The open source community has produced a number of serviceable tools for two-dimensional design. These include GIMP for bitmap graphics and photo editing, Inkscape for vector art, and Scribus for page layout. On the 3D side, Blender, Wings 3D, Art of Illusion, and a few others have served the needs of those doing surface and subdivision modeling. And while lots of good work has been done using those tools, I haven’t found surface and subdivision modelers very useful for industrial design work, except for occasional rapid ideation or visualization. FreeCAD is different in that it’s a parametric modeling tool, which has a history of effective use in ID.
When FreeCAD first started gaining some traction years ago, I was intrigued. In my exploratory evaluations, I came away thinking it was a usable if not somewhat idiosyncratic solution for designing individual parts. But it had poor support for assemblies, so I didn’t let myself get too excited about it because of this.
However, two third-party add-on workbenches, Assembly2 and A2plus, were recently developed to address this shortcoming. So, not too long ago I decided to try modeling some parts for a fairly simple client project as a test case to see if FreeCAD had matured to a point where it can be used a real-life ID design tool.
What I am experiencing now echoes my initial findings, that FreeCAD is quite serviceable for design implementation. But I am also finding that for design ideation and exploration it is somewhat cumbersome. This owes partly to the nature of parametric design but also to (a) what the developers of FreeCAD have chosen to be parameters (a problem-modeling issue) and (b) how constraints on those parameters are specified and exposed (a UX issue). Neither of these present too much of a problem for design implementation — which is in fact the expected use case for the software.
One of the biggest tips I can offer for using FreeCAD in an ID workflow is that you become familiar with its use of spreadsheets and specify as many of your values in a spreadsheet as possible. Initially the overhead of creating spreadsheet entries seems to just add to the cumbersomeness, but in the end it makes changing values of parameters much easier — leading to a much easier process of exploring what-if scenarios. It could also simplify communicating specifications to manufacturing when it comes time for that.
Another tip is that before you even get to spreadsheets, don’t be in too much of a hurry. As is the case with a lot of 3D design tools, you need to approach FreeCAD based on how it models things, not the way you want it to. Forget about how you think it should work and how you want to design and instead open yourself up to learning how it wants to think and make you design. Learn to understand it as a tool and when using it is appropriate. There’s lots to learn. The two best places to start are the Part Design and Part workbenches.
On the test project, I have gotten as far as modeling two of three chassis components. If I decide to follow through with using FreeCAD to model the third part and create an assembly of all three I’ll report back.