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3 min read

How to view 3D CAD files online for free [Best free viewers in 2024]

Introduction

As an engineer, hobbyist, or someone involved in technical publications, you're likely familiar with the challenge of viewing and sharing 3D Computer-Aided Design (CAD) files, especially when the goal is to do so without spending money. Traditional software can be expensive and complicated to use, but with the rise of free online CAD viewers, there isn’t anything stopping you. This post outlines a few things to consider when choosing a CAD viewer.


What is a 3D CAD viewer, and why does it matter?

A 3D CAD Viewer is an essential tool for users to visualize and interact with three-dimensional models created in Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software. 3D CAD viewers sidestep the traditional barriers of specialized CAD software, which can be cost-prohibitive and require extensive training. By making 3D models easily accessible and navigable within a web browser or through lightweight desktop applications, 3D CAD viewers democratize access to complex design visualizations.

The significance of such viewers cannot be overstated in engineering, manufacturing, construction, and even education. They are a pivotal link in the design review and technical communication processes, enabling stakeholders who may not have technical expertise in CAD software to review designs, provide feedback, and make informed decisions. This collaborative approach fosters innovation, accelerates project timelines, and mitigates the risk of costly mistakes.

Furthermore, as industries increasingly lean towards digital transformation, seamlessly sharing and visualizing 3D models online becomes crucial. It underpins the move towards more agile, decentralized, and flexible work environments. In essence, a robust 3D CAD viewer is not just a tool but a vital component in the future of digital collaboration, offering a window into the virtual representation of physical objects and spaces with unprecedented clarity and detail.

A step-by-step guide to viewing 3d cad files online

Create and publish interactive 3D projects with Zea Illustrations

1. Identify compatible software for your 3D file format

What 3D CAD file formats will you be loading

The hardest step is usually finding a free CAD viewer that opens the file format you have. Most CAD viewers will open a .stp, .glb, or .gltf file, but few free CAD viewers will open a native 3D CAD file format like SolidWorks, Creo, PTC, SolidEdge, NX, Inventor, etc. If the viewer cannot open a native CAD file format, engineering will need to spend time preparing an export.

2. Register for the software

Most cloud-based apps allow you to create an account without a credit card. Once you’ve found an app to open your file format, look for one with a free trial or a forever-free plan. Desktop apps will provide a link to download the software for free.

3. Upload your 3D CAD file

Screenshot using Zea Sync to process 3D CAD files locally before uploading them to the cloud.

The next move is to upload the 3D CAD file. Depending on the platform, processing will occur on your machine or the cloud. Be careful about uploading your proprietary native 3D CAD file to a cloud service. The best way to ensure that your intellectual property is protected is to refrain from uploading it. Look for a system that will process the file locally into a web-optimized triangle mesh before uploading it to the cloud platform.

4. Share It online

A screenshot of a user getting ready to publish a project in Zea Illsutrations

Collaboration and sharing are the core value propositions of browser-based tools and cloud platforms. Sharing your 3D CAD files with stakeholders and collaborating with team members in a secure online environment should be easy.
Look for various embedding, collaboration, and publishing options.

Free 3D CAD viewers

Here is a list of free 3D viewers to consider using, or try them all:

  • Zea is a cloud-based 3D platform that enables manufacturers to augment their 3D models with data. It features the world's most powerful browser-based real-time WebGL graphics engine and supports over 30 native and neutral CAD file formats. Combining data and rendering performance, Zea is the only platform capable of visualizing massive 3D models on the web, streamlining technical communication, and automating spare part catalogs.
  • FreeCAD is a general-purpose parametric 3D computer-aided design modeler and a building information modeling software application with finite element method support. Thanks to John Mogilewsky for this addition!
  • CAD Assistant is an offline 3D CAD viewer and converter with simple and intuitive interface, free for both personal and commercial use. Thanks to Nathaniel Dickerson for this addition!
  • Autodesk Viewer is a free online viewer for 2D and 3D designs, including AutoCAD DWG, DXF, Revit RVT, and Inventor IPT.
  • Cadasio: A browser-based solution that modernizes technical communications. The platform converts CAD files into interactive 3D presentations for assembly instructions, service procedures, marketing assets, and more.
  • Sketchfab is a 3D modeling platform website to publish, share, discover, buy and sell 3D, VR and AR content. It provides a viewer based on the WebGL and WebXR technologies that allows users to display 3D models on the web, to be viewed on any mobile browser, desktop browser or Virtual Reality headset.
  • GrabCAD is a free cloud-based collaboration environment that helps engineering teams manage, view, and share CAD files.
  • JT2Go is a free viewing tool for JT data. It’s a desktop application and mobile platform solution for iOS and Android.
  • eDrawings is a 2D and 3D design communication tool for internal and external collaboration.
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