks will give you an idea of what will go wrong first and how to fix it.
  • Photo-realistic visualization: Another aspect of SolidWorks that’s grown consistently better with technology is rendering power. One can not only see how well a design will perform in the real world but also have an accurate glimpse of how it will look in various lighting conditions.
  • Collaboration through 3DExperience: Dassault knows that design engineering is not a one-person job. That’s why they’ve created the 3DExperience module for SolidWorks, a file-sharing platform that ensures everyone is on the same page, with the ability to open and edit shared projects as necessary.
  • User community and customer support: Dassault takes tech support seriously. Their official website has a portal that organizes help by type, such as product support, news and upgrades, documents, and best practices. You can even add your system information so SolidWorks specialists can target your help. Users have also built a multi-faceted online community to help each other. Its official user group, based on the company’s website, showcases user CAD designs, gives you access to a library of tutorials, and lets you test drive aspects of the software before committing to buying.

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SolidWorks vs. AutoCAD

Disadvantages of SolidWorks

SolidWorks doesn't have a Mac OS version
SolidWorks doesn't have a Mac OS version (Source: Computer Aided Technology/YouTube)

Although it’s an industry mainstay, SolidWorks doesn’t replace all CAD software. We’ve detailed some weak spots below so you can decide if any are deal breakers for you.

  • Cost: SolidWorks requires both an initial license investment, and an annual subscription if you want access to their tech support and frequent updates. Those together will cost you $5,290 for your first year of usage. If you’re a student, you can get a reduced-cost license for educational use, but you’ll still need to shell out some cash because Dassault does not give out free licenses.
  • Limited OS compatibility: If you’re a Mac user, tough luck. You’ll have to find a Windows computer to run SolidWorks because there isn’t a Mac OS version. If you’re already a Windows user, this might not sound like a big deal, until you need to collaborate with an Apple-dependent office.
  • Limited 2D functionality: A standards-defining 3D mode does require a competent 2D system to build from, and SolidWorks doesn’t let you down in that aspect. That said, if you’re looking to primarily design in 2D, look to our next contestant, AutoCAD.

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SolidWorks vs. AutoCAD

AutoCAD: The Automatic Choice for 2D CAD

AutoCAD brought computer-aided drafting to the desktop
AutoCAD brought computer-aided drafting to the desktop (Source: Mesa, Inc.)

AutoCAD is considered by many to be the “original” computer-aided drafting software. Autodesk premiered the first version in 1982, and since it was the first CAD program designed for PCs (instead of industrial minicomputers), AutoCAD became an instant hit. Like SolidWorks, it has evolved with computing power while staying true to its drafting core.

Although it does have 3D design features, most of AutoCAD’s audience uses it for 2D designs, which is where its strengths lie.

  • Core feature: Extensive library of 2D design tools
  • Other features: File compatibility with other software, user language library, and extensions for specific disciplines
  • Usability: A variety of professions use AutoCAD, the most notable being architects, electrical engineers, and other design-level workers.
  • Professional use: Electrical drafters take advantage of AutoCAD’s electrical system module because of its specialty tools and notations that save them the time of adjusting more general drafting materials. Civil drafters, mechanical drafters, and architects use AutoCAD for the same reasons; the program has industry-specific sets of features that save a lot of time and trouble getting a draft up to code. Interior designers and set designers also take advantage of these specifications for their space configuration considerations. Finally, graphic designers often use AutoCAD for logo design and other detail-oriented 2D design work.
  • Cost: $1,610 for the annual subscription
  • OS compatibility: Windows and Mac

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SolidWorks vs. AutoCAD

Advantages of AutoCAD

AutoCAD has a module specifically for designing electrical systems
AutoCAD has a module specifically for designing electrical systems (Source: CADTutor)

As the first wide-spread CAD program, AutoCAD defined many of the industry’s standards. Its dominance is well-earned with features like the following:

  • Flexibility: AutoCAD’s initial use was for creating and editing 2D geometry. If that sounds vague, that’s kind of the point. This approach has given AutoCAD its current flexibility. Its simple base program gives the user enough room to grow however they need to for a project.
  • Variety: From multi-industry growth, AutoCAD collected and bundled its features into different versions targeted to specific industry standards. For example, if you concentrate on electrical system design, choose the Electrical version, which gives you the engineering-specific tools without bogging you down with others you won’t use.
  • Annotate drawings: The ability to add notes to the specific areas of a drawing that you’re discussing makes the editing process seamless. Rather than having to guess where your fellow collaborators had a say, AutoCAD lets you put your thoughts right where they belong, so everyone can follow along.
  • Free educational license: While AutoCAD is pricey (although not as much as SolidWorks), it’s got a sweet deal for students and teachers. You can get a free three-year subscription if you use it for educational purposes, which gets you through a lot of practice before committing to AutoCAD professionally or landing a position where you’ll use it every day.
  • Cloud storage: If you’re paranoid about losing your designs in a freak computer accident, or if you’re just worried about cramming your computer memory too full for peak performance, set your mind at ease with AutoCAD. They’ve joined the cloud storage revolution, letting you access your designs anytime, anywhere you have internet, with no extra fees.

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SolidWorks vs. AutoCAD

Disadvantages of AutoCAD

If you're new to it, navigating AutoCAD can be intimidating
If you're new to it, navigating AutoCAD can be intimidating (Source: AutoDesk)

AutoCAD came to embody design industry standards because it was the first program to encompass the vast majority of design needs. That doesn’t mean everyone loves it. If these disadvantages make you pause, know that there are a lot of AutoCAD alternatives with niche improvements – some for much less cash.

  • Complicated interface: With all its tools and modules, AutoCAD has a reputation for being difficult to learn. Its user interface can be daunting when you’re not sure where to find a specific tool. Luckily, it’s so widely used that plenty of experts post free guides on the internet, and with patience, you’ll be navigating yourself through without any issues.
  • Rudimentary 3D modeling: AutoCAD does let you create using 3D modeling. However, it’s not parametric, and as such is much less thorough and intuitive than the same feature in SolidWorks. AutoCAD is not the optimal program to use for testing the 3D aspects of a design, though it does let you visualize those from your 2D draft.
  • Cost: If you don’t qualify for an education license, you’re looking at a yearly expense of almost $1,700 to keep your subscription to AutoCAD. That can be a big investment to think about for small design businesses, however, its status as an industry standard may be able to sway your budget.
  • User community and customer support: AutoCAD doesn’t leave you hanging if you have a problem or are confused about its software. There’s a plethora of ways to contact formal Autodesk tech support, from phone calls and support tickets to live chat or general email. Plus, they post tutorials that walk you through the common questions and issues.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a well-defined user group, which means there’s no official place where users can talk to each other about their own insights and hacks with the guidance of AutoCAD support. Also, users who purchase Pro versions have priority over other users in the tech support queue.

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SolidWorks vs. AutoCAD

Final Thoughts

AutoCAD is our pick for 2D drafting, while SolidWorks gets our vote for 3D rendering
AutoCAD is our pick for 2D drafting, while SolidWorks gets our vote for 3D rendering (Source: Educba)

On the surface, SolidWorks has beefier 3D options than AutoCAD, but at the cost of a significant uptick in up-front investments and 2D design flexibility. Ultimately, what’s going to decide this for you is what you’re doing with your designs:

  • 3D modeling and manufacturing: SolidWorks will be a much better choice if this is your main use for CAD. You’ll be able to take full advantage of all the realistic details you can get from its rendering and simulation tools, making your prototyping process a model of efficiency.
  • 2D system designs: AutoCAD covers all your bases here, with probably the best 2D CAD system in the industry. Its library of tools and features are built from simple geometry, which means that’s what it’s been perfecting for the last forty years. Sketch-based processes don’t render as much 3D detail as parametric-based programs, so AutoCAD is best for when 3D is the icing on the cake: Nice, but not strictly necessary.

 (Lead image source: Javelin Tech)

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License: The text of "SolidWorks vs AutoCAD: The Differences (2020 Update)" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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