4 CAD Software Programs Ideal for 3 Axis CNC Machine Operators

CAD is short for Computer-Aided Design. The relationship between this software and hardware manufacturing is symbiotic. Understanding how to use various programs is absolutely necessary to create designs that will be modeled by your CNC. Flush measurements ultimately depend on the designer, as CAD results are simply output to your input. This software will help bring your idea to life.

For those of you that do not know, CNC machines are computer numerical control apparatuses. They are precision tools used to create objects to an exact measurement. Many variations exist from the standard router bit, which can be used for milling slots and contouring sharp edges. More advanced versions are equipped with lasers or water jets to cut material such as metal and stone. 

Adobe Illustrator

Illustrator developed by Adobe is a software used to create vectors. Most people are familiar with its use in graphic design for making fonts, logos, and cartoons. While Photoshop is used for altering designs, Illustrator is better for physical creation because it’s based on vectors rather pixels. Although it’s effective to start designs, fabrications can not be completed and exported to the CNC machine from Illustrator. Machine operators I work with use Illustrator in conjunction with Rhino3D.

Fusion 360

For professional-grade software, Fusion 360 is top-of-the-line. Developed by Autodesk, it’s the first 3D CAD, CAM (computer-aided manufacturing), CAE (computer-aided engineering), integrated cloud-based software. So the whole product development procedure is connected in one platform. In some of the other programs mentioned, creators must begin mock-up designs in one software and complete in another. Switching between programs can be dilatory to the creative and production process. Yet this option allows seamless completion.

Form Z

Developed by AutoDesSys, Form Z is for all design fields that deal with the articulation of 3D spaces and forms. Applicable to 3D modeling, drafting, animation, and rendering. It’s also a great option for anybody looking to create on one application from start to finish. Both versatile and powerful, it is available on both Microsoft Windows and MacOS. This program is great for fast and flexible conceptual modeling. It is used by architects to design modern homes. Tools include offset to clearly define lines across shapes and reshape to increase volume which alters geometry and changes designs completely.


Rhinoceros 3D is a private enterprise software developed by Robert McNeel & Associates. Systems which it operates on are Microsoft Windows and MacOS. With this program, users are able to accurately design models for manufacturing, rendering, engineering, and animation. It’s a great professional tool for surface modeling and can create precise objects. Software exports are fully compatible with CNC machines. Rhino works for freelance product designers and design studios. This is one of the most affordable programs for students and teachers.  However, the aforementioned software is not good for blueprint generating.


Elaborate 4 and 5 axis machines come with additional intricacies. My experience is with art pieces yet CNCs can also create everyday objects like furniture. Aerospace companies use CNC machines to design mechanical components for rockets and other spacecraft. More advanced machines require mastery skill level to be properly and utilized. Depending on your experience and preference, different software will be fit. Conceptualize in sequence or simultaneously with this software. 

This article is not an endorsement of these programs. Only a brief review given by CNC operators and apprentices I have worked with on design projects.

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