3D Modeling vs. CAD vs. BIM: What's the Difference?

Lauren Fram
Lauren Fram  |  October 23, 2017

Computers have become a vital part of almost every industry, but where computers are truly revolutionary is within design industries.

From industrial designers to architects, filmmakers to video game developers, designing on a computer in 3D has changed the way professionals in design industries work. The 3D design software landscape today is vast and often overlaps, so it can be difficult to know whether you need 3D modeling, BIM or CAD software. Comparing these three categories may give you a better idea of what will work best for you.

What is 3D modeling software?

3D modeling software is the most general of the 3D design categories. All 3D design software will have some method of 3D modeling, but 3D modeling software is primarily used to create 3D assets for animation. The most basic 3D modeling software will only permit you to create 3D models, but most programs often include tools for animation, texture painting or rendering.

3D modeling suites such as 3ds Max Design, Cinema 4D and Modo often offer a variety of methods for sculpting. Polygonal modeling, spline modeling, digital sculpting, procedural modeling and 3D scanning are all methods available to users of 3D modeling software.

What is building design and BIM software?

BIM (building design and building information modeling) tools are specifically meant to aid in the design and construction of buildings. Architects, contractors and engineers use the software to visualize, design and coordinate the construction of a building end to end.

BIM software is similar to CAD (and technically falls under the CAD umbrella), but the difference is that all the tools are for designing a building. Both 2D and 3D modeling tools are often included in BIM, which allows for creating construction documents and visualizations.

While there is some overlap with 3D modeling programs, BIM 3D modeling tools are less robust and flexible than those in a dedicated 3D modeling software. A BIM tool may have a library of doors, windows, stairways and other objects to make the process of designing a building faster and easier.

What is CAD software?

CAD software is primarily used by various fields of engineering to design parts, tools or entire projects, such as a bridge. With the advent of 3D printing, CAD software is what’s often used to create designs for 3D printing. Typically, CAD software is used to design an object in 3D, create 2D schematics of that object for manufacturing, and then make edits to the design.

While 3D modeling is mostly used for artistic and entertainment industries and BIM is specifically for designing buildings, CAD can be used within almost any industry. With the invention of 3D printing, CAD tools are what are often used to create designs to be 3D printed. There are even several free CAD programs specifically designed for 3D printing like Tinkercad and FreeCAD.

Ultimately, your industry will likely dictate which 3D modeling solution category is best for you. If you are in an artistic industry, you will probably be using 3D modeling. If you are involved with architecture, you will likely be using BIM solutions. And if you are an engineer or wish to create things using 3D printers, you will probably use CAD products.

Regardless of your industry, these products will help you create better models more efficiently.

Lauren Fram

Lauren Fram

Having lived on both the East and West Coasts, Lauren has settled in the happy medium of the Midwest. After nearly 13 years in Chicago, she has fully co-opted the Midwestern habit of saying "oop" when nearly bumping into things. In her free time she enjoys games of all sorts, and is particularly fond of board games and tabletop RPGs.