AutoCAD vs. SolidWorks. What is the difference? Which is easier to learn?

  • Find out which CAD package is better, AutoCAD or SolidWorks
  • Using several factors, AutoCAD and SolidWorks are compared
  • Contrast some of the features and functions of both programs
  • Determine whether AutoCAD or SolidWorks suits your requirements

AutoCAD vs SolidWorks – which is better? AutoCAD and SolidWorks both enable its users to design in both 2D and 3D, and perform as an extension of a designer’s mind. They are both tools that have enabled design process digitalisation for engineers and architects. For drafting, consider AutoCAD, for an extruded model choose SolidWorks.

If you speak to anyone involved in Computer Aided Design (CAD) or engineering, they will most likely be familiar with both Autodesk’s AutoCAD and Dassault Systèmes’ SolidWorks design software, as both software packages have their own strengths and weaknesses, and their performance varies for different tasks.

This article will attempt to unpack each piece of software in detail, and go through the areas where they excel and where they could improve, before concluding which options should suit your particular requirements.

What is the difference between AutoCAD and SolidWorks?

This is an example of the classic apples-to-oranges comparison. They fulfill two completely separate needs and have different applications. For example, if you require a CAD/CAM software to create parts and assemblies in 3D, and simulate their motion and physics, SolidWorks is your choice. If your needs call for a program that is geared more towards drafting and general applications across a vast array of industries, then AutoCAD is what you will want.

Each software has functionality in both 2D and 3D drafting/modeling, SolidWorks has its own DraftSight 2D drafting software and AutoCAD can also produce models in 3D. However, it is clear which is the specialized software for each application. A more apples-to-apples comparison would be SolidWorks vs Inventor, which is a 3D modeling program from Autodesk.

What is AutoCAD?

AutoCAD, as mentioned previously, is a CAD program designed for interior designers, architects and engineers. It is the industry standard to use a computerized tool to create a digital version of your design instead of the previous method of creating technical drawings by hand-drafting them.

AutoCAD allows its users to create many different types of designs and drawings, in 2D or 3D. It is significantly quicker and easier to create and modify these drawings, utilizing some fundamental features like copy and paste, shape, location and size. It has a vast amount of uses in various fields like interior designing, fine art, architectural/engineering design, greeting cards and many more.

What is SolidWorks?

SolidWorks is one of the most popular CAD programs used by professionals all over the world. It features an impressive set of features that gives its user the ability to create any shape imaginable. It is known as being very easy to learn how to use, while having a simple interface which makes it an approachable 3D CAD program for users of all skill levels.

Some of its many features include: simulation, motion, assembly, ScanTo3D, photo rendering among many others. What is SolidWorks used for? There are also plenty of options for industries in which to use SolidWorks, with the software being used in (but not limited to) the automotive, electronics, medical, defense and transportation industries.

AutoCAD vs. Solidworks comparison criteria

To make for a fair comparison, we are going to judge each program using four criteria:

  • How well it works for various industries (i.e. which industries the software is intended to serve)
  • Design features and functions
  • Collaboration tools and business features
  • File and platform compatibility

We want to compare like to like, so the versions used here are AutoCAD 2020 and SolidWorks 2020.

Which industry?

AutoCAD was originally developed as software for 2D architectural and construction design, but over the years has expanded with the release of toolkits such as AutoCAD Mechanical, AutoCAD Architecture and AutoCAD Electrical, as well as the addition of AutoCAD 3D modelling capabilities.

SolidWorks, on the other hand, was originally conceived as a tool for 3D modelling and product or mechanical part design and simulation. Only later did it branch out into the realm of architectural and other engineering elements.

In other words, although both packages now offer similar services, their key strengths lie in the industries for which they were initially created. Also, the number of users in the respective industries influences how each company invests in development. Since more than half of AutoCAD users work in the architectural or construction industries, the main focus of AutoCAD’s development has remained within that sphere.

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The table below is a quick guide to help you choose between AutoCAD and SolidWorks based on your industry:

Industry Preferred Software
Architectural and construction design AutoCAD
Civil and structural engineering AutoCAD
Mechanical and industrial engineering Either, depending on toolkit needs
Electronic, electrical and technology design SolidWorks
Mechanical parts and assembly design SolidWorks
Automotive and aerospace design SolidWorks

SolidWorks Electrical vs AutoCAD Electrical

One example of an industry where SolidWorks and AutoCAD are competing directly with each other is the electrical field. SolidWorks Electrical vs AutoCAD Electrical are the respective programs in question, and the choice between them is a common one for an electrical engineer on the hunt for their new CAD tool.

The programs themselves are very similar, with SolidWorks being the newer software. Solidworks is much easier to use as it is more streamlined as the latest AutoCAD Electrical updates have not mirrored the same advancements as its rival. As with all software, user experience is everything and if a user has experience with a particular software, it is not worth their while to switch to another platform, especially in this case as there are not many significant differences between SolidWorks Electrical and AutoCAD Electrical.

This is just one example of an instance where these companies go directly head-to-head in a certain category. Each platform has multiple iterations in many industries and many of them compete within the professional market to become the most popular program in its field. With that being said, let’s move on to the defining characteristics of AutoCAD vs SolidWorks.

Features

Before we examine the main features of each program and compare them for functionality and relevance towards the users needs, please see below for a more comprehensive list of the available features on both AutoCAD and SolidWorks:

AutoCAD Features

  • 3D Modeling and Visualization
  • AutoCAD Mobile App
  • Command Line
  • Data Extraction
  • Data Linking
  • DWG and Image References
  • Dynamic Blocks
  • Geographic Location and Online Maps
  • Import 3D Models
  • Multifunctional Grips
  • Parametric Constraints
  • PDF and DGN Import/Export/Underlay
  • Photo Studio
  • Revision Clouds
  • Sheet Set Manager
  • Solid, Surface, and Mesh Modeling
  • Tables Layout Viewports
  • Tool Palettes

SolidWorks features

  • 3D Solid Modeling
  • Advanced Surface Design
  • Advanced Surface Flattening
  • Automatic Drawing View Creation and Update
  • Bill of Materials (BOM)
  • CAD Dimensioning, Tolerancing, and Annotations
  • CAD Import/Export
  • CAD Productivity Tools – SOLIDWORKS Utilities
  • CAD Search
  • CAD Standards Checking (Design Checker) and Drawing Comparison
  • Conceptual Design
  • Conceptual Design
  • Large Assembly Design
  • Mold Design
  • Piping and Tubing Design
  • Plastic and Cast Part Design Direct Model Editing
  • Revision Control
  • Routing of Rectangular and Other Sections
  • Sheet Metal Design

Now that the 20 main features of each software program have been stated, let’s compare the primary functions of each program against one another.

2D drafting

Autocad 2D drafting
Image credit: 2D drafting Autodesk 

2D drafting is an important feature for construction and civil engineers, which explains why AutoCAD has strong 2D design features and tools. AutoCAD scores better for 2D design in most areas, including ease-of-use, variety of tools, shape and text editing, and annotation.

AutoCAD

AutoCAD utilizes 2D drafting, which is the creation, annotation and editing of technical drawings. It is used to design building permit drawings, floor plans, landscaping layouts and inspection plans. 2D drafting’s main aim is to speed up the drawing process, and with AutoCAD’s precision, speed and ease of use, it allows users to put aside the technical drawing instruments and design what they want, when they want.

SolidWorks

As mentioned above, SolidWorks does have its own proprietary 2D drafting software, although it does not have the authority in the 2D drafting space that AutoCAD has. DraftSight has plenty of features to make it a viable competitor to AutoCAD. It serves the same target audience, engineers, architects, CAD users in general along with educators and hobbyists.

Similar to AutoCAD, it allows the user to view, markup, create and edit any 2D or even a 3D DWG file with ease. It also has the ability to switch 2D drafting to 3D modeling and back, in an effort to optimize the design process and speed up the user’s workflow as much as possible. Speaking of 3D modeling, let’s move onto the next design feature to be compared:

3D modelling

Image credit: SolidWorks 3D modelling Eureka Magazine

When it comes to 3D design work, SolidWorks wins hands down. Both can deliver 3D solid, polygon, and mesh modelling, but SolidWorks does so in a more intuitive manner than AutoCAD. If you need to visualize products quickly and effectively, SolidWorks does the job.

AutoCAD

AutoCAD is known for its 2D capability, but contrary to popular belief it is quite proficient in the 3D modeling area as well. The classic user interface is what is used to operate in 3D, but the sheer number of commands that are available in AutoCAD is what is so impressive. These can be entered as keyboard shortcuts, allowing the cursor to remain in the intended position instead of moving around clicking toolbars.

Any professional should be able to design anything they desire in AutoCAD 3D, which is a great testament to the software, but when it comes to specialized software that is made for machined parts and models, SolidWorks is in a league of its own.

SolidWorks

SolidWorks is THE name in 3D CAD modeling. Its robust performance, combined with its design capabilities and ease of use have elevated it to the cream of the crop. It deals with the standard functions like the creation of detailed assemblies, parts, and drawings (manufacturing or otherwise) seamlessly. Not limited to the basic functionalities of general 3D CAD programs, SolidWorks gives the user access to tools needed to create sheet metal patterns, structural welded assemblies and complex surfaces.

SolidWorks is also better equipped to integrate with CAM software that can be used with CNC machines or 3D printers. This is probably due to the fact that SolidWorks is the CAD package of choice for product designers, and is, therefore, more likely to be used on a production line.

CAM software SolidWorks
Image credit: Solidworks

Also, the Standard SolidWorks package features more simulation tools than AutoCAD. For instance, finite element analysis is missing from AutoCAD but is a vital tool for checking prototypes – hence its inclusion in SolidWorks. Finite element analysis is available in Inventor, Autodesk’s alternative application for 3D mechanical and product design, but of course, that means purchasing extra software.

FEA analysis Solidworks
Image credit: Solidworks

Collaboration tools

In today’s highly connected world, a program’s built-in collaborative functions can make a big difference in terms of productivity and quality of results. Both AutoCAD and SolidWorks have advanced collaboration features. They both offer cloud collaboration environments that allow teams to work together closely on a project, sharing data and information even from different locations.

There isn’t much difference between the two in this category, as they both offer similar features. The SolidWorks environment is called 3DEXPERIENCE WORKS and Autodesk’s goes by the name, A360.

Compatibility

In terms of inbound file-type compatibility, AutoCAD wins due to the fact that it can import more files from third-party apps than SolidWorks.

For outbound file-type compatibility, however, SolidWorks is better, as it offers the option to export to a wider variety of file types.

Therefore, the file-compatibility decision comes down to whether you are more likely to import unusual types or export designs to other programs.

When it comes to cross-platform compatibility, AutoCAD is the hands-down winner. It works well on PC, Mac, and some high-spec mobile devices. At the moment, SolidWorks only functions in a Windows-based environment, although they are moving towards a web-based application that should be able to function on Mac and mobile devices.

Which is easier to learn – AutoCAD or Solidworks?

Generally, 2D CAD programs are easier to grasp than their 3D counterparts. 2D drafting is much more simple to understand as it is basically drawing what you would draw by hand, but on a computer. There are many different commands on AutoCAD, and to be proficient on the program you must know a lot of them. However, these shortcuts/commands are not difficult, they just take some time to remember and become accustomed to.

3D modeling, i.e. SolidWorks, is a little more complicated as you are incorporating one more axis into your design. But how hard is it to learn SolidWorks? This program brings a whole new set of functions/commands that you do not have to deal with in AutoCAD, with extrusions and holes needing to be made in 3D along the Z-axis. There are also many functions in SolidWorks, but the 3D visual interface and being able to see your model in 3D make a lot of these easier to understand for novice users.

Both of these programs are known for their ease of use, and it is something that both companies take pride in. Similar to the argument of which program is better, the answer to which program is easier to use is dependent on the user also. It depends on the background of the user and whether they have experience in either 2D or 3D CAD programs. If a complete novice were to consider both programs, AutoCAD is the easier program to use, and then with a basic understanding of 2D drafting the user could progress to 3D modeling and more complex designs that would include multiple parts, assemblies and animations.

Summary

The verdict of who wins in the battle between AutoCAD vs. SolidWorks is…

Neither.

You will hear these two programs being compared only because they are the biggest names and the most well-known design programs out in the world. As shown above, once you delve into their strengths and weaknesses it becomes apparent that they are quite different tools that concentrate on completely different aspects of design.

It really does depend on what you want to use the CAD package for. We would recommend AutoCAD for more 2D-based design and construction projects, whereas SolidWorks is the obvious choice for mechanical, machine and product design. If you’re still on the fence, it’s always a good idea to try the programs out for yourself and get a feel for their features before making a decision.

Do you have any experience with the above software programs? Which do you prefer and what do you use it for? Let us know with a comment! Sign up to our newsletter for more of the same content!

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6 thoughts on “AutoCAD vs. SolidWorks. What is the difference? Which is easier to learn?”

  1. This was a ridiculously unneeded article. these two packages are to far apart to be compared. There are things that AutoCAD is used for that SolidWorks would not even attempt and vise versa. If a comparison is to be done with Solidworks you would use Autodesk Inventor AutoCAD's big brother.I couldn't finish the article because of the absurdity of the comparison.

  2. I totally agree with Wraptor01. I use both SolidWorks and Inventor as clients prefer, but I prefer Inventor. (In short it's much more user friendly and easier to create 2D drawings from your 3D model – a key part of engineering). Seems like the writer is not familiar with all the Autodesk products.

  3. While the company I work for has been a Solidworks company since 2003, personally I much prefer KeyCreator. Not only is it  a full function 3D solid modeler, it also has full 2D drafting capabilities. All in the same, easy to use, program. And, being it is a "direct" modeler, you don't have to mess around with all that constraint and parent/child relationship nonsense. Which means you don't have to be concerned about conflicting constraints, or broken relations, when you make later changes. Also, because you don't have that history-tree to deal with, KeyCreator treats imported models as if they were native. Regardless of which software they were originally created in. Meaning you can make changes directly to the imported model, without the hassle of creating new features simply to remove portions of the existing body. And finally, rather than being forced to create separate, but linked, part, sub-assembly, final assembly, and drawing files, you  can have everything in one, stand alone file. Of course, you prefer having all your files separate, you can do that as well. By using KeyCreator's "reference" assembly option. Oh, and KeyCreator is tons faster than anything else I've ever used.

  4. LittleEnterprises

    How did this article get posted? I would expect an article like this to be written by an freshman engineering student, but someone in leadership (editor?) should have had a good laugh then sent the newbie back to do more research then rewrite.

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