(Updated November 2018)
Probably the most common (and heartbreaking) question I get from aspiring CAD designers keen to develop their skills is “How am I supposed to afford thousands of pounds of software when I’m only just starting out?”
Balancing Users Needs versus Developer Needs
There’s no way of saying it in any nicer way– CAD software isn’t cheap. Costs run anywhere from £800 (for Rhino 5 without any plugins) to nearly £5000 for Matrix. For some heavier industrial CAD software packages such as CATIA, this can easily go into the tens of thousands!
The cost of software is a dilemma all potential users of industrial design software face, and have faced since CAD even became a potential career. It is also tied in with the software developer’s dilemma over intellectual property: If they try to make the software too cheap, they’ll never make any money. But if they make the software too expensive, then nobody can afford to use or learn it unless they’re lucky enough to learn on the job.
Demo software was introduced by many companies to bridge this for learning purposes, but it only opened up another question: how functional do you make the demo? If it’s not functional enough, it becomes a badly maintained cousin of the main software. If it’s too functional, then why should anyone bother with the real thing? To answer this software companies came up with temporary licences, which hatched dilemmas over how much time to give and how much to charge. And this cycle went on through monthly rental copies, student discounts, and of course outright piracy. All of them keep coming back to the same ultimate problem: how do you keep the software developers from going out of business without starving the users of the ability to access the software?
There are answers, but all of them are compromises, just as with the above dilemmas.
It’s Not Software, It’s a Business
The main thing to remember with software of this level is that it is not a piece of software, but it is an industrial business tool. To afford an industrial business tool, you need to think like a business. Therefore, one of the best things you could do before you start deciding to purchase CAD software is to consider yourself as if you’re starting a business, and approach the purchasing of equipment as if it is an integral part of the business plan you’re trying to set up.
The common term for this is called budgeting for your business, and by going through all these steps of considering what you want to do, you’ll know whether the money spent is justified.
This may seem quite a lot to do, but if there is anything which will focus your mind on what tools you need to do what you ultimately want to do, it is this.
Paying for the Software in Pieces
Fortunately for us, most jewellery CAD software developers are aware that not all their prospective clients have that kind of money just lying around. Most will either have an option for a monthly rental version of the software (as in Adobe’s Creative Cloud or DelCAM’s ArtCAM Jewelsmith), or a payment and financing plan for purchasing the full professional license (as in Matrix).
For more information on these, you’ll have to consult directly with the sales representatives of each respective software. The good news is, as far as the sales reps are concerned, a sale is a sale, so they will certainly help you out if they can.
Learning as a Student, Moving on to Professional
One of the unsung benefits of taking a course from an accredited academic institution is gaining “student status”. In the UK, this is particularly a big deal as it comes with so many other benefits. Not least among these is access to student versions of the software. While these are never intended for professional use, they do have all the effective functionality of their full professional versions, to help students get on their feet.
Note that different software companies have different opinions on student versions of software. Rhino and Adobe freely sell student licences of their software at any outlet provided the purchaser can submit proof of status. In some particular cases, a few academic institutions are the only providers of the student licence of that particular software. For Matrix student licenses, I believe British Academy of Jewellery, UCE Birmingham, and the GIA are the only ones who offer a Matrix student licence in the UK, and only tied in with their courses.
The Problem With Piracy
I should make a mention of piracy at some point here, as it inevitably comes up with the subject of software costs.
There is no disputing that piracy is a contentious subject in the field of software, particularly when the software in question costs thousands of pounds normally. It seems if a program is popular enough, people will try to steal it. The more expensive it becomes, the more people will try to get it illegally. Harder copy protection? Viciously aggressive license enforcement? Neither does anything to dissuade piracy. Warren Buffett himself famously called DRM technology “the gates of Hell”, as it opened up a never-ending arms race with cyber criminals. You could probably make an argument that software is overpriced precisely because of criminal downloading, but since nobody can agree on how much illegal downloading actually takes place (the RIAA and MPAA have more than once misrepresented statistics on this subject), this is a hard one to quantify.
As it relates to our subject here, though, this arms race between increasingly draconian groups of content providers (who would rather treat their customers as criminals than admit they’ve wasted money on copy protection) and increasingly angry groups of users (who don’t have that much money to begin with) makes for a hot-headed debate and a growing raft of legislation which is best to stay away from. Let the lawyers slug this one out, I say, while you run your business in peace.
I am aware that “yesterday’s pirate users are tomorrow’s power users”, but I also know the vicious penalties any new business would suffer if they were caught using pirated software as the basis of their work. For this reason, I would recommend starting as legitimately as you can and staying that way, and would say it’s suicidal to even think about illegal software when starting your business properly!
Start With a Cheaper Software and Move Up
Finally, if all the above options are not available, then there are lower priced solutions on the market where you can learn the basics before moving up onto other types of CAD modelling. While these aren’t quite the same thing as practicing on the real thing, they certainly make for an affordable solution for learning:
- If you want to learn Adobe Photoshop, you could start with Adobe Photoshop Elements (approx £60) or GIMP (free).
- If you want to learn Illustrator, you could start with InkScape (free)
- If you want to learn Matrix or 3Design, you could start with Rhino (free demo) or Moment of Inspiration (MoI) (US $295)
- Update: 3Design also releases a designer version of their software with most of the functionality for a fraction of the cost. (Thanks Charlie!)
- If you want to learn ZBrush, you could start with Sculptris (free)
The catch with most of these is twofold: firstly, they generally have much fewer features than their more expensive counterparts (you really do get what you pay for.) Secondly, it seems training options aren’t as plentiful as they are for more expensive software packages either. I always thought that was unfair, but I suppose it makes sense given that a software developer isn’t going to invest as much money in training tutorials if they aren’t getting any money for them.
The result is widely varying quality control on the tutorials which are on offer for the above software packages. To alleviate this, I offer my own pages of links to selected online tutorials, as well as offering private CAD tuition either as one to one masterclasses or short courses in all the above mentioned programs.
While nothing can ultimately take away from the fact that £5000 software costs £5000, there are several ways in which you can approach the problem creatively, which can either save you large amounts of money or at least give you the financial discipline which would make this software affordable.
(This post is part of my series of Frequently Asked Questions. See the rest of the FAQ pages.)