Free vs Paid software for your CNC – Is paid software worth it?

Hi everyone, Andy from Sienci Labs here. Today we’ll be covering the topic of free vs paid software for your CNC, or more specifically, CAM programs for your CNC.

Here is a list of free CAM programs we may refer to:

  • Easel
  • Carbide Create
  • CAMLab
  • Fusion 360

Here is a list of paid CAM programs we may refer to:

  • Vectric products
  • Carveco products

For more info about different software options, please visit our software resources section here: https://sienci.com/dmx-longmill/cam/

Please note that if you buy software from our website, we get money from each sale. Even though this is the case, I will try to provide the most thorough consideration for paid and free software. I will also provide my personal recommendations for each topic as well.

Let’s start with the most important question, “is paid software worth it?”. Of course with most questions, the answer is “it depends.” However I believe that with most beginners and folks that are starting out, which make up the majority of our customers, the answer is no.

Starting out with free software provides a good option to get familiar with your CNC for making basic projects and understanding the features you may be looking for in the future if you choose to upgrade to a paid program.

That being said, for certain customers, especially folks that are using their machine as a business tool, paid software may be a better option for you.

Designing/CAD in CAM programs

Most CAM programs offer some form of tool to allow users to import design files, manipulate them, or even create your own.

Free:

Most free CAM programs do not have particularly advanced or full-featured CAD or design tools that allow you to design and manipulate your design in the software before you begin to generate toolpaths.

Carbide Create for example, allows you to make basic designs that are perfectly suitable for creating simple signs and 2D designs. However, making parts with many curves or require precise spacing between each other may become very tedious to create in this type of software as you only have the option to create simple lines and shapes and drag and snap the design onto a grid.

An example of designing in Carbide Create

To design more complicated designs, I would recommend using a different design software to first design your projects, and import them into your CAM program.

For our list of free and paid design software, please visit: https://sienci.com/dmx-longmill/design/

Here are some of the design software I recommend checking out:

  • Inkscape (free)
  • AutoCAD (paid)
  • Onshape (paid, but free for hobbyists and educational purposes)
  • Fusion 360 (paid, but free for hobbyists and educational purposes)

Fusion 360 from Autodesk is an exception to the rule that free software only has basic design functionality. Fusion 360 provides high-level CAD and CAM that is regularly used in industrial manufacturing. However, for beginners, it may be intimidating to use, and recent changes to licensing for personal use may affect whether it is free for you.

Paid:

Paid CAM programs generally come with more advanced design tools that allow you to design more complicated projects. This can include 2D and 3D design tools, clip art, and support for more importing more advanced 2D and 3D design files. This means that editing your designs and models is easier and more flexible with paid software.

Example of Vectric VCarve Desktop

This feature is particularly convenient if you need to adjust your design to fine tune your final product and you don’t want to flip through two different software to make adjustments.

Personal recommendation:

Find that using separate design software, Onshape in my case, to create designs and exporting them into my CAM software is the method I prefer. This is because I am better versed in Onshape compared to the design tools available in either free or paid CAM software, which makes it faster and easier to manipulate my designs if I need to.

I have found that in some cases, it can be convenient to have some editing options for 2D files and DXFs built into the software in case there are issues in the design but I have found the tools built into Carbide Create adequate.

Most CAM programs support either DXFs or STLs which virtually all design CAD software can export, so I don’t feel like paid software offers much of a lead as an advantage in this case. On the other hand, if you have no experience with both CAD or CAM, it may be a worthwhile investment to become familiar with the design tools that a paid software provides.

Ease of use

Free:

Since most free software are more basic than their paid counterparts, they are also simpler to use. If you’re a beginner user, using simple software can be a good place to learn the basics of CAM software. Easel, while limited in features, is generally recommended as a good place to start learning as it is the most user-friendly option for CAM.

Where things start to change is for more advanced users. Certain features may be harder to execute with simple software, such arraying your design, using advanced toolpaths such as ramping and lead-ins, and creating workholding tabs.

Paid:

Paid software on the other hand tends to allow the use of advanced features which comes with its own level of complexity.

blank
Some of the features available on Carveco Maker software

With so many settings and options, it can be intimidating to use. In some cases, there can be dozens of settings for a single toolpath. Although this allows very granular control for your gcode, messing up on one setting means that you have to root through a lot of different things to find the culprit.

That being said, the default options and selection of pre-set tools tends to be quite good, and most users should be able to rely on those settings to get their cuts going. The layout and workflow also tend to be well thought out and intuitive, making it fairly straightforward to learn.

Personal recommendation:

I believe that if you’re just starting out for the first time, I would recommend testing out some of the free software to start. Free software uses the same basic concepts as paid software to generate gcode. Once you feel comfortable with choosing settings on the software of your choice, I would recommend playing around with a trial version of paid software to see if you find value in having the extra control over your toolpaths and having the extra features is worth it.

Although I don’t have a strong perspective of a beginner using paid software, I have had a lot of LongMill users speak highly of Vectric VCarve Desktop ($460CAD/$350USD on our store) on how easy it is to use. Although there are a lot of features and settings, I have been told that with the combination of the layout and resources available, the software is easier to use than the free software they had come from.

From personal use with VCarve Desktop, I’ve found that picking up the software was fairly easy to do if you have general knowledge on using other CAM softwares.

I would recommend trying both free and paid software and comparing to see which is more intuitive. Even though paid software may be intimidating with all the extra features, I have found that the software is designed to make setting everything up fairly straightforward by following the workflow.

Toolpathing algorithms and simulations

When you create your toolpath in the CAM software, the program must determine what the most efficient way to move the machine is to reduce the run-time as well as provide the best cut. The more sophisticated the algorithm, the more efficient the toolpaths will be. Most CAM programs offer some sort of toolpath visualization or simulation as well so you can see what your machine will do before you start the job in real life.

Free:

A common complaint about free software is that the toolpathing can be a little baffling. For example, having the machine cut the letters out on a sign in a seemingly random order rather than go left to right for example.

blank
Example of CAMotics showing a simulation of Carbide Create

You can see in this photo that the first rapid movement (shown with the red line) goes from the bottom left to the upper right section of the workpiece, rather than the closest feature to the starting point. This is just an example of the software choosing a less efficient path to complete the job.

With all of the unnecessary movements, the cut time can increase dramatically, from my personal experience, anywhere from 10 to 30%.

For most hobbyists, this may not really be an issue for several reasons. It may not matter to you very much that it takes a few extra minutes to complete a job, as you can just wait around for the project to complete. It may also be more convenient to just let the machine do its thing than spending extra time to find a way to make the toolpath more efficient.

Free software generally only come with a fairly primitive form of simulation, which may either just use lines to show you where the cuts will occur or a model of the final cut in relation to the material.

I find that for simple projects, this simulation or preview is adequate, but if I want to do some more advanced simulations, CAMotics offers a very good free option for gcode simulation. I regularly use CAMotics to troubleshoot bad gcode and even with code from paid software.

Paid:

Toolpathing on paid software is generally more efficient and better though out, and in most cases, have the option to edit and adjust the order of each cut operation. This is particularly useful if you are creating toolpaths to work in a production setting, where shaving minutes off the total cut time means extra profit, or you have a complicated or long-running job that can benefit from the extra effort of setting up the toolpaths.

In most cases as well, the software takes into consideration the type of motion that results in the best quality cuts and increases the lifespan of your end mill as well. For example, depending on the type of cut, the software may automatically determine if you need to use a climb or conventional cut.

Simulation for paid software generally tends to be a bit more accurate and informative, however, I tend to still rely more heavily on CAMotics for simulations if I need more detail.

If you’re running a business where time is money using a paid software can save cutting time, allowing you to complete more projects per day.

Personal recommendation:

A lot of times when I’m working on a project, having a few extra minutes of cutting time isn’t really a big deal, and so free programs are more than adequate. In cases such as when we had to cut the dust shoe bases out of plywood in house, having more efficient gcode made a significant difference in the turnaround time for the parts.

If you are making a lot of the same part over and over again, or want to speed up production, getting paid software is a great option. However, if you’re making a small handful of parts in a non-time-sensitive environment, then it should not make much difference.

Customer support and resources

Software costs money to make, and where that comes from plays a huge role on what sort of motivation companies have to provide additional customer support and resources as well as the method of delivery.

Free:

Software such as Easel, Carbide Create, and CAMLab are primarily funded in part by the sales of the machines and other hardware from each respective company. The companies who created this software has graciously allowed users of competitor machines to use and access their software for free. Because of this, direct one-on-one support from the company may be hard to find or non-existent as the financial motivation to provide support may be smaller than for paid software. In essence, these companies don’t have the financial motivation to provide software support to folks that haven’t paid for their hardware products because they are not providing money to help with the development and upkeep of the software.

On the other hand, community support for free software can provide a lot of help if you’re having trouble with the software, and for more popular programs, additional resources, videos, and tutorials made by independent creators. For example, Fusion 360 is a hugely popular but also very advanced CAD/CAM program that is widely used by hobbyists. You can find both free and paid courses online that cover all topics for Fusion 360 on platforms such as Udemy and Youtube created by independent creators not affiliated by Autodesk (the company that created Fusion 360).

blank
https://www.udemy.com/course/fusion-360-cad-cam-for-cnc-routers/

Paid:

Paid software generally offers a broader range of support options, including direct one-on-one technical support direct from the company, active community forums and groups, as we as a range of tutorials and resources. Paid software companies will also provide tutorials, project examples, and other additions on a regular basis to keep their users engaged.

You should expect to find web resources and tutorials for every feature of your paid software available directly from the software company rather than scattered amongst multiple platforms.

Paid software often also comes with high quality clip art and relief designs that you can use for designing your projects as well.

blank
Free 3D relief library that comes with Carveco Maker

Personal recommendation:

If you’re someone who likes to tinker and “throw the instruction book out”, then the lack of resources or the lack of structure for free software may not bother you. If you prefer to have all of the resources in one place to allow you to cover all of the important topics for your software, as well as if you want to follow along purpose built guides and tutorials, paid software may be better.

You may also find that having access to free monthly projects like the ones Vectric creates might also be a great selling point if you need inspiration for new projects to try especially if you want to add new products to sell to your repertoire.

blank
Vectric’s project collection

Alternatively, you can also check out this list of sites where you can find free projects and files to use on our More Projects section of our resources.

Conclusion

I hope this article highlights some of the pros and cons between free and paid software and helps you decide whether buying software is worth it for you.

As a wrap up, here are the reasons why I think you should stick with free software:

  • You’re just starting out and learning the basics.
  • You would rather set up jobs quickly and spend less time on the computer, even though it may mean waiting for the machine longer to cut.
  • The type of projects you want to do are fairly simple.
  • You are proficient at CAD or other design software and can import your design files directly into your CAM program.

Here are reasons you should consider paid software:

  • You’re cutting a lot of parts over and over again and want to increase your throughput.
  • You value having more thorough resources and documentation for your software, as well as having access to project samples, reliefs, regular tutorials, and other curated content from your software provider.
  • You want to take advantage of advanced toolpaths such as ramping, texturing, and more.
  • You want software that is future and feature proof to your growth and learning.

I hope that gives a good comparison on some of the key differences between free and paid software. If you have further questions, feel free to reach out at hi@sienci.com or consort our Facebook Group and Community Forum!