General Software

100 Fabulous Freebies for CAD Users

19 Jul, 2010 By: Cyrena Respini-Irwin,Nancy Spurling Johnson

Cadalyst Labs Report: Readers and editors share software tools and tips that are worth their weight in gold, but don't cost a penny.


"Free is a very good price!"

Long-time residents of Portland, Oregon, know and love this catchy slogan from the low-budget television commercials of Tom Peterson. A home furnishings dealer who became such an icon that Gus Van Sant cast him in movies, Peterson lured customers to his stores with every kind of freebie imaginable, from hot dogs and haircuts to wrapping paper and area rugs.

Nearly every American community has had its own version of Tom Peterson at one time or another, that noisy local retailer who tapped the marketing power of "Free!" Fast-forward to the Internet age, and freebies are more prevalent than ever: free Wi-Fi, free e-mail accounts, free screensavers, free games, you name it — the options are endless. And nowhere are the freebies better than in the CAD world, where no-cost tips and tools are plentiful — and more often than not, surprisingly practical.

If you're eager to start digging for treasure on your own, you can head straight to the "Find Your Own Fabulous Freebies" guide at the end of this article. But finding great freebies in the vast online world can be a challenge. To help you get to the real gems that will make your job easier, we asked Cadalyst readers to tell us about the freebies they can't live without. Those who submitted a favorite freebie that was selected for publication will be awarded a prize from the Cadalyst Store.

We share each of these tools based on the recommendations we received from Cadalyst readers and contributors. Editors have not tested each tool extensively; we encourage you to evaluate options according to your own needs. Be sure to review licensing agreements before downloading to ensure that you can comply with the terms of use. Some sites require that users provide contact or other personal information in exchange for free tools; others suggest a small donation.

Now, let's get to the free stuff!

General-Purpose Tools

CAD might be your primary software, but CAD managers and users alike call on a variety of general-purpose software to get their jobs done, including tools to make PDFs, convert units, and create videos and screen captures. The following free tools are among the best, according to our readers.

PDF Converters. Chris Harris recommends PDFCreator. "It offers encryption for security, the ability to digitally sign documents, stamping, [and much more]. My favorite feature though, is the ability to create JPEG, PNG, TIFF, BMP, and other formats from a program or an existing PDF. Plus, all these settings can be saved into profiles for easy switching."

"PDF995 is my favorite freebie," reported Sharla Livingston. "It is the easiest PDF creator I've used." The free version displays a sponsor page in your web browser each time you run the software; upgrade for $9.95.

A popular freebie that's been around for years is CutePDF Writer. Use it with virtually any Windows application to create quality PDFs. Reader Marga Io said, "I could not survive a CAD workday without this tool. It saves paper too!"

PDFescape is a free PDF reader, editor, form filler, and form designer that you use online, sidestepping any software installation. Viranjith Tilakaratne said, "The free, nonregistered version is a very powerful tool, similar to Adobe Acrobat Pro."

Go Pro. For more features at a price, trade up to the professional version of a freebie or check out products from companies including Adobe, Bluebeam, Cadzation, Informative Graphics, and Quadrispace.

Unit Converters. Chris Micallef recommends ESBUnit-Conv. "It can be installed as a Windows utility or as a stand-alone program for removable USB drives." For $19, the Pro version offers more features.

"I use a nifty application called Convert that I keep on my desktop and use every day," wrote survey technician Paul D. Werbicky, the first of a few readers to suggest the tool. Convert is configurable to your preferences, and you can create your own conversions by using a Custom tab. It runs on Windows, Linux, and UNIX.

Cadalyst contributing editor Scott MacKenzie goes to CompliCad, a source of CAD and building information modeling (BIM) tools, which he calls his "favorite web site for CAD unit conversion."

Go Pro. For more features at a price, trade up to the professional version of a freebie or check out products from companies including Invent Better and Mathsoft.



File and Text Utilities.
Cadalyst contributing editors Paul Aubin and Melanie Perry use ReNamer for batch file renaming. Select your files or folders, add and configure rules for the changes, preview your changes, then execute. "Love this product," said Aubin. It is free, but donations are accepted.

CKRename also performs batch file-renaming operations, such as sequentially renaming files, changing file extensions, changing case, and performing string substitutions. Guy Dow said, "AutoCAD, Adobe, FinePrint, and all the other PDF drivers I've looked at always attach the DWG layout name or Model(1) (or something similar) to the PDF file name. With CKRename, I can strip out all of the extraneous words in the file names that I don't want." (Available from multiple sources; search for "CKRename" using any search engine.)

Melanie Perry also likes Ditto, a clipboard manager. "I can copy many pieces of information at once, then paste them at my leisure. No flipping back and forth between programs or files. You can even do a quick-and-easy search through the contents of past clips."

Can't find a file? Ken Goldstein told us about Everything. "This utility does one thing very, very well, which is to find files and folders by name as quickly as you can type." Unlike the standard Windows search, this freeware tool initially displays every file and folder on your computer. Donations are appreciated for commercial use.

Go Pro. For more features at a price, trade up to the professional version of a freebie or check out products from companies including Cadac, Motive Systems, and Trix Systems.

Imaging Tools. Oded Cohen was the first to recommend Snagit, a popular tool for creating screen captures. "This great software tool is so helpful to communicate ideas, issues, or problems that you have with your software. You can save the screen from AutoCAD, then highlight, label, and redline issues that you have with construction DWGs and send to your engineering department or your CAD manager. I use it all the time, and I love it."

Lori Dankovic likes IrfanView. "I put together training manuals, and this software allows me to quickly capture the screen image, crop the image as necessary, recopy the image, and paste into a document — all in a matter of seconds." It is free for noncommercial use, and $12 for commercial use.

"Gadwin PrintScreen is my favorite application for capturing screen images," said contributing editor Melanie Perry. The freeware utility lets you capture just the portion of a screen that you specify — very helpful for users who have multimonitor setups.

For photo editing that's a little more robust than MS Paint, Perry uses Paint.NET. "It supports multiple file types, layers, and special effects and does pretty much everything I need an image editor to do. It does not handle huge TIFF scans well, but luckily I don't have to use those often in my work."

Go Pro. For more features at a price, trade up to the professional version of a freebie or check out products from companies including Adobe, American Systems, Etecad, and Hyperionics. TechSmith's Camtasia Studio is a popular choice for creating screen recordings.

Free Tools for the iPhone
These freebies go anywhere (itunes.apple.com, or access the App Store from your iPhone).
SketchBook Mobile Express. Cadalyst contributing editor Andrew Roe goes everywhere with the iPhone version of Autodesk's SketchBook Pro painting and drawing software. SketchBook Mobile Express is free; for $2.99, the full SketchBook Mobile adds options including the ability to save work in progress and to e-mail images.
Evernote. Cadalyst contributing editor Melanie Perry explained, "Evernote is a free application for the iPhone that lets you make notes in text, with photos and voice recordings." She uses it in her facilities management work when she has to leave the office for meetings or site visits. "Having this application on the phone I'd be carrying anyway makes my life a lot easier."

Following are a few other iPhone apps that are available at little or no cost.
AEC Info. This free app delivers information related to architecture, engineering, and construction, including news, marketing, law, and green building topics. Sources include Architectural Record, Builder Online, and Building Green.
NaviCAD. View the Google 3D Warehouse from your phone for $0.99.
Drawvis Free. Use this free tool to display 2D DXF technical drawings.
iPocket Draw Lite. The free version creates vector drawings using solid or dashed lines. Upgrade for $4.99 to manage, store, or send drawings by e-mail as DXF or RealCADD files.
REVITkeys. This app provides a list of 260 keyboard shortcuts for Autodesk Revit Architecture 2010, arranged in 14 categories, for $0.99.
iTracer. This mobile 3D ray tracer builds full 3D scenes and renders images from any given viewpoint. Export the 3D scene, including all models, materials, lights, and camera by e-mail for $2.99.
CAD Freebies

Do you wish you could change AutoCAD just a little to make it better suited to your needs? You can, of course — and probably without opening your wallet.

Tools for AutoCAD. "Not only do we use DWGgateway," wrote Alan Harmon, "but I suggest it for all our consultants when the common problem of not having the compatible CAD edition occurs. We haven't upgraded our CAD systems since 2005, but when someone sends me a CAD file from any year after that, I just open it up with DWGgateway and save it with my older version."

MDITabs
from Autodesk — a tool that lets you see and quickly navigate open AutoCAD drawings in a series of tabs along the top of the drawing window — is a favorite of Rodney Lee. You can find a link to the free download on Shaan Hurley's blog: Go to autodesk.blogs.com and enter "MDITabs" in the Search field.

"I work for the State of California, and most of us use various versions of DocBar," said Cindy Dangles. "It sets up tabs for open AutoCAD documents. I like it better than the taskbar option, as I can set it to also path to open the templates or close them all at once or save them all at once. I can keep the designers on our current standards."

Vladislav Bronin submitted three freebies he has used with AutoCAD for the past five years. Cadig TableBar makes working with tables easy and user-friendly, and it lets you save table templates for reuse. Recent from DotSoft adds a pull-down list that shows the last 26 DWG files opened. And although the iComTools web site is in Korean, its iDwgTab freebie is available in English. This freebie lets you organize open files in the order you wish, create a list of favorite drawings, run batch file commands, and much more.

Cadalyst contributing editor R.K. McSwain, author of the popular "Hot Tip Harry" series and Hot Tip Harry Discussion Forum moderator, recommended DWG-icon.dll. "It's kind of old, but then again, there are a lot of people using older versions of AutoCAD. It's a shell extension for Windows that uses different icons for DWG files displayed in Windows Explorer, depending on the DWG version."

Captain LearnCurve (aka Cadalyst contributing editor Bill Fane) recommended his "Learning Curve" series of AutoCAD tutorials, as well as the "Circles and Lines" AutoCAD tutorials by Lynn Allen. Both are published by Cadalyst, just two of many free tutorial series for a number of CAD software systems, including Autodesk Inventor, Civil 3D, and Map 3D; SolidWorks; and more.

And twice a month, Cadalyst publishes a new AutoCAD video tip by Lynn Allen. These quick and easy options for maximizing AutoCAD productivity are archived in the Cadalyst Video Gallery.


LISP. Where there's AutoCAD, there's free AutoLISP to make life easier. And if a certain routine doesn't do the trick for you, undertake an Internet search to find what you need.

What is AutoLISP, and how do you use it? Bill Fane's free classic, "Learning to LISP," leads the way. While you're learning, hang out on Cadalyst's Hot Tip Harry Discussion Forum for free information and support.

Cadalyst's own CAD Tips site is one of the most extensive sources of free LISP code (plus some VBA code, hatch patterns, and general tips for AutoCAD and other software). It is home to thousands of tips that are searchable by keyword, author name, file name, and more. Browse tips by category, recently posted, most downloaded, or most highly rated.

Among the most frequently downloaded freebies on the site is AIA Standard Layers by Mike Stachulak. This utility aids architects who create drawing layers according to the 1997 AIA CAD Layer Guidelines. Also popular is Create Custom Linetype by Ron Perez, an AutoLISP routine that automates the steps needed to make a custom linetype with embedded characters.

Readers sent several of their favorites from the CAD Tips site. Enter the tip title in the Search field to locate any of these tips.

Jeff Plourde said he can't do without Al's Steel Mill, by Al Rogers, which draws all types of steel shapes in 2D and 3D. Search for Steel Shapes All Types and Sizes.

Jennifer Grande echoed the sentiment about Steel Shapes All Types and Sizes, saying "This is my all-time favorite tool," and shared a few others she uses nearly every day. "I've been using Multiple Offsets by Joon Hong since it was first printed in Cadalyst magazine. It allows you to change the offset distance midstream, without exiting and restarting the command. Zero Radius Fillet by Paul Herman is perfect for squaring up corners or just making lines meet without changing your stored fillet radius. Scott Cunningham's Lock Layers makes it easy to isolate layers without freezing them like Layiso does (so you can still see them). The second routine in this tip is even more useful because you can use it even if you locked layers manually. Finally, Offset Line by Will DeLoach lets you draw the center line first and offset it to either side at once with the option to keep or delete the center line — very handy."

You'll find a variety of free AutoLISP code beyond the CAD Tips site, including the following favorites:

Frequent Cadalyst tip contributor Len Nemirovsky says he can't live without DDshapes, a routine by Albert Botton that automates steel shape drawing.

Mike Hitt wrote, "John L. Merrick III of Covington, Louisiana, has the best free programs I have found. My favorite is the Welded Flange program," an AutoLISP dialog box–driven command that constructs 2D and 3D piping weld flanges.

Tony Sparks gave a thumbs-up to MyGEARilla (formerly known as Hobmaster), by Leonard R. Miller. According to the web site, this LISP program "enables the user to draw 2D involute spur gear teeth exactly how they're made by graphically simulating the generating process."

Cadalyst contributing editor Scott MacKenzie suggested CRCWeb as a good source of free LISP code. Formerly hosted by the CAD Resource Center of Canada, the site is now dormant but offers a great deal of archived content.

Contributing editor Melanie Perry provided her list of LISP favorites. FIXBLOCK.LSP redefines all or selected blocks so all entities are on layer 0 (zero), with color BYBLOCK. "Prior to AutoCAD's introduction of the SetBylayer command in version 2008, I used this free program from Owen Wengerd constantly." And JTB_TITLE-BAR.LSP by Jimmy Bergmark is fun, allowing you to change AutoCAD's title bar. Check out TXTEXPRT.LSP, which exports text objects from a drawing to a TXT file ("in my case, a couple of hundred room numbers") and many other, more exciting LISP routines. Finally, Perry's blog outlines how Adam Wuellner came to the rescue with a routine to replace the Select Similar command that went missing from AutoCAD Map 3D a few years back. Go to mistressofthedorkness.blogspot.com and search for "Wuellner."

Tools for CAD Managers
Robert Green, Cadalyst's CAD management expert, shared several of his favorite freebies.

Disk defrag. Clean house using Smart Defrag, "a great free disk defrag utility."

Video capture. Record and share video for training and more using Jing.

Anti-malware. Wipe out a computer virus with Green's recommended anti-malware solution.

And CAD managers, don't forget the Cadalyst Benchmark Test, sponsored by Intel, for testing the performance of computers running AutoCAD.
BIM Freebies

1st Pricing offers free toolkits for some versions of AutoCAD (standard, Architecture, and Map), Revit Architecture, and TurboCAD that allow users to select commercially available windows and doors to insert directly into CAD drawings. Products and comparative pricing information are listed in a schedule.

The ARCAT web site is chock-full of free resources for BIM users, including CAD details from 10,500 manufacturers, hundreds of BIM objects developed by ARCAT experts, specifications, and wizards.

Sketching and Visualization

SketchUp is Google's popular and free 3D sketching and modeling tool for Windows and Mac.

Blender is a popular, open-source suite of 3D content creation tools for modeling, shading, animation, rendering, interactive 3D applications, and more, available for all major operating systems.

Kelly Lasse recommended LuxRender, another open-source renderer. "It is designed to achieve physically accurate appearance and realistic lighting for CG [computer-generated] imagery. There are exporters for most of the major DCC [digital-content creation] apps."

Go Pro. For more features at a price, trade up to the professional version of a freebie or check out products from companies including AutoDesSys, Autodesk, Caligari, Luxology, Okino Computer Graphics, and Robert McNeel & Associates.
 

 

Find Your Own Fabulous Freebies

Numerous online resources offer free software tools for just about every CAD-related task imaginable. If your CAD workflow needs improvement, chances are there's a free tool to help. Try a general Internet search (steering clear of sites you don't trust) or head to some of the great stockpiles of freeware. Here we list a few of those for browsing and a sampling of the freebies they offer.

Autodesk Labs

The software from Autodesk Labs is still in development, but it's serious technology that won't cost you a cent. Be sure to review the terms of use.

  • 3D/2D ShareNow. This add-in enables you to quickly and easily publish DWF files of your designs from AutoCAD, Autodesk Inventor, the Autodesk Revit family of products, and Autodesk Design Review software to the Project Freewheel server.
  • Alias Sketch for AutoCAD. Technology preview offers fully integrated painting, illustration, and image manipulation capabilities to enhance the AutoCAD design workflow.
  • AutoCAD Freestyle. Draw to scale and present your ideas to clients, subcontractors, architects, engineers, and municipal planning departments.
  • Autodesk Showroom. Web application transforms 3D product models and home scenes into interactive "synthetic photographs" that look like the real thing.
  • Bridge Modeler for AutoCAD Civil 3D 2010. Add-in module can create simplified bridges directly from a Civil 3D corridor object.
  • Firefox Add-On for Autodesk Design Review. View DWF files using Mozilla Firefox 3 for the Windows operating system.
  • Google Earth Extension for AutoCAD and AutoCAD-based projects. Technology preview allows you to import a Google Earth image into AutoCAD, publish your 3D model to Google Earth, drape a Google Earth image onto a 3D mesh in AutoCAD, and attach time-span information to your model.
  • Project Freewheel. Project Freewheel facilitates collaboration across project teams without installing additional software. Type in a provided URL to view your design data interactively, then embed an interactive viewer displaying your existing design data.
  • Solar Radiation Technology Preview. Use this technology preview to analyze the effects of solar radiation on various surfaces of your conceptual building model.
  • STL Exporter for Revit Platform 2010. This proof-of-concept project is designed to create an STL file from a 3D building information model, enabling easier 3D printing.

Brothersoft

An established site that reportedly evaluates every tool it offers, Brothersoft is a collection of freeware and shareware tools and games for Windows, Mac, mobile devices, and more. Here we present a few CAD-related freebies. Type a title from the list below in the Search field.

  • 3D Architecture by LiveCAD. "Design, display, present, and realize all your building projects," according to the site. Create 2D plans with quotations, grid, or 2D/3D simultaneous views. Quickly apply textures and materials to all elements of your project.
  • AutoCAD Version Explorer. A stand-alone program that provides a Windows Explorer–like interface to quickly view AutoCAD previews and version information. Output selected files or an entire directory to HTML format.
  • Autodesk Inventor View. Share native Autodesk Inventor software data with non-Inventor users with this freely distributable viewer.
  • Clone. Use this freeware to create copies of an object. It is similar to the Array tool in Autodesk 3ds Max, except that it's parametric.
  • Envisioneer Express. This architectural design program was created to introduce users to simple creation of floor plans, 3D models, and interior design concepts. The free tool uses real-world objects such as walls, doors, windows, and stairs.
  • FrameXpert Frame Designer. Build equipment racks, server racks, custom aluminum enclosures and shelves, and other custom frames from T-slotted aluminum profiles.
  • Mini CAD Viewer. Compact CAD viewer is designed to be easy to use for the non-CAD user. It supports DWG and DXF formats.
  • ShortCAD Lite (for Windows Mobile). Create and edit 2D vector-graphic drawings and templates and save them in ShortDWG or DXF format to export to other vector-graphic editors.

Download.com

This site hosted by CNET holds endless freebies (and non-freebies) for every application under the sun, for Windows, Mac, and mobile platforms. Here are a few favorites for CAD-related use. Enter the name of your desired category or tool of choice in the Search field.

  • A9CAD. This general-purpose 2D CAD program supports industry-standard DWG/DXF drawing formats.
  • Alibre Design Xpress. Parametric solid modeler creates 2D and 3D parts and assemblies; for business or personal use.
  • CAD.OCX. This ActiveX Control written in Visual Basic 6.0 performs AutoCAD functions such as drawing lines, circles, arcs, rectangles, 3D spheres, and 3D cones.
  • DesignWorkshop Lite (PowerPC) 1.8.5 for Mac. Build and save your own 3D models of homes, offices, or entire buildings.
  • doPDF Free PDF Converter. Create PDFs from within any program — and nothing more. Supports a multitude of languages.
  • DoubleCAD XT. IMSI/Design's DoubleCAD XT is a compact CAD utility that can double as a DWG viewer for those with older AutoCAD or AutoCAD LT versions.
  • Free DWG Viewer. From Informative Graphics, this tool lets you view and measure AutoCAD DWG, DWF, and DXF drawings in a simple interface.
  • PCB123. Design and order custom-printed circuit boards. A start-up wizard offers several choices for your board, including number of layers, use of plane layers, solder mask, and silkscreen. Next, PCB123 presents a CAD design window. It includes an extensive library of parts, devices, and layouts, and can import net lists from CAD vendors.
  • ThreeDify Designer. A 3D modeling, 3D dimensioning, and view mark-up application and ActiveX plug-in.

FreeCAD

This free site from TenLinks comprised 841 CAD freebies in 18 categories at the time of this writing, including architectural, CAE, EDA (electronic design automation), MCAD, viewers, and more. Lists can be sorted by top programs, most downloads, and what's new. The following are among the most recent additions to the site:

  • MeshMixer. Free experimental 3D modeling tool aims to make it easy to compose new 3D models from existing meshes.
  • STP Viewer. Professional CAD model viewer is said to be fast and user-friendly even for nontechnical types, while providing a full range of tools for navigating and analyzing 3D objects.
  • trueSpace 7.61. Full-featured solution lets you model, texture, light, animate, and render 3D content.

XANADU

XANADU is an Autodesk Premier Solutions Provider, Microsoft Gold Partner, and HP Preferred Gold Partner based in the Czech Republic. It offers solutions and services in the areas of CAD, GIS, IT infrastructure, and software development. The company's web site holds a bounty of free tips and tools for Autodesk products. The following is a sampling of the most popular offerings:

  • BUDWEISER benchmark. Benchmark drawing tests the DWG format compatibility of non-Autodesk applications.
  • FLay (Force Layer). Customizable reactor tool for AutoCAD ensures that all hatches you draw will go to the layer Hatch, all texts will automatically go to the layer Annotations, all dimensions to Dims, and so forth.
  • GeoRefImg. Automatically places raster images (maps) according to date from their georeference files (for example, TFW for TIFF files) so you can easily reposition a set of tiled maps in a DWG drawing in AutoCAD or AutoCAD Architecture.
  • GRP. A simple, single-click tool for easy grouping and ungrouping of drawing objects in AutoCAD.
  • srxTEXT. Find and replace drawing text in AutoCAD using a Command-line function with many options. Use as a batch command, in scripts, or to perform advanced replacements with regular expressions or replacements of word pairs defined in an Excel table.

 


AutoCAD Tips!

Lynn Allen

Autodesk Technical Evangelist Lynn Allen guides you through a different AutoCAD feature in every edition of her popular "Circles and Lines" tutorial series. For even more AutoCAD how-to, check out Lynn's quick tips in the Cadalyst Video Gallery. Subscribe to Cadalyst's free Tips & Tools Weekly e-newsletter and we'll notify you every time a new video tip is published. All exclusively from Cadalyst!
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