AutoCAD or Inventor, which software is a better choice in 2020? Is there a clear winner between the two?

Read this ultimate AutoCAD vs. Inventor comparison to get all the answers.

If you’re looking for an honest comparison between AutoCAD vs. Inventor, you came to the right post. I’m going to use several criteria to differentiate between these two programs. Before we continue, let me ask you a question. Why are you interested in comparing AutoCAD vs. Inventor?

Are you a CAD/CAM professional trying to decide on which of these two programs to specialize? Are you an employee assigned the task of figuring out which CAD/CAM program is right for your purposes? Are you an inventor or creator who’s itching to get your ideas into the world?

No matter what your situation is, this article will help answer your question; “What is the difference between AutoCAD and Inventor. Now, let me make this clear, this article won’t tell you which of the two programs is better in a head-to-head style, but rather it will clarify the definite differences between the two programs.

Either way, you look at it, by the time you read this article, you’ll see the distinction between AutoCAD and Inventor

The Short Verdict

If I had to say that one of these programs is better than the other, I would use the criteria or the question, “Which of these two programs is better for modeling and then producing a real invention, the machine, or product?” If this is the question we are asking, then the answer is Inventor.

AutoCAD is quite different from Inventor in that it is a general drafting program for 3D and 2D conceptual drawings. If you need a versatile drafting and modeling program that can do the job, maybe AutoCAD is fine for your purposes. However, if you are serious about making a product or a machine from scratch, Inventor leaves AutoCAD in the dust for many reasons.

AutoDesk

Let’s take a brief moment to talk about AutoDesk. Both AutoCAD and Inventor are developed by the California-based company, so you can expect a lot of compatibility between AutoCAD and Inventor. Well, the compatibility only flows one way, I’ll talk more about that later on. AutoDesk is the world leader in CAD/CAM software development.

Most of their software deals with conceptual plans in 3D space. Each program is specialized for different fields or industries. For example, Maya is used to produce 3D animation, while Inventor is used to create 3D plans and specs for manufacture.

Head-To-Head / Comparison At a Glance

(Note: Each category is based on the following: “Which is better for developing a machine or product for testing and manufacture?”)

CriterionAutoCADInventorNotes
PriceWinnerN/AAutoCAD is all-around less expensive than Inventor
UIN/AWinnerAs far as simplicity is concerned, AutoCAD is simpler. However, Inventor has many tools to help the 3D modeling process smoother and more intuitive.
CompatibilityN/AN/A2D models can be imported to Inventor. Also, 3D models can be exported from Inventor to AutoCAD.
Customer ServiceTieTieAutodesk provides the same customer service for both apps.
TrainingTieTieThere’s a few different routes you can take when it comes to training (see below).
3D ModelingN/AWinnerInventor is specialized and has shortcuts and tools that make modeling easier than AutoCAD.
2D DraftingWinnerN/AInventor can produce 2D drawings from scratch, but it is just impractical to draft, for example, a house in Inventor.
3D PrintingN/AWinnerBoth can produce STL files, but Inventor is better at modeling, so this one is, perhaps, debatable.
CAM CompatibilityN/AWinnerInventor is far more specialized at producing simulations of how CAM machines will shape parts.
AssembliesN/AWinnerYou can apply constraint rules and relationships to parts so that the 3D model can quickly click parts together. You can even see how an engine can run with all the parts moving according to design.

In-Depth considerations

1. Price

Winner: AutoCAD

AutoCAD’s 1-year subscription costs $1690

Inventor’s 1-year subscription costs $2085

AutoDesk software used to be available by purchasing a license. If you wanted to upgrade your software, you had to pay the “maintenance fee,” which allowed you to upgrade from that year’s next version. The maintenance fee also got you customer service and all that good stuff.

Nowadays, AutoDesk products are purchased via subscriptions. As long as you pay your subscription either monthly, annually, or every three years, you have access to the latest version of that software with customer service. You’re fulfilling all your legal requirements and can use the software to produce products, do business, provide services, etc.

2. UI

Winner: Inventor

The “command line” inputs drive AutoCAD’s UI. Every command in AutoCAD can be executed and modified if you know the right keyboard shortcuts. I’ve used AutoCAD for 10+ years, and I couldn’t imagine life without the command line. Inventor uses a contextual menu instead of the command line.

Depending on what you select, when you right-click on the mouse, it will bring up a list of common commands for that object. There are a LOT (and I do mean A LOT!) of controls and functions and menus in both programs, so there’s just no way to get to work on these programs without extensive training or self-guided tutorials.

Inventor UI

3. Compatibility between AutoCAD and Inventor

Winner: N/A

AutoCAD DWGs can be imported into Inventor, but only as 2D drawings on a plane. 3D AutoCAD files aren’t compatible with Inventor. Inventor can export a 3D model into a 2D DWG file, but that’s about as much compatibility as you’re going to get between these two.

4. Customer Service

Winner: Tie

Since AutoCAD and Inventor are both developed by AutoDesk, you can expect the same kind of customer service for each of the programs.

5. Training

Winner: Tie

Training for these programs is available through AutoDesk, but there’s also a wealth of available information. Youtube instructional videos are ubiquitous, but I find they don’t instruct you as well as a Udemy course or a Lynda course. If you attend a class with a live instructor, you will probably learn more than you would via an online course or instructional videos.

Udemy

6. 3D Modeling

Winner: Inventor

AutoCAD has an extensive set of tools for modeling 3D shapes, but Inventor outclasses AutoCAD in many ways. Inventor can simulate materials, while AutoCAD is just “dead geometry.” Let me phrase it another way; AutoCAD has no idea what you are telling it to make; it only recognizes lines and points in 3D or 2D space.

A house is just lines and geometry as far as AutoCAD is concerned, and a screw with threads is just lines and geometry. Inventor can be programmed to calculate the physics and stress capacities of various materials. The most advanced CAD applications are blurring the lines between the virtual and the physical.

The reason I say Inventor is a clear winner in this category isn’t just because of the ability of Inventor to simulate the real product, Inventor also has intuitive controls that have been adapted to manufacturers to aid in the entire process from concept to construction. I go into this in more detail under the “Differences” section below.

7. 2D Drafting

Winner: AutoCAD

This section requires a little explanation. Inventor can easily and quickly produce 2D graphics of the parts and assemblies that you design. However, Inventor is simply not intended to be a 2D drafting application the way AutoCAD is. You can technically draw a 2D house using Inventor, but it isn’t what the software is designed to do.

If you are looking primarily for a 2D drafting application, then why spend the extra money on an app like Inventor that is far more than just a 2D drafting software. Also, in many ways, you will find Inventor to be impractical as a 2D drafting application.

Inventor 2D Drafting

8. 3D Printer Compatibility

Winner: Inventor

The only thing a 3D printer needs is a well-modeled STL file. AutoCAD and Inventor can both produce these deliverables. The reason I call Inventor the winner of this category is because of Inventor’s superior 3D modeling UI. You can get the same thing done easier with Inventor than you can with AutoCAD. As a result, your 3D printing efforts will be better.

9. CAM Compatibility

Winner: Inventor

While there are plenty of CAM machines that only cut 2D shapes, and AutoCAD is entirely sufficient for these types of programs, there are more and more machines being developed for 3D shapes. Inventor’s flexibility in 3D design is, again, the factor that makes it better for CAM machines.

10. Assemblies

Winner: Inventor

An assembly is when you take all the little parts you’ve just modeled and put them together in a single 3D environment. AutoCAD can be used to make an assembly, but it is quickly left in the dust by all the fantastic things that Inventor can do. To me, this is where Inventor really separates itself from AutoCAD.

Constraints are the building blocks of an amazing assembly in Inventor. For example, you can model all the parts of a lego man and then set constraints and relationships of those parts. You can make the head constrained to rotate on the neck of the lego man, and you can constrain the arms to rotate at the shoulder, and you can constrain the hands to rotate at the wrists and so on.

Setting these constraints is just a matter of clicking and dragging and can be done quickly and easily. To perform the same function in AutoCAD would require a lot of programming…sooo…yeah…just don’t bother trying.

With Inventor’s constraints and relationship tools, you’ve suddenly got a lego model that can move his legs, arms, and head to show a client what their toy can do.

Inventor can do the same thing with advanced machines like engines or cars. You can set the constraints and relationships of every part of a vehicle until you’ve got a 3D engine simulation that runs.

SolidWorks Assemblies

Similarities

Similar UI’s

Despite everything I said earlier about AutoCAD and Inventor’s UIs being different, there are many similar aspects of the UIs. AutoCAD users will recognize many of the same symbols, commands, tooltips, menus, etc. Of course, the differences will be apparent as well.

Similar Customer Service

As I said before, both programs are AutoDesk applications, so that you can expect the same level of customer service for both. Keep in mind that Autodesk sells its products through authorized resellers. These resellers may be the ones who help you install and maintain your software, so you will need to do your homework regarding which reseller you ultimately choose.

Similar Purchasing methods

AutoDesk has made it simple and straightforward to purchase the latest and greatest version of AutoCAD or Inventor. You just need to pay that…rather large…annual fee.

Similar upgrade costs

Since AutoDesk has now made the cost to own the software the same fee as the price to upgrade the software, you don’t need to worry about upgrading.

Differences

AutoCAD is more of a first-generation drafting technology that has evolved over the last few decades. Inventor is like one of AutoCAD’s children in the AutoDesk family. Over the years, as different industries were utilizing AutoCAD or other CAD programs, they started to request specific features. Autodesk began to understand the needs of these various professionals, so they developed spin-off applications.

Inventor is the next-generation 3D modeling application for manufacturers. Look around the room where you are right now. Go ahead and look, don’t be lame, I’m serious. Look around at every device, product, commodity and piece of furniture. There’s a good chance that most things you’re looking at were designed using a CAD application.

I would bet money that at least three things in your house were designed using Inventor.

Different UI’s

The “command line” input primarily drives AutoCAD’s UI. You can activate every command in AutoCAD with a few letters typed into the keyboard followed by the spacebar. While your right hand is controlling the mouse, your left hand is continuously typing in commands and hitting “spacebar.”

You may not think it a big deal to spend a few extra seconds to move your cursor over to the toolbar and click on a button. Still, when you consider how many hundreds of times you have to activate a particular function, you’ll start to understand that those seconds add up to minutes and hours. In business, time is money, so use your command line!

Inventor doesn’t have a command line, but it does have a contextual menu that is accessed using the right-click. Whatever part, shape, or geometry you are modeling, the developers of Inventor have figured out that you’re probably going to do one of a few standard things with that geometry.

If you draw a circle on a 2D plane, chances are good that you need to extrude that circle into a 3D model. So the contextual menu includes “extrude.” If you are working in an assembly and fitting parts together, the chances are that you need to set typical constraints, so the contextual menu will typically bring those commands up for you to make workflow more comfortable and quicker.

Inventor is Specialized for Parts modeling for CAM machines.

I’ve already addressed this topic above, so I would like to clarify that there are other 3D modeling applications from Autodesk, but they are typically used for other things. Civil 3D is specialized for civil and structural engineers dealing with earthworks and structural integrity etc. Maya is designed for 3D animations for the film industry.

Inventor has hundreds of functions that are specialized for the manufacturing industry.

Inventor can run simulations such as stress testing, airflow, even carbon emissions.

AutoCAD is dead geometry, as I said earlier. It doesn’t know what it is drawing. Inventor and other next-gen CAD applications are blurring the lines between the virtual and the physical. You can tell Inventor to calculate the heat stress on the engine you just modeled by assigning different material types to your parts.

You can design a jet engine and simulate airflow through the engine in order to estimate performance. I have no idea just how deep this rabbit hole goes. I find that most people don’t bother to use all the functionality of the CAD programs they

Additional Thoughts

It has been a fantastic experience to analyze various CAD apps, such as these two. I continue to marvel at how the CAD industry is evolving and developing. I am also astounded at the indispensable role that CAD is going to play in the future.

The kind of technology we are used to seeing in Sci-Fi films is only possible when there’s a seamless connection between the real world and the virtual or information world. We are used to seeing technology such as machines performing surgeries and holographic representations of what is going on inside someone’s body as the operation is executed.

We are also used to seeing robots building machines, and that is only possible when they have a perfect simulated design to follow.

Summary

The differences between AutoCAD and Inventor are distinct. AutoCAD can keep up with Inventor, to a certain extent. However, it drastically falls short in the areas of materials and stress simulations. The industry is driving forward quickly, and AutoCAD just doesn’t have many of the features that are considered necessary these days for a functional CAD/CAM app.

Professionals expect their app to simulate stresses, suggest ways to reduce material and weight, plan how a CAM machine would cut or shape the parts, and even simulate an engine’s environmental impact. Inventor will remain one of the world’s leading product development apps for many years to come, and AutoCAD will stay a favorite CAD app for old-school drafting technicians for many years to come.

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