This article provides a brief introduction to the various types of popular 3D modeling software currently in use. This includes basic entry-level 3D modeling software, general-purpose full-featured 3D modeling software, industry-specific 3D modeling software, 3D sculpting software, photo-based 3D modeling software, scan-based (reverse engineering) 3D modeling software, and sketch-based 3D modeling software, among others.
(1) Basic Entry-Level 3D Modeling Software
The following are a few basic entry-level 3D modeling software programs, suitable for those without a design background, as well as for middle and high school education, and for beginners with a personal interest in the field.
Tinkercad is a web-based 3D modeling tool with a colorful and playful design interface, as easy to use as building blocks, making it suitable for teenagers and children to engage in 3D modeling. Emily, a 3D printing enthusiast from abroad, used Tinkercad to design and print a brewery. Tinkercad can also be used to create beautiful details and high-quality appearances.
123D Design allows users to create complex shapes by stacking and editing simple graphics. This “foolproof” method of 3D modeling enables anyone, even those who are not CAD 3D modeling engineers, to freely model in 123D Design.
123DSculpt is an app that runs on the iPad, allowing every creative individual to easily craft their own sculptural models.
123D Creature allows users to create various creature models based on their imagination. Whether the creatures exist in real life or only in the imagination, they can be brought to life.
123DMake converts 3D models into 2D patterns, using materials such as cardboard and wood to recreate models, and can also be understood as the slicing software mentioned in section 2.3. It can be used to create works of art, furniture, sculptures, or other simple objects.
Powered by cloud computing, 123DCatch rapidly transforms digital photos into realistic 3D models, developed by Autodesk. Besides PCs, a mobile app has been launched, turning smartphones into 3D scanners.
(2) General-Purpose Full-Featured 3D Modeling Software
3D Studio Max, commonly known as 3DS Max, is one of the world’s best-selling 3D modeling, animation, and rendering software. It is arguably the easiest professional 3D software to learn, initially used for creating animations in computer games, and later it became involved in producing special effects for movies such as “X-Men” and “The Last Samurai”.
Maya is a top-tier 3D animation software, used by professionals in film and television advertising, character animation, and movie special effects. With its comprehensive features, flexibility, ease of use, high production efficiency, and strong rendering realism, Maya is a high-end software for film-grade production.
Its prestigious reputation and high price tag make it a coveted tool for creators. Mastering Maya can greatly enhance production efficiency and quality, allowing for the creation of realistic character animations and movie-like rendering effects, propelling creators toward becoming world-class animators.
It also known as Rhinoceros, is a three-dimensional modeling tool similar in its basic operations to AutoCAD, making it easier for beginners with AutoCAD experience to master Rhino. It is widely used in industrial design, architecture, furniture, and footwear mold design, excelling in the creation of three-dimensional models for product exteriors.
ZBrush is a digital sculpting and painting software renowned for its powerful features and intuitive workflow. With a clean interface and smooth operation, it offers a suite of functionalities developed with practicality in mind, inspiring artists’ creativity and allowing for uninhibited creation.
ZBrush has revolutionized the traditional 3D design workflow, freeing artists’ hands and minds from the clumsy creation methods reliant on a mouse and parameters, and fully honoring the designer’s creative inspiration and traditional work habits.
Google SketchUp often referred to as SketchUp or SU, is a design tool catered to the creation process of design schemes, not only effectively conveying the designer’s ideas but also meeting the needs for real-time communication with clients. It enables designers to conceptualize intuitively on a computer, making it an excellent tool for three-dimensional architectural design schemes.
SketchUp is a highly popular and user-friendly 3D design software, likened to a “pencil” in electronic design by its official website. Its main selling point is its ease of use, allowing everyone to quickly get to grips with it. Additionally, users can export 3D models created in SketchUp directly to Google Earth, which is incredibly cool!
Poser developed by Metacreations, is a three-dimensional modeling and animation software for animals and human figures. Poser enhances 3D human modeling by adding hairstyles, clothing, and accessories, making it easy to showcase people’s designs and creativity.
Blender is an open-source, cross-platform, all-encompassing 3D animation software offering solutions ranging from modeling, animation, materials, rendering, to audio processing and video editing for the production of animated shorts. Designed for media professionals and artists worldwide, Blender can be used for 3D visualization and the creation of broadcast and film-quality videos.
Additionally, its built-in real-time 3D game engine makes it possible to produce independent, interactive 3D content. With Blender, 3D graphics enthusiasts can create their favorite 3D models without spending a fortune. It supports various polygonal modeling techniques and is even capable of producing animations!
FormZ is a highly acclaimed multipurpose solid and surface modeling software endowed with a vast array of unique 2D/3D shape processing and sculpting capabilities. For professionals frequently dealing with 3D spaces and shapes—such as architects, landscape architects, urban planners, engineers, animators, and illustrators, as well as industrial and interior designers—FormZ is an efficient design tool.
Developed by NewTek in the USA, LightWave 3D is a cost-effective 3D animation software with formidable capabilities. It stands as one of the few heavyweight 3D animation programs in the industry and is widely used in movies, television, games, web, advertising, printing, animation, and other fields.
Its ease of use and simplicity make it accessible for beginners, while its exceptional strength in biological modeling and character animation is noteworthy. LightWave’s rendering module, based on ray tracing and radiosity technologies, achieves near-perfect rendering quality.
Cinema 4D, commonly known as C4D, is a 3D animation software introduced by the German company MAXON. Cinema 4D is a long-standing 3D software package, boasting top-tier 3D modeling, animation, and rendering tools. C4D is easy to learn and use, highly efficient, and boasts cinematic-quality visual expression capabilities, making it the 3D software of choice for visual designers.
Originating in Germany in 1989, the software has evolved over more than three decades, growing ever more powerful and sophisticated. C4D, a darling of the design community and a trendsetter, is prevalent in e-commerce design and is widely applied in graphic design, UI design, industrial design, and film production. The character modeling for many blockbuster films is also accomplished using C4D.
(3) Industry-Specific 3D Modeling Software
AutoCAD, the flagship product of Autodesk, is widely used for 2D drafting, detailed drawing, design documentation, and basic 3D design, and has become an internationally popular drawing tool. It boasts a user-friendly interface, allowing various operations through interactive menus or command lines. Its multi-document design environment enables individuals without a computer specialty to quickly learn and utilize the software.
Owned by French company Dassault Systemes S.A., CATIA is a high-end integrated CAD/CAE/CAM software. Its first user in the 1970s was the world-renowned aerospace company Dassault Aviation. Today, CATIA’s advanced capabilities are recognized across various industries, with notable users including Boeing, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and others.
NX, also known as Unigraphics NX, is a premium software developed by Siemens. It provides digital modeling and verification for product design and manufacturing processes. Initially adopted by McDonnell Douglas in the United States, NX has now become one of the mainstream applications for 3D design in the mold industry.
SolidWorks is a product of the French company Dassault Systemes S.A., which specializes in developing and selling mechanical design software for the Windows platform. SolidWorks helps designers reduce design time, increase precision, enhance creativity, and bring products to market more quickly. It was the world’s first 3D CAD software developed for Windows.
With its robust features and extensive components, SolidWorks has become a leading and mainstream 3D CAD solution.
Creo, formerly known as Pro/Engineer and commonly referred to as Pro/E, is a suite of mechanical automation software developed by the American company PTC. It is widely used in industries such as automotive, aerospace, consumer electronics, mold making, toys, industrial design, and mechanical manufacturing.
Cimatron is software developed by the Israeli company Cimatron (now acquired by the American company 3D Systems). The software offers a flexible user interface and is primarily used for mold design and model machining. It is highly popular in the international mold manufacturing industry.
The Cimatron team has developed the metal 3D printing software 3DXpert based on Cimatron software. This is the world’s first metal 3D printing software that covers the entire design process from design to final print formation, including post-processing CNC stages, where 3DXpert software can play a significant role.
(4)3D Sculpting Software
Previously introduced, ZBrush is a versatile 3D modeling software that not only boasts powerful 3D modeling capabilities but also offers sculpting features.
Developed by the American company Pixologic, the ZBrush software is the world’s first 3D design tool that allows artists to create with an unbounded sense of freedom. ZBrush can sculpt models with up to a billion polygons, so the only limitation lies in the artist’s imagination.
MudBox is a 3D sculpting and modeling software developed by Autodesk. It has its unique strengths compared to ZBrush. Some people even consider MudBox superior to ZBrush, dubbing it the ultimate ZBrush killer.
Autodesk has also developed a brush-based 3D modeling tool called MeshMixer. This software allows users to blend existing models through brush-like interactions, enabling the creation of 3D models using techniques similar to Poisson or Laplacian blending. A noteworthy feature is the latest version of MeshMixer, which includes a new algorithm for optimizing 3D printing supports.
3DCoat is a digital sculpting program from Ukraine designed specifically for game artists. It focuses on detail design for game models, integrating real-time texture painting and detail sculpting. This software accelerates the detail design process, allowing for the creation of more content in shorter timeframes.
By importing a low-resolution model, 3DCoat can automatically generate UV maps, and paint normal maps, displacement maps, color maps, transparency maps, and specular maps all at once.
Sculptris is a virtual sculpting software that centers around the concept of modeling clay. It is particularly suitable for users looking to create small statues.
Modo is an advanced 3D software for polygonal subdivision, modeling, sculpting, 3D painting, animation, and rendering. It was designed and is maintained by Luxology, LLC. The software boasts many advanced features, such as N-gons (polygons with more than four edges), multi-level 3D painting tools, and compatibility with Apple’s MacOSX and Microsoft Windows operating systems.
(5) 3D Modeling Software Based on Photographs
As previously mentioned.
3DSOMPro is a software designed to generate high-quality 3D models from photographs. It can create three-dimensional models from images of actual objects, and the resulting models can be interactively displayed online.
Microsoft has developed PhotoSynth, which processes a large number of 3D photos. It doesn’t create actual 3D models but constructs a virtual 3D scene based on the camera parameters and spatial relationships between the photos. This allows users to view the scene from different angles and positions.
(6) 3D Modeling Software Based on Scanning (Reverse Engineering)
Geomagic, commonly known as “JieMo,” includes a series of software such as Geomagic Studio, Geomagic Qualify, and Geomagic Piano.
Geomagic Studio is a widely used reverse engineering software, boasting the following features: it ensures flawless polygon and NURBS model processing, significantly improving production efficiency with complex shapes or freeform surfaces compared to traditional CAD software; it integrates with major 3D scanning devices and CAD/CAM software; it can be used as a standalone application for rapid manufacturing or as a complement to CAD software, and is essential for scientific research.
Imageware, produced by the American company EDS and later acquired by Siemens PLM Software of Germany, is now part of the NX product line. It is one of the most renowned reverse engineering software packages due to its powerful point cloud processing, surface editing capabilities, and the construction of Class-A surfaces.
It is widely used in the automotive, aerospace, consumer electronics, mold, and computer component design and manufacturing industries.
RapidForm is a reverse engineering software developed by South Korea’s INUS Technology. It offers a new generation of computational models that can process point cloud data into seamless polygonal surfaces in real-time, making it an optimal interface for 3D scanning data. It is the OEM software for many 3D scanners.
Developed by ProFactor, ReconstructMe is a powerful and user-friendly 3D reconstruction software that can perform real-time 3D scene scanning using Microsoft’s Kinect or ASUS’s Xtion (its core algorithm is Kinect Fusion). A full-color 3D scene can be created in minutes. ReconstructMeQt provides a real-time 3D reconstruction graphical user interface utilizing the ReconstructMe SDK (open-source).
Artec’s handheld structured light 3D scanners, such as the Artec Eva and Artec Spider, are lightweight and user-friendly, making them the preferred choice for many 3D exhibition spaces to scan objects. Artec has also developed a software called Artec Studio, which can be used in conjunction with Microsoft’s Kinect, Asus’s Xtion, and other motion-sensing peripherals from various manufacturers, turning them into 3D scanners.
With Kinect through Artec Studio, model scanning can be completed, followed by post-processing, hole filling, data cleaning, measurement, and data export, as shown.
Developed by Canada’s InnovMetric Software Inc., PolyWorks is a point cloud processing software that provides engineering and manufacturing industries with 3D metrology solutions. It includes features for point cloud scanning, dimensional analysis and comparison, CAD, and reverse engineering.
CopyCAD is a powerful reverse engineering system software produced by the UK’s DELCAM. It allows for the generation of 3D CAD models from existing parts or solid models. The software offers sophisticated tools for creating CAD surfaces from digital data. CopyCAD can receive data from coordinate measuring machines and is also compatible with machine tools and laser scanners.
Sketch-Based 3D Modeling Software
SketchUp is an easy-to-use 3D modeling software. Creating 3D models with SketchUp is as intuitive as sketching with a pencil on paper—the software automatically recognizes and snaps to the lines you draw. Its 3D modeling process is straightforward: draw lines to create faces and then extrude them to form solids. This method is commonly used for architectural or interior scene modeling.
EasyToy is a sketch-based modeling and 3D painting software with a highly user-friendly interface and simple operations. By combining a few simple actions, users can quickly create complex 3D models. Compared to existing 3D systems, EasyToy is easier to learn and use. It has a wide range of applications, including toy design, graphics, animation, and education.