Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Free Software Tools for Mechanical Engineers

The world is changing.

The garage tinkerer-become-entrepreneur of yesteryear is now a .COM entrepreneur. The men who once spurred economic domination of the western world are now writing lines of code. No longer do you need a factory to build wealth - and so our economy which was once based on manufacturing is now on the decline.

Those who once had a variety of carpentry tools, metal workshops in their basement are now turning to 3D CAD, CAM, rapid prototyping and the internet.

You are now sitting in front of the tinkerer's new workshop. You just didn't know it.

So I'm transitioning in my career, and what will I be doing to fill the time between different cubicles? You'd probably guess I'd be crossing off those bucket list items -- trekking in the Himalayas, ski bum at Tahoe, putting in two killer workouts daily in hopes of pulling off a 10 hour Ironman??

No - I've decided to sharpen my Engineering skills! (and perhaps invent a thing or two-- but that's all I'm telling you). I have certainly been neglecting plenty of things over the past 8 years at my current job as a medical device engineer, but mechanical engineering is a big field, and I have been inspired to become more competitive. Since I expect to have some free time during my job search, I'm going to be honing my skills, digging in books, reviewing old texts, and best of all, trying new things.

One problem. Generally doing many types of engineering from home mandates those expensive software programs available to you by default by working at Corporation XYZ. After all, I'm not going to WRITE software to assist the design of my gift to the world, right?

Fortunately, I'm a problem solver and the best tool any engineer can have is resourcefulness. After scanning the web, I've learned that there is plenty of free alternatives to the tools I've been using.

Here is a list of what I've found so far. I very much hope to make this an easy access point for other engineers, designers, and creators to find tools to solve their dilemmas.

This post will be under construction for quite some time, I imagine.

The heart of Mechanical design, but we're long past the days of AutoCad 14 and MS Paint. Solidworks is quickly becoming the market leader, followed by the likes of Pro/E and Autodesk's Inventor.

FreeCad - The best completely free 3D Parametric CAD software on the net.

Alibre - Low cost, professional grade. The first release of this software was heralded as "XCAD", and free liscenses were given out to the public. Nowadays, a 3D CAD package very competitive to Solidworks and Inventor is now available to you for $99.

AutoDesk Alias

Numerical Analysis & Modeling.
Matlab is the hands down king of numerical modeling in industry, but again, not cheap.

As always,
Wikipedia is frequently a good place to start.

SciLab is free, has many of the same features.

GNU Octave - numerical analysis program with syntax very similar to Matlab. I've noticed that Wikipedia entries on mathematic topics are beginning to crop up with Octave code included. Exciting!


Image J Developed by the NIH, this is great for analyzing Xray photos, but It's also useful for doing just about any analysis of greyscale. Simple and intuitive.

Gimp Photoshops's free cousin. Tons of power and easy to learn as tutorials are showing up EVERYWHERE online.

Blender - 3D graphics modeling and rendering. I haven't used software like this yet, but it appears to be very powerful.

Office Software

A free version of computing tools very similar to Microsoft Office.

Gliffy does what Visio does, but for free, and it doesn't take up any space on your computer.

Way more tools, with much wider scope than engineering.

Another good place to poke around.

What free tools have you found? I'll add anything you as a Mechanical engineer or Product designer/Developer see as useful to what you do.

(as a sidenote, my home computer is an Apple. Many programs of the programs I list will be compatible with multiple OSs)