CNC machines were once found only deep inside factories, but today they’re making their way to the benchtops of individual makers. The barriers to entry have lowered for anyone who wants to use computer numerical control (CNC) technology to produce accurate, high-quality objects — from artistic sculptures to engineering-level prototypes and end-use products.
Improved user interfaces, downloadable 3D content, open-source software, modifiable hardware, and an explosion of online video tutorials have made professional software widely available.
If you want to enter the field of CNC, your options for software are practically endless. So what’s the best software for you?
Let’s take a look at some of the best CNC software for commercial and recreational use.
What is CNC machining?
CNC machining lets you carve three-dimensional shapes from blocks of raw material. Like 3D printing, it is a digital fabrication method driven by 3D models created with CAD software tools.
The difference between 3D printers and a CNC router or lathe, for example, is that the process is subtractive rather than additive. CNC machines create strong, micron-precision parts, and operate with spindle-mounted cutter tools instead of an extruder. CNC machining also allows a wide range of materials including stainless steel, aluminum, titanium, nylon, and acrylic.
It is the perfect process for creating replicable works of art, control panels, prototypes, and custom items such as plaques, home decoration, kitchenware, and sporting goods.
In industrial settings, medical instruments, precision components, automotive parts, boat hardware, and injection molds are manufactured utilizing CNC. In future factories, cutting-edge, multi-axis, AI-enhanced CNC machining will be the manufacturing process of choice.
The CNC pipeline
To go from idea to finished product requires four phases:
- Creating a 3D model in computer-aided design (CAD) software.
- Converting the design into machine-readable G-code using computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software.
- Control software processes the G-code into signals for stepper motors to actuate the spindle and axes of the CNC mill.
- Simulation tools use the G-code to show a realistic preview of the milling operation from start to finish. This lets machinists assess surface finish, level of detail, and possible errors before starting the job.
Dedicated software tools are available to support each phase, while other solutions are hybrids that will walk you through several of the steps, or all-in-one packages that handle the entire conversion process from start to finish.
Here are our five selected suggestions:
1. Vectric Aspire
Aspire is a do-it-all software solution that is feature-packed with modeling tools specially geared to the CNC process. This will greatly speed up the creation process versus the use of a separate, more generic, 3D modeler.
Here are some highlights of Vectric Aspire:
- Advanced profiling such as two-rail sweeps, weavings, and dome or concave 3D shapes based on 2D vector art.
- Lettering effects such as prism and V-groove cutting, and shape blends for a smooth transition into the base surface.
- 3D texture generation from bitmaps.
- Converting JPG images into 3D shapes.
- Library of pre-made objects to import onto the workpiece.
- Sculpting tools.
- Rotary option for 4D multi-axis mills, allowing undercuts and advanced curved surfaces.
A model in Aspire is based on 2D vector drawings that are extruded, shaped, and sculpted into components. Like a jigsaw puzzle, these combine to form a composition of shapes that constitute the final workpiece.
Because shapes are stored separately in the Component Tree, they can be altered at any time. You can model a complete three-dimensional object, like a building or vehicle, to then pull it apart and flatten its individual components for turning it into a relief.
Thanks to its modeling engine, video tutorials, and active online community, Aspire is one of the most user-friendly CNC software programs on the market. And since CNC hardware operation alone has a hefty learning curve, the intuitive user interface is a welcome feature for the beginner machinist.
Next to the fully-fledged Aspire ($1,995), Vectric offers simpler tools such as VCarve ($349) and Cut3D ($299). When combined with 3D modeling suites such as Rhinoceros, ZBrush, or SolidWorks, you will still possess full capacity for digital manufacturing with CNC.
2. Autodesk Fusion 360
Fusion 360 is a cloud-based CAD environment that lets designers and engineers create tightly dimensioned parts ranging from primitive solid geometry all the way up to complex curved surfaces and generatively optimized load-bearing structures.
In addition to 3D modeling, Fusion offers a fully featured CNC workbench that includes a manual G-code editor, libraries for standardized tools and shapes, and an animated preview simulation. There even is specific mold-making functionality for ceramic casting, silicone RTV, or injection molding.
The program offers a myriad of settings which, despite the modern user interface, requires a bit of a learning curve. But that cuts both ways, since it allows the program to offer advanced milling features such as:
- Adaptive clearing ensures that toolpaths for roughing out the object in the first few passes are done most efficiently. It calculates a consistent tool engagement angle (TEA) for optimizing spindle speed and accuracy.
- Flat area detection means that carving passes are directly located at the z-depth of flat areas in the 3D model.
Fusion 360 has continuous updates and improvements. Features such as automatic tool change and rapid feeding have yet to be integrated. On the other hand, the Autodesk App Store contains useful add-ons such as creating mortise and tenon or dowel joints, and a Voronoi sketch generator for bio-inspired effects.
Fusion 360 also lacks a G-code sender. As an alternative to external control software, the universal G-code sender (UGS) plugin interfaces with controllers based on Grbl firmware.
Ever more popular among CNC enthusiasts, Fusion 360 is a reliable solution supported by a large online community. It comes with a fee of $495/year or as a free tool for students, hobbyists, and startups.
Together with ECam, Carbide3D, SolidWorks CAM Standard, and VCarve Pro, Easel is limited to 2.5D cutting. This means that the CNC machine will only be able to move the z-axis while the other two are still, whereas in 3D machining all three axes can move simultaneously. As a result, 2.5D creates stepped rather than smooth surfaces.
Nevertheless, Easel is an excellent, easy-to-use toolkit for those looking to make a start with CNC. For $155/year, Easel is a complete solution that includes tool and design libraries as well as V-carving. It interfaces directly with CNC machines, even though working with Marlin firmware demands some tinkering.
MeshCAM is a simple tool aimed at the CNC hobbyist who wants to get the job done quickly. After importing a model in STL format, you can select one of the presets for different quality levels, and toolpaths will be readily generated.
Two-dimensional vectors can be extruded into 3D, plus there is the possibility to directly convert JPG images into G-code. Other than that, you will need to rely on external CAD software.
MeshCAM’s advanced toolpath generation algorithms allow for complex parts made with 4-axis or 2-sided machining. Overall, the plug-and-play nature and easy-to-learn interface make MeshCAM stand out from other low-budget solutions.
5. Solid Edge CAM Pro
Stepping up to industrial-grade CAM software feels like driving a Formula 1 racer after driving the family sedan. Learning to pilot the complex workflows takes substantially more time and effort, partially due to scarce free learning resources. But once the engines start revving, projects will take off with tremendously amplified efficiency and quality.
Because CAM Pro is linked to a parametrically defined CAD model, it maintains associativity with design intent. This means that design changes will automatically update the model and its corresponding manufacturing data. This saves you from having to redo the entire CAD-to-CAM cycle.
CAM Pro’s benefits are:
- Feature-based machining.
- The ability to handle large assemblies.
- Adaptive roughing for efficient toolpaths.
- Library of design features such as mounting holes.
- Animated toolpath simulation for confidence before machining.
- Online database with over 1,200 post-processors for different machine makes and models.
- Manual G-code editor.
- Additional modules for wire EDM, 3+2 machining, mill-turn, etc.
Among its direct competitors are Alphacam, Mastercam, and CAMWorks, but CAM Pro stands out with its affordable pricing, features cut down to the essentials, and less steep learning curve.
It also comes as a stand-alone application that can be used in conjunction with any other CAD software. For example, Solid Edge falls short for complex automotive surface modeling and the designer will need to transition to its bigger brother, NX, which has a free version for students. CAM Pro 2.5 Axis is entirely free for startups.
Choosing the right CNC software for you
CNC software comes in all shapes and sizes — picking one is no quick decision. The choice depends on your hardware and firmware, willingness to invest time and expenses, as well as the level at which you will be working.
Are you a hobbyist wishing to realize a few models downloaded from Thingiverse, a designer or mechanical engineer looking to gain skills in 3D design and prototyping, or a machinist needing all possible industrial power and efficiency? Will you need dedicated solutions for CAD, CAM, control, and simulation, or an all-in-one package?
Usually it is wisest to take the plunge into a professional-level environment right off the bat, even if only because these are most commonly used in schools and businesses. High-level programs also offer the widest range of features and a straightforward workflow once some mastery has been obtained.
There are $10k+ packages with tiered pricings such as Mastercam, WorkNC, and GibbsCAM, and they are a cut above the rest. But the five options we’ve listed here are more approachable if you don’t have the finances to spring for the expensive options. The lower-budget software we suggested here will do the trick for most uses while offering exceptional design capabilities.
It’s time to break new ground — so fire up that CNC milling machine and start experimenting.
I believe in creativity and try to express the same with my words. I enjoy writing and keeping myself in touch with the books.