(This marks the first of a series of Frequently Asked Questions posts. See the rest of the FAQ pages.)
Over the years, the students in my jewellery CAD courses as well as my private clients have asked me a lot of questions about CAD as it relates to jewellery manufacturing. Many of these questions were often the same. As I thought it better to tailor my answer to each student’s needs, I resisted writing a single standard answer for quite a long time. Then it occurred to me that I could probably answer at least some of the questions all at once, and just fill in the gaps if people wanted to know more.
This is how my series of Frequently Asked Questions began.
On this and subsequent articles in my FAQ series, I will break down the most commonly asked questions from my own particular fields of expertise. If anyone has any more specific questions or is not clear about something mentioned here, just leave a comment below and I’ll add an answer to the entry.
For part 1, we’ll start off with the most common question of them all: “Which jewellery CAD software should I learn?”
- Why are There So Many Different Kinds of CAD Software?
- What is 2D Design Software?
- Is 2D CAD Software different from 2D Design?
- What is 3D CAD Software?
- What are the Comparative Advantages Of Each Jewellery CAD Software Package (“The Comparative Jewellery CAD Software List”)?
- Do You Have Any Examples of What These CAD Programs are Like to Use?
- Where Can I Purchase These CAD Programs?
I Want To Learn CAD. Where Do I Start?
The first thing you should do is figure out how you want to use design software. There are actually several different kinds of computer-aided design software available, each one designed for a different purpose:
- 2D Design Software such as Photoshop
- 2D CAD Software such as TypeEdit, Adobe Illustrator, Corel Draw, and Inkscape
- 3D CAD Software such as 3Design, Rhino, Matrix, Firestorm, and JewelCAD
- Customer-Facing CAD Software such as Countersketch
- 3D Sculpture Software such as Geomagic Sculpt, Mudbox, and ZBrush
Why So Many Different Kinds?
You could be cynical and say that it’s different companies competing for a piece of the same market, but in truth the tools are all rather different. Even for tools which serve the same purpose (such as 3Design, Matrix, and Firestorm), they behave in different ways and were built starting from different design philosophies. It’s not uncommon for certain specialists or design houses to use more than one software package in conjunction. Adobe Illustrator and Rhino, for example.
Okay, So There Are Different Kinds of CAD. What is 2D Design Software?
2D Design software is a bit like working with a set of paintbrushes and a palette of colours. It’s designed purely for working with bitmap images (such as photographs or illustrations) composed of pixels. Tools like these have been around since the early 80’s, so they’ve had plenty of time to come up with clever ways to paint, manipulate, and apply special effects to images. Pretty much everything you could think of doing with a paintbrush or a photography studio can be done with 2D Design software.
The most obvious 2D design software tool available would be Adobe Photoshop, but it is not the only one. There is also Corel Paint and Sketchbook Pro, among others. There is even a jewellery specific 2D Design software package– Gemvision Design Studio (previously known as Digital Goldsmith). While perhaps not as flashy as 3D design software, these 2D tools are vital in their own right for illustrators and draftsmen, allowing them to make paint-ups and renderings of designs in methods as close to the traditional methods as possible. They also serve a vital role in post-production of photography and CAD renders, preparing and sizing the images for use in print or on websites.
As it happens, I usually recommend that absolute newcomers to any sort of computer based design start with a 2D design software like Photoshop or Corel. Compared to other types of software, their learning curve can be much easier, and can help provide a gateway into more complex ways of working.
Is 2D CAD Software Different From 2D Design Software?
Yes. While both allow users to create designs in 2D, 2D CAD (or vector graphics) works in entirely different way than 2D Design software (or pixel graphics).
Think of 2D CAD software as a technical draftsman’s table, compared to 2D Design software’s paintbrushes and palette. Both can draw a picture, but the purpose of each picture is very different.
The purpose of 2D CAD is precision, usually for the purposes of design communication. Rather than working with bitmaps and pixels, 2D CAD uses vector lines. Whereas pixels are colours at locations on an image, vectors use points on a page with lines connecting them. There are three big advantages to using vectors for technical drawings:
- The lines are not fixed. They can be adjusted, moved, twisted, scaled, bent, even redrawn in sections.
- No matter how big or how small you scale the lines, they will always be redrawn with perfect resolution.
- Vector lines are also used by 3D CAD as well as laser engraving and industrial cutting tools. This means you can export your designs into formats directly useable by both applications, potentially saving the designers or service bureaus time.
What is 3D CAD Software?
3D CAD is what most people think of when they are talking about CAD. Conceptually, it’s the digital equivalent of fabrication tools and a wax carving kit. Rather than just simply making designs on a screen, the user is actually building his design to exact tolerances and specifications. The end result of CAD can be either rendering (producing a photorealistic image) or rapid prototyping (producing a physical model for use in manufacturing).
CAD models are often (and incorrectly) referred to as “drawings”. Since they are still technically 3D even if they’re only stored on a computer, it’s better to call them “3D models”. Using 3D CAD for product design is not a new thing. The first military applications of CAD/CAM appeared in the 1960’s, and the first commercial product design with CAD started happening in the late 1980’s. But it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that there is no field of product design which doesn’t use some form of CAD for manufacturing. 3D CAD’s advantages include:
- You can view a conceptual design in 3 dimensions, from any angle
- Measurements and dimensions of objects can be specified down to insane levels of precision.
- Since the piece hasn’t been made yet, it’s possible to modify or rebuild part or all of it, or visualise it in any colour or material you like.
What Are Some of the Advantages of Each Kind of 3D CAD?
This is actually one of the questions I have to answer most often. From what I’ve experienced so far, at the most basic level all the 3D CAD packages are capable of the same sorts of things (eternity rings, solitaire wedding rings, etc.). It’s only when you get to more advanced types of design work do the key differences start to stand out. For this reason, I summarise below certain key design tasks along with the programs which seem to be the best fit for that particular task.
A Couple of Comments (and Disclaimers) Before We Begin
- All of these are based on my own experiences of each of the software packages through a combination of testing, demos, tutorial videos, and working with others who know their tools. Ultimately, these are opinions, but I’ve tried (and will continue to try) my level best to keep this list as informed and representative as possible.
- Besides a comparative rating of level, I’ve listed each software program in alphabetical order. If there are three different programs in a section labelled Best, they’re of more or less similar strength to each other in that category.
- There is no Jewellery CAD software out there which is good at everything. Indeed, in many cases I’ve had to recommend users combine the strengths of two different CAD software packages together to achieve the complex tasks they’re trying to do. I even made a separate FAQ page for CAD software combinations.
- I’ve tried to keep this list up to date with the latest versions of the software, but it seems new software comes out every season. If my list is looking dated, or if a new version of the software has come out which changes how well it performs in various categories (which does happen), please let me know and I’ll take a look and adjust accordingly.
- To those people who have been sending me rude or pushy posts- I teach most of these software packages, and I do not have any vested interest in selling any of these. If you feel I’ve missed something in my lists below, I’m happy to take another look and do another demo. But I daresay bullying someone is not the way to change their experiences and opinions on a piece of software.
- For the full disclaimer, see the bottom of this page.
The Comparative Jewellery CAD Software List
Fast Modifications and Reworking of Existing Models
- Fastest (either due to parametric history, direct modelling, or working with libraries): 3Design, Countersketch, Firestorm CAD
- Fast (with limited history features or a quick interface): JewelCAD, Matrix
- Reasonably Quick: Any of the others
Making a Size Range From a Single Ring
- Best: 3Design, Firestorm, Matrix
- Good: JewelCAD
- Can do it, but not really designed for it: Rhino
Precision Modelling (ie fitted components, hinges, etc.)
- Best: Rhino, Matrix
- Good: JewelCAD
- Okay: 3Design
- Can do it, but not really designed for it: Geomagic Sculpt, Mudbox, Zbrush
Organic Modelling (ie flowers, vines, scrollwork, filigree, etc.)
- Best: 3Design (especially with 3Shaper), Clayoo plug-in for Matrix and Matrix Gold, T-Splines plugin for Rhino and Matrix
- Good: Geomagic Sculpt, JewelCAD, Matrix, Mudbox, Rhino, Zbrush
- Can do it, but not really designed for it: Countersketch
Relief Sculpting (such as coins, medallions, or family crests):
- Best: ArtCAM Jewelsmith (now no longer available)
- Good: Mudbox, ZBrush, Matrix (with the help of MatrixArt), 3Design
- Can do it, but not really designed for it: Rhino, JewelCAD, Firestorm
Full 3D Carving onto a 3D Surface
- Best: Geomagic Sculpt, Mudbox, Zbrush
- Can do it, but not really designed for it: Any of the others
Applying Texture or Inlay With Shapes Onto a 3D Surface
- Best: Geomagic Sculpt, Mudbox, Zbrush
- Good (due to parametric history): 3Design, Firestorm
- Okay: Rhino, Matrix
Creating and Managing Pave Setting
- Best: 3Design, Matrix
- Good: Firestorm, Matrix Gold
- Can do it, but not really designed for it: Moment of Inspiration, Rhino
- Cannot do it at all: Geomagic Sculpt, Mudbox, Zbrush
- Best: 3Design with DeepImage, Firestorm CAD with Keyshot, Matrix, Rhino (with a good rendering plug-in like Brazil, Keyshot, V-Ray)
- Good: 3Design without DeepImage, Geomagic Sculpt with Keyshot, JewelCAD, ZBrush
- Can do it, but not really designed for it: ArtCAM Jewelsmith without Keyshot, Rhino without a rendering plug-in
Working in Front of a Client
- Best: Countersketch, Firestorm
- Very Good: 3Design, Matrix Gold
- Good: Matrix
- Can do it, but not really designed for it: JewelCAD, Rhino, Zbrush
Size of User Base
While nearly all of the above CAD software solutions offer great user support, where that support comes from also depends on the size of the user base. Generally the wider the user base, the more places you can go to get your questions answered. However, with small user bases, you’re able to get quick answers directly from the developer, and it also means they’re more likely to listen to your feedback on how to make the software better. So it’s a trade-off.
- Widest User Base (i.e. most people to ask for help, least chance of your feedback being heard): all Adobe software, Rhino
- Big: Matrix, V-Ray plug-in, Zbrush
- Fairly Big: 3Design, Keyshot plug-in
- Medium: Mudbox, T-Splines plug-in, Matrix Gold (including Clayoo)
- Small: Geomagic Sculpt, Firestorm, JewelCAD (yes, even now)
Do You Have Any Examples of What These Jewellery CAD Programs are Like to Use?
You have two options if you want to see what most of these software packages are like. The first would be to look at some of the tutorial videos for each jewellery CAD program. The second would be to ask for a demonstration from any of the sales representatives of each software packages (contact links below). With a few exceptions, nearly every one of these software providers has sales representatives keen to show off the features of the software to you.
Where Can I Purchase Them, and How Much Do They Cost?
With the exceptions of Adobe and Rhino, I’m afraid you will have to go directly to the software developers to purchase any of these pieces of software. Fortunately, nearly all of them have sales reps, so they’ll be more than happy to help you out. With regards to costs, they range anywhere from £1200 (for Rhino standalone with no plug-ins) to £6000 (For Matrix), including tax. The problem is these costs change somewhat from country to country, and also depending on promotions and other factors. It’s always best to ask them directly. To this end, I’ve provided links to every single jewellery CAD manufacturer’s website below:
- 3D Space Pro (makers of Firestorm CAD, based upon Spaceclaim)
- Adobe (makers of Photshop and Illustrator)
- Autodesk (makers of Mudbox)
- Gemvision/Stuller (makers of Matrix, Countersketch, Matrix Gold, and Clayoo)
- McNeel (makers of Rhino)
- Pixologic (makers of Zbrush)
- Geomagic (makers of Geomagic Sculpt, formerly known as Claytools), a subsidiary of 3DSystems
- Type3 (makers of 3Design and 3Shaper)
If affording software is an issue, I wrote an article about managing the cost of software for the FAQ series.