** Note, many have found my original comparison between these two CAD packages to be helpful. That post is now nearly 3 years old. I decided it was time to take a closer look at these two software packages and see how they stack up in 2019. I hope you’ll find this newer article to be even more helpful than the original one. **
Technology is a double-edged sword. For example, we have access to powerful digital tools that help make ideas a reality. However, the time we spend learning new tools seems to grow along with the advancement of technology. Also, steep learning curves of software applications can stifle creativity and hinder the freedom of our designs.
Indeed, understanding how to use these tools is often the difference between creative freedom and frustration. I learned this first-hand over the past 10 years of my design career. Further, I’d like to save you some time and help you decide which 3D CAD software is right for you. This article will be especially focused on answering the question I’m frequently asked, “Which is better, Fusion 360 or Solidworks?”
Any seasoned designer knows, it’s not the tools that make a designer. But that doesn’t help when a designer has to choose a new CAD package to learn. I’ve spent many years working in both Solidworks and Fusion 360. Therefore, I think I have enough experience to help you decide which one is right for you.
- What is CAD?
- Comparison Criteria
- Operating System
- Cloud Integration
- Import and Export
- Design for Manufacture
- User Interface
- Sculpt Environment
- Which One is Right for You
- Where to Purchase
- How to Learn
What Is CAD?
Experienced designers may skip ahead. If you’re new to design or considering becoming a product designer, this may prove helpful. When I went to college to study industrial design, one of the biggest challenges for me was the lack of road map.
Introduction to 3D modeling was taught with different software depending on major. However, I wanted to know why there were so many of 3D packages, how they differed and who used them and why. Because of the ever-changing landscape of design and technology, this is a hard resource to find—one I don’t think exists actually.
3D Modeling programs allow designers to pursue a design or concept beyond the sketch phase. Because of that, in CAD, they can focus on details and manufacturability. CAD stands for Computer-Aided Design (formerly CADD, Computer-Aided Drafting and Designing) and helps designers produce manufacturable data. Models made by a CAD program are often created in a language that manufacturing equipment can read and thus, produce physical products from.
Conversely, 3D Modeling programs used in the entertainment industry are not CAD programs. Polygonal modeling programs often allow more freedom in creating a model for visual purposes only. Because of this, they focus on speed and complexity to accommodate visual effects in the entertainment industries.
Popular polygonal modeling programs include:
- 3DS Max
- Cinema 4D
CAD programs focus on creating data that can be manufactured. They focus on creating water-tight solids, curvature-continuous surfaces and tolerances between moving parts and assemblies.
Examples of popular CAD programs include:
- Fusion 360
- Siemens NX
- PTC Creo
A big difference between CAD and Polygonal modeling software is the way they generate surfaces. Let’s quickly compare Polygonal modeling vs CAD modeling:
Polygonal programs allow you to plot points in 3D space on an grid system, which are called vertices, or verts for short. When you connect two verts, with a line, they form an edge. Connect three or more edges to form an enclosed shape and it’s called a polygon. As a result, a network of continuous polygons forms a mesh. Think of each polygon like a pixel of an image. A complete image has many pixels just like a complete 3D model is composed of many polygons.
CAD programs do not use polygons. In contrast, they use something called NURBS, (Non-Uniform Rational B-Splines) to define shapes. When building a CAD model, designs start off with sketches, often a profile, top, front or side view. Then through additive or subtractive processes, the sketch is used to create a form by extruding, cutting or revolving for example. Think of NURBS data as similar to vector data. It has an infinite resolution, producing the smoothest, scalable surfaces for manufacturing equipment. CAD also features a history timeline which allows you to quickly change an earlier feature of a model without re-doing all your work.
So, now that we’re clear on what CAD is and what CAD isn’t, it’s time to compare two of the most popular CAD programs for designers. Let’s help you decide which one is best for you, Fusion 360 or Solidworks.
To help you decide which software is right for you, I’m going to compare the features based on level of importance to my peers and I. The idea is that you may only need to read the first few comparisons to make your decision. As you continue down the list, each item being compared will be likely be less and less crucial to reaching a decision.
Fusion 360 vs Solidworks Comparison
Are you a Mac or a PC? Today, it’s not unreasonable to expect a designer to be fluent in both Mac and Windows environments. That said, most still have their favorite operating system. If you don’t have the luxury of owning computers with both OS, then this is a big deal: Solidworks can only be run in a Windows environment. Of course you can install Windows on a Mac by way of virtual machine such as Bootcamp or Parallels, but I’ve found the results to be sub-optimal.
Fusion 360 will run natively on both Mac OS and Windows and the experience is identical from what I have seen.
One way Dassault Systems is trying to compete with cross-platform CAD-ing is by taking Solidworks to the internet browser. I tested Solidworks browser-based environment and it seemed to lack the functionality of the desktop version. It appears that Fusion 360 also has a browser-based environment, though it too lacks the full feature set offered in the desktop version.
Fusion 360 – 1, Solidworks – 0
Okay, let’s talk about the tools and features of each software. For me personally, this is one of the strongest differentiators. Nothing frustrates me more than being 90% finished with a model and then hitting a wall and not knowing how to proceed.
While both Fusion 360 and Solidworks share many same features, each program excels at different tasks. Fusion 360 is broken into different environments such as model, patch and sheet metal. Each environment has a unique set of tools suited for common tasks. While this cleans up the UI a bit, I don’t see much of an advantage to the different environments. Perhaps it allows Autodesk to develop new tools in a separate feature branch and then merge them with the rest of Fusion 360 when it’s ready. I digress.
Based on my experiences, Fusion 360 seems to be ideal for hobbyists, makers and designers. Solidworks however, seems to be better for manufactured goods, design engineering, complex surfacing and enterprise environments.
Fusion 360 Features
Fusion 360’s features largely allow me to create models and assemblies faster than I could in Solidworks. Their workflow is a bit more streamlined and more flexible than Solidworks. This makes Fusion 360 a great tool for quickly executing and exploring ideas and creating render-ready 3D models.
Unfortunately, the tools in Fusion 360 often leave something to be desired. While the breadth is there, I’ve found the tools to lack depth. Where Solidworks often has more options on how an operation is handled or executed, Fusion 360 tools offer more ‘off the shelf’ tools.
I believe it’s just a matter of time before Autodesk develops depth into its tools. And once it does that, it has the potential to be a Solidworks killer in my opinion.
Where Fusion 360 shines is its shallow learning curve and speed. For many, it’s the easiest CAD program to learn. And for those working in a machine shop or fabricating products using CAM tools, Fusion 360 is a great choice. Much of the focus on Fusion 360 has been directed to fabrication. It’s got tools to help lathe, CNC, machine, mill, and even bend sheet metal.
Fusion 360 only offers two product tiers, free and paid. Generative, a new feature is reserved for paid accounts only. Otherwise, there seems to be feature parity between both options. Here’s a breakdown of Fusion 360 features below
List of Fusion 360 Features
Generative Design (paid only)
- Define project objectives
- Generate and explore designs
- Optimize designs and material
- Export CAD-ready files
- 3+2 Machining (5-Axis Positional)
- 4-Axis Machining
- 5-Axis Simultaneous Machining
- Parametric Modeling
- Sheet Metal
- Freeform Modeling
- Direct Modeling
- Mesh Modeling
- Surface Modeling
- PCB Design Integration
- Mac OSX and Windows
- Browser Data Access
- Mobile Viewing and Management
- Cloud Simulation
- Static Stress and Modal Frequencies
- Thermal and Thermal Stress
- Advanced Analysis Tools
- Nonlinear Stress
- Event Simulation
- Shape Optimization
- Continuous Updates
- Forum, Email and Phone Support
- Flexible Subscription with Cloud Credit Options
- 2D Manufacturing Drawings
Data Management and Collaboration
- Version Management
- Fusion Team
- Commenting and Redlining
- Pubic or Private Design Sharing
- 3D Printing Utility
- Water Jet, Laser Cutting, Plasma Cutting
- 2.5 and 3-Axis Machining
Solidworks is like Grandfather CAD at this point. It benefits from years of development and offers a rich set of tools appreciated by seasoned professionals. That said, it’s also got a lot of baggage in the form of old bones. I’ll be honest and say, that it’s been over a year since I’ve spent considerable time using Solidworks, but I have done some research since then.
Solidworks’ old bones are what keep users taking the long route at times to perform seemingly simple tasks. There are one-click features in Fusion 360 that require tedious, manual approaches in Solidworks. That said, I’d rather be forced to take the long route than simply be unable to create something (which has been the case on occasion with Fusion 360).
Solidworks has many of the same features Fusion 360 does, offering tools for surface and solid-modeling. It also has tools for working with sheet metal, electrical engineering, and performing a host of tests and simulations. Solidworks offers a wider range of analysis tools for FEA, FDA, Thermal and other kinds of tests.
I mentioned Solidworks being suitable for enterprise organizations. This is because it works well with a PDM. A PDM is like a library of parts which helps manage large and complex assemblies and concurrent product development.
List of Solidworks Features
Solidworks features are based upon which package you own a license for. Here’s a breakdown of major features by package:
Solidworks Standard Package Features
- 3D Modeling
- Sheet Metal
- Plastic Parts
- Mold Design
- Simulation (Static Stress Only)
- CAM Standard
Solidworks Premium Package Features
- Pipe, Tube, Duct, Wire Routing
- Environmental Impact Analysis
- Structural Part and Assembly Analysis
- Advanced Surface Flattening
- Simulation (Topology Optimization, Non-Linear Materials, Large Deformations, etc.)
Solidworks Professional Package Features
- Photorealistic Rendering (debatable)
- Part Libraries
- Circuit Works
- Solidworks PDM Standard
- Cost Estimation
- Simulation (Frequency, Buckling, Thermal, Drop Test, etc.)
To sum this section up, Solidworks is more feature-deep than Fusion 360. While I love many of Fusion 360’s features, if your top priority is making sure you don’t get backed into a corner and run out of tools to help realize your design, Solidworks is the safer bet. It simply has more tools, more features and each tool has more options. Finally, if you’re hoping to do some small engineering, civil engineering, architecture or work with larger data sets, I think Solidworks may be a better choice for you.
Fusion 360 – 1, Solidworks – 1
This one’s going to be quite short. Buying Fusion 360 is a lot less painful than buying Solidworks. From the actual price tag to the buying process, Fusion 360 seems to be the winner.
Solidworks is available in a tiered pricing structure. The more you pay, the more features you get. Maintenance is optional, but it will get you upgrades to new releases, technical support and access to a few plugins and features. If you wish to stay current with your version of Solidworks, it’s more effective to keep paying maintenance rather than pay to upgrade each year.
- Standard costs $3,995 and annual maintenance costs $1,295 for a total price tag of $5,290.
- Professional costs $5,490 and annual maintenance costs $1,495 for a total price tag of $6,985.
- Premium costs $7995 and annual maintenance costs $1,995 for a total price tag of $9,990.
With Solidworks ranging from $5,290-$9,990, it’s clearly a premium software package. To make it even more of a hassle to buy, you can’t purchase it from Solidworks directly. They only make it available through resellers who need to offer you a personalized quote. You won’t see the above prices published on the Solidworks website. Even obtaining a trial version of the software seems to be impossible. I did test their browser-based version the other day and it was limited to a single two-hour session. Pretty hard to get an idea of whether it’s worth dropping $5-10K on a product without even proper testing on your local hardware.
Now, Autodesk, the makers of Fusion 360 took the opportunity to compete with Solidworks. Solidworks is simply too expensive for many hobbyists, freelancers or other professionals depending on where they live.
Autodesk makes it easy to try and get into CAD. Here’s what they’re doing that Solidworks isn’t:
- Offers a free 30-day trial that will run on your personal computer
- Is free to use for and small business owners making under $100K
- Offers a free 3-year educational license for students
- One price tier at $495 per year with unlimited upgrades
Here are the payment options for Fusion 360:
- $60 per month
- $495 per year
- $990 for 2 years
Comparing the paid versions of both software, Solidworks costs anywhere between ten and twenty times more expensive.
Fusion 360 – 2, Solidworks – 1
Spoiler alert: Fusion 360 is gonna win this one. But I feel it necessary to acknowledge as it’s a large differentiator between Solidworks and Fusion 360. Basically, other than Solidworks being able to run in a browser, it doesn’t offer any value from a cloud-based solution. Fusion 360, on the other hand was developed with on a cloud platform. Let’s take a look at what this means for each CAD package.
Being older, Solidworks was around before any sort of cloud integration existed as it does in many apps today. This means it runs on a local machine or server. In most enterprise environments, 3D CAD data is stored on a PDM (Product Data Management) software. Users will ‘check out’ a part or design like you would a book from a library. Wow, even that analogy is going to be lost on some Millennials.
Anyway, when you have the part or design checked out, it’s accessed by your local machine for editing. After you make changes, you can return the part or assembly so the rest of your coworkers can use it.
For the small design shop, freelancer or hobbyist, a PDM and server are probably not an option. For those, a workstation and laptop combination are much likely. Working on designs and moving them between these two machines becomes much more of a hassle. Not only are you juggling licenses between both machines (it requires a manual transfer), but your data needs to move between both as well. Sure, you could store your data on a cloud-based storage system such as Dropbox or Google Drive, but may also impact performance.
Based on my experience, Solidworks assemblies that need to reference parts can become quite temperamental especially when it involves moving or duplicating libraries.
So, without offering much in the way of cloud integration, Solidworks offers a better experience in an enterprise environment PDM, server combination and floating licenses.
Fusion 360 was built on a cloud-based system. This means your data is constantly syncing to the cloud (a server elsewhere) and you conveniently never need to transfer files from one machine to another. Wherever you log in, your data and presets are present.
Other than data syncing, many of Fusion 360s features integrate much deeper with the power of the cloud, rather than being a bolt-on solution. Basically, Fusion 360’s online interface (named A360), acts as a simple PDM to a degree. Your parts, designs, assemblies and more are stored to your own A360 account. Whenever you log into Fusion 360 on a machine, it accesses this library and you’ve got your data.
From A360, you can also choose to share or collaborate with others. You can grant them access to designs, much like you’d invite someone to access a Dropbox folder. Another benefit of the cloud integration is that operations that require heavy computation can be performed on Autodesk’s servers. You can exchange credits for various computations like simulations and renderings. Finally, some little things like automatic orthographic views are generated of your designs and made available to you whenever you need them.
The big unfortunate truth of Fusion 360 being so integrated into the cloud, is that it requires an internet connection and you’re at the mercy of Autodesk’s servers at times. While this isn’t often an issue for me, it can be a deal-breaker for many.
Working in Fusion 360 without an internet connection means a slow and clunky launch process (sometimes taking more than 10 minutes), and the inability to export certain file types. Personally, I’ve run into issues exporting files such as OBJ and FBX. There are actually limits on how much data A360 can export in mesh format. If these functions were performed locally your machine, this would be much less limiting.
Solidworks doesn’t integrate with the cloud. Fusion 360 does. The convenience gained by Fusion 360’s cloud integration is nice. For some however, it may be outweighed by having to rely on Autodesk’s servers for some functions. While many wonder about data security when integrating with a cloud service, the only way to be truly secure is to keep your data local and inaccessible by any internet connection.
Fusion 360 – 3, Solidworks – 1
Import and Export
The ability to open certain data sets and save or export as another format is important when collaborating with other designers, engineers or production facilities. Let’s look at which software offers more import and export options.
- Native Solidworks (*.sldprt, *.sldasm)
- ACIS (.sat)
- Adobe Illustrator (.ai)
- Adobe Photoshop (.psd)
- Autodesk Inventor (.ipt, .iam)
- CADKEY (.prt, .ckd)
- CATIA V5 Files (.CATProduct, .CATPart)
- DXF 3D (.dxf)
- DWG (.dwg)
- ICF (.icf)
- IGES (.igs)
- Mechanical Desktop (.mdt)
- Parasolid (.x_t, .x_b)
- Rhino (.3dm)
- Solid Edge Parasolid
- STEP (.stp)
- STL (.stl)
- VDAFS (*.vda)
- VMRL (.wrl)
- Native Solidworks (*.sldprt, *.sldasm)
- ACIS (.sat)
- Adobe Illustrator (.ai)
- DWG (.dwg)
- Highly Compressed Graphics (.hcg)
- Luxology (.lxo)
- Portable Network Graphics (.png)
- 3D XML (.xml)
- HOOPS (.hsf)
- 3D PDF
- Tiff (*.tif)
Fusion 360 Import
To import a file or open a model in Fusion 360, you must upload it to A360, where it’s added to your files/designs. From there, you can insert the part into a new or current design. Below is a list of formats that can be imported into A360.
- Autodesk Alias (.wire)
- AutoCAD DWG Files (.dwg)
- Autodesk Fusion 360 Archive Files (.f3d)
- Autodesk Fusion 360 Toolpath Archive Files (.cam360)
- Autodesk Inventor Files (*.ipt, *.iam – up to Inventor 2019)
- CATIA V5 Files (*.CATProduct, *.CATPart)
- DXF Files (.dxf)
- FBX (.fbx)
- IGES (*ige, *iges, igs)
- NX (prt)
- OBJ (.obj)
- Parasolid Binary Files (.x_b)
- Parasolid Text Files (.x_t)
- Pro/ENGINEER and Creo Parametric Files (.asm, .prt)
- Granite Files (.g)
- Pro/ENGINEER Neutral Files(.neu)
- Rhino Files (.3dm)
- SAT/SMT Files (*.sab, *.sat, *.smb, *.smt) – (Fusion only supports up to ACIS version 7 – later versions of ACIS SAT files will not be uploaded)
- SolidWorks Files (*.prt, *.asm, *.sldprt, *.sldasm – up to SolidWorks 2018) (SolidWorks drawings, .slddrw, cannot be opened in Fusion 360)
- STEP Files (.ste, *.step, *.stp)
- STL Files (.stl)
- SketchUp Files (.skp)
- 123D Files (*.123dx)
Fusion 360 Export
- F3D, F3Z (Native Fusion 360, includes feature timeline)
Mesh (Polygons): must be exported from A360 FBX
Both Solidworks and Fusion 360 support around 35 file formats when it comes to import and export. This list will probably change and may not be comprehensive as it was hard to track down each format and it’ll depend on the data you’re working with.
Personally, I like that Solidworks import and export happens all on your own machine. The limitations imposed by Autodesk’s A360 export options are a big deal to me. On the other hand, Solidworks doesn’t offer as mesh export options, so while there’s pros and cons to both, I can work with NURBS data for my rendering workflow. So, if I have to choose a winner, it’s going to be Solidworks by a tiny, tiny margin.
Fusion 360 – 3, Solidworks – 2
Design for Manufacture
Either you create 3D models because you plan to manufacture your designs, or you create models for visualization purposes such as rendering or animation. There are many requirements a model must meet before it can be manufactured that aren’t required for visualization purposes.
Solidworks has a huge share of the design market because for decades, they’ve provided the tools to crate production-ready CAD models. This is Solidworks’ bread and butter. From tolerancing to draft and mold design to FEA and cost estimate, Solidworks is the clear leader in aiding designers create models for manufacturing purposes.
I personally create models for visualization purposed 99% of the time. To me, being able to create a production-ready CAD model isn’t a high priority. Because of this, Fusion 360’s lack of production-focused modeling tools isn’t a huge issue.
In summary, if you’re going to be modeling for production purposes, Solidworks is the clear winner. If you’re just working on your design skills, exploring concepts or focused on product visualization, Fusion 360 should do the job.
Fusion 360 – 3, Solidworks – 3
While user interface is much more a matter of personal preference, to some, it can make a software much more enjoyable to use and especially to learn. A well thought-out user interface could be the difference between overwhelm, and intuitive learning.
Solidworks hasn’t been known for being easy on the eyes for very long. This has changed quite a bit though. While it’s not winning any UI design awards, it’s certainly left the Windows ’95 aesthetic behind. I’d say this has been one of the most noticeable changes over the past 5 years. I think it’s a direct result of competition in emerging 3D applications that are focused on user experience.
The number of icons and the organization of the feature tree can be quite intimidating and or overwhelming. Couple that with the real estate a laptop offers and you’ll quickly find that the experience can stand to be improved.
Once you’re at the intermediate or expert level however, a customizable pie-menu that can be triggered by mouse gestures is one of my favorite features or aspects of Solidworks as a whole. It can speed up the workflow quite a bit.
A simple UI can make a software much easier to learn. Specifically, Fusion 360 does this well, reminding me a bit of Google’s Sketchup. Fusion 360 has a few bold icons and the entire working area (called the canvas) only shows a grid where you’re working, allowing you to focus on what you’re creating.
When I’ve the luxury of working behind a large monitor, I prefer to see every button laid out in plain view. However, I travel frequently for work with a 15″ Macbook Pro, and the consolidated tools and condensed menus make working on a laptop pleasant. One way this is achieved is by allowing commands to perform several functions. For instance, in Fusion, the same extrude command can create a new body, component, extruded cut or intersection. This Swiss Army knife functionality applies to nearly every tool in Fusion 360!
Solidworks pie-menu is great. Fusion 360’s equivalent is the toolbox. Pressing ’s’ on the keyboard opens the toolbox, where you can save tools for quick access. When the toolbox is active, you can also search for a function, making it quite versatile.
What about customization? While Fusion 360 offers a light and dark mode, many who spend countless hours behind a back-lit display place high value on being able to customize all the colors of every aspect of the user interface. Buried in Solidworks preferences is the ability to change the color of many aspects of the interface.
Keyboard short cuts, hotkeys, macros or whatever you call them, are the stuff of a power-user’s dream. While Solidworks allows you to program or customize your keyboard shortcuts, Fusion 360 simply doesn’t. Such a missed opportunity for Autodesk in my mind.
While I’m quick to confess my love for Solidworks gesture-initiated pie-menu, hotkeys and slightly better dark theme, I think the overall experience of Fusion 360’s user interface is much more refined. It’s intuitive, minimal, effective and scalable for multiple devices. Fusion 360 wins here. This just comes down to your priorities. The point could go either way, so we’ll call it a draw. They each get a point.
Fusion 360 – 4, Solidworks – 4
Fusion 360 has a unique feature that it automatically gets a point for no matter what since Solidworks doesn’t offer it at all–Sculpt mode. This is a T-Splines based method of modeling. (Think T-splines for Rhino) Similarly, it allows some aspects of polygonal modeling to be integrated with NURBS techniques, which is what CAD applications use.
While sculpting in Fusion 360, you are able to retain surface curvature and push and pull your way to more organic shapes. This makes modeling plastic housings for electronics much simpler. As a result, some amount of parametric history is retained as you freeze your sculpted form to return to working in full NURBS/Model mode.
To achieve a similar level of complex surfacing in Solidworks, you’ll need to hand-build surfaces from curves and control your surface continuity one seam at a time. Solidworks does offer more granular surface control than Fusion 360 does, so it’s definitely possible. In my experience though, the sculpt mode in Fusion 360 will often get you to your destination much more quickly.
Fusion 360 – 5, Solidworks 4
So, Which Software is Better?
Don’t tell me you actually thought I’d simply choose one of them. Of course, it depends on your situation. Besides, everything above was to help you make a decision based on your own priorities.
You Should Use Solidworks if you:
- Use a Windows Machine
- Are ready to spend at least $5,000 on a basic license
- Model with the intent of manufacturing
- Will be working from a server or using a PDM
- Want access to more engineering-focused tools
Maybe you’re an engineer hoping to do more design work or you need to work with lots of over-seas vendors. If you wish to work for large companies that mass produce products, then learning Solidworks will be well-worth your time.
You Should Use Fusion 360 if you:
- Use a Mac (or Windows machine)
- Are on a budget
- Model for visualization or simple prototype validation
- Will be working from multiple machines
- Want to learn CAD quickly and easily
Fusion 360 is a great tool for those wanting to dip their toe into CAD, or hobbyists who aren’t about to make a full career change. It’s also great that design students, or independent designers can enjoy the non-existent price tag of Fusion 360. Also, I’ve noticed lots of concept designers from the entertainment industry turning to Fusion 360 for its hard-surface modeling tools and its ability to export mesh objects.