Which CAD software is right for your sheet metal project

sheet metal fabrication
Section 1

Specialized CAD tools

Designing for sheet metal fabrication requires specialized CAD tools to create a design that fabricators can successfully turn into your parts.

If you aren’t already using CAD software, you may want to talk to your fabricator to see if they have a recommendation based on your needs.

However, in general, there are a few things you should consider when choosing design software for sheet metal fabrication.

Product performance analysis Cloud version Price Compatibility / API to connect to other software Available file formats
Alibre Expert Performance analysis tools are not native to the software, but there are available add-ons: None $2,000-$2600 USD Alibre Script Multiple including STEP
  1. Finite Element Analysis   (one-time purchase, price is dependent on license type)   SAT
  2. CAM Analysis   +$400-$500 USD/year   DWG
  3. Motion Simulation and Analysis   (updates and support)   DXF
          Supported File Formats
Fusion 360  Includes a simulation space with tools for: Available for storage and collaborative design. $495/year Yes Multiple including STEP
  1. Static Stress Users can work collaboratively between Inventor and Fusion 360 using the cloud functionality. ($125/ year for a Team Participant license) Fusion 360 API SAT
  2. Nonlinear Static Stress       DWG
  3. Event Simulation       DXF
  4. Modal Frequencies       Supported File Formats
  5. Structural Buckling        
  6. Thermal Stress        
  7. Shape Optimization        
Autodesk Inventor Performance analysis tools include: Available for storage and collaborative design. $1,985 /year Yes Multiple including
  1. Cyclic Symmetry Analysis Users can work collaboratively between Inventor and Fusion 360 using the cloud functionality.   iLogic and the Inventor API IPT
  2. Assembly Optimization/Bolted Connections       IAM
  3. Weldment Analysis       IDW
  4. Wind Load Analysis       DWG
  5. Fabrication Analysis       IPN
  6. Sheet Metal Analysis       IDE
  7. Motion Load Transfer Analysis       Supported File Formats
  8. Modal Analysis        
  9. Finite Element Analysis        
Catia 1. Nonlinear Structural Analysis Cloud-based storage and collaboration Pricing not listed. Quote from a company representative required. Yes Multiple including
  2. Thermal Analysis     CAA-RADE IGES
  3. Simiulia Rule Based Meshing       DXF
  4. Generative Part Structural Analysis       DWG
  5. Generative Assembly Structural Analysis       STEP
  6. Generative Dynamic Response Analysis       STL
  7. Catia-Elfini Structural Analysis       Supported File Formats
  8. FEM Surface        
  9. FEM Solid        
Creo Performance analysis tools include: Cloud-based storage Pricing not listed. Quote from a company representative required. Yes Multiple including STEP
  1. Finite Element Analysis     Creo API DWG
  2. Static Analysis       DXF
  Structural Analysis       Supported File Formats
IronCAD The Multiphysics Analysis Extension includes: None Pricing not listed. Quote from a company representative required. Yes Multiple including STEP
  1. Finite Element Analysis     IronCAD API IGES
  2. Stress Analysis       Parasolid
  3. Thermal Analysis       DXF
  4. Electrostatic Analysis       Import Formats
  5. Static/Steady State       Export Formats
  6. Dynamic/Transient Response        
  7. Modal/Vibrational Modes        
  8. Instability Buckling        
  Frequency Domain        
Solid Edge Solid Edge Simulation includes: Cloud-based storage and design sharing Pricing not listed. Yes Multiple including STEP
  1. Finite Element Analysis     Synchronous Technology API SAT
  Computational Fluid Dynamics       DWG
          Import Formats
          Export Formats
SOLIDWORKS SOLIDWORKS simulation is an add-on product that includes: Cloud-based storage and collaboration Pricing not listed. Quote from a company representative required. Yes Multiple including STEP
  1. Linear Static Simulation     SOLIDWORKS API SAT
  2. Cyclic Loading       DWG
  3. Finite Element Analysis       DXF
          SOLIDWORKS File Types
          SOLIDWORKS Supported File Formats
Section 2

Product design

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Designing a product can be reduced to two essential elements: form and function.

CAD is a tool both to visualize the final product and to test its performance and usability.

Complete and comprehensive product design drafting software includes tools to guide the user through the entire design process,reduce wasted resources, and minimize the need for physical prototypes.

When you’re looking for CAD software that is suitable for sheet metal product design and manufacturing, you’ll want a solution that let’s you account for:

  • The manufacturing process(es)
  • Physical materials
  • Structure and mechanics
  • Form and usability
  • Performance analysis and user safety

Product design is a broad process that starts with a concept to solve a problem and ends with a physical product that is ready to be manufactured.

Other types of design may require sketching, performance analysis, rendering, or prototyping.

Product design should be inclusive of these phases, and more, when developing a product to be ready for manufacturing.

Comprehensive CAD software should have the capacity to take your product from start to finish without relying on exporting or importing files into other programs.

Most of the software products reviewed above provide a very similar set of features when it comes to product design.

Order and track sheet metal components online through Komaspec's on-demand sheet metal fabrication platform.










Section 3

Designing for manufacturability capacity

Some CAD tools include the ability to confirm the manufacturability of your design so you can correct problems early in the design stage.

Design for Manufacturability (DFM) involves validating the ability to manufacture a part efficiently during the design stage when you’re still able to make changes.

It’s possible for the software to not only identify issues with tolerances but also factor in assembly, identify ways to minimize processing, and overall manufacture more efficiently.

Taking a DFM approach can lower your cost of manufacturing and provide better, clearer directions for the fabricator.

Most of the software products reviewed above provide a very similar set of features when it comes to designing for manufacturability.

Section 4

Product performance analysis

Performance analysis in CAD software gives the designer the ability to assess the safety and physical integrity of a product before it reaches the prototyping or manufacturing stages.

Using software, the designer can simulate different stresses on their product. These commonly include how the product will respond under static, kinetic, or thermodynamic stresses.

It helps to eliminate the need for expensive physical iterations of the product and can identify safety or feasibility concerns early in the design process.

Section 5

Cloud version

Cloud storage has changed the way that people interact with data at every stage of the design process.

Beyond storing your files safely and securely, reducing the need for redundancies in physical data storage, the cloud has made data sharing easier than ever before.

Certain CAD software with cloud capabilities allow for real-time collaboration with your design colleagues.

Using cloud-based design software can allow the designer to bring their work with them into the field to make changes and adjustments directly from the ground level.

Some cloud-based CAD software also reduces the computational load on the users’ CPU, offloading some of the computing functions to the cloud processors.

Section 6

Balancing features and cost

Clearly you want a software that can do what you need it to do, but many of the CAD options available are loaded with features – many of which you may never use.

While there may be a certain lure to all the bells and whistles of top of the line software, it comes with a price tag.

Focus on a solution that gives you the ability to design for sheet metal and only consider other features if they add benefits to other areas of your business.

Also keep in mind that most engineering and design software has high resource demands and usually can’t be run on a standard PC or laptop.

You may also require a higher powered machine to run the software effectively.

Section 7


If you’re using other engineering or design software for things like simulations or VR, you want to be sure that there is interoperability between all the solutions so you can use them all to their fullest ability.

You also want to consider that software will evolve and you’ll want a solution that will remain compatible as you move forward.

Finding a CAD software that is compatible with the other systems you’re running probably also means that there is a shorter learning curve for your team and may require less training.

This isn’t always the case, but an easy integration across software products usually makes it easier for staff.

Section 8

Drawing file formats

Not all drawing file formats are readable and useable by all systems. In fact, features can be lost in transitioning from one system to another.

So, it’s important to know the format requirements of others involved in the design and fabrication process – and choose a CAD software that can accommodate.

Creating design file standards with your fabricator is a good idea if you’re doing more than a one-off fabrication.

Common formats include: PDF, DWG, DXF,STEP, IGES, Parasolid, STL, VRML, X3D, COLLADA

Also keep in mind that sheet metal begins as 2D and is formed into a 3D shape. A lot of engineering design today is done in 3D which typically doesn’t provide the dimensions, tolerances, and other specifications needed for the sheet metal fabrication process.

So, modeling your design in 3D works but it must be convertible to a flat pattern for fabrication.

There is a move towards model based design (MBD) which gives you the flexibility to include the sheet metal fabrication requirements such as dimensions, assembly, tolerances, etc in a 3D model.

This eliminates the need to convert the files to a separate format for your fabricator.

SolidWorks is one of the CAD tools that offers this capability.

Section 9

Finding designers

With the amount ofengineering software on the market, it is unlikely that you will be able to find a designer that is well-versed in all of it.

However, most software ecosystems rely on the same fundamentals of 2D and 3D design.

While there is always a learning curve to any new software, a designer that is versed in one CAD suite should be able to adapt to a different one.

Every piece of CAD software has its own nuances and specialities, but the fundamentals are generally the same.

A skilled CAD designer will be able to effectively learn a different program in a reasonable amount of time.

Software like Solidworks, Fusion 360, and Autodesk Inventor are common so designers will be generally easy to find.

Some software is more niche like Alibre Expert or Catia which is more common with aerospace or automotive engineering.

Section 10

Standard for the Exchange of Product Data (STEP)

STEP isa CAD file format commonly used to share 3D models between different CAD systems.

It is an ISO standard that helps the industry overcome some of the issues with compatibility.

It includes many different phases of the CAD process, and the industries it effects.

Adhering to an international standard is crucial when collaborating with designers outside of your company or when working with your fabrication partner.

By maintaining a cohesive design standard, errors in interpretation and implementation can be avoided entirely

Our team of engineers and technicians here at Komaspec have more than 15-years’ experience in sheet metal fabrication in China and are glad to review your product design together, and provide detailed design for manufacturability feedback and analysis to help you improve functionality and reduce manufacturing and tooling costs.

We are glad to review your product design together and help you select the fabrication process that best suits your product’s needs.

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