Monday, November 3, 2014

Best Open Source and Free Design tools for Entrepreneurs

The cost of developing online products has dramatically decreased in the past 5 years with the advent of cloud computing and open-source code.  Many of the resources available now to online entrepreneurs are the result of open-source projects with active participation from growing communities.  

The LAMP stackcombined with cloud computing and storage such as Amazon EC2 provide low cost building blocks for online product creation to those skilled in the art.  The LAMP stack, being open-source, is free for entrepreneurs. Companies such as Amazon and Rack Space have made computing resources very affordable and scalable.
Unfortunately, the physical product world has not kept the same pace with the online world.  Physical product design invariably requires the use of computer aided design (CAD) software in order to create parts and communicate the specifications to vendors that will build them.  This often requires the use of multiple different types of software, all of which are typically costly.  For example, in order to develop a consumer electronics product, a designer will need mechanical design software, electrical printed circuit board software, and graphical design software for other elements such as LCD screen, keypad, logos, packaging, and product labels.  Many leading software providers in mechanical design such as SolidWorks and AutoCAD make education versions of software available to students free or deeply discounted.  However, these are restricted to educational use and commercial usage is strictly prohibited.  Unrestricted commercial versions of this type of software are in the thousands.  Major providers of electrical design software such as Cadence, National Instruments, and Altium also offer discounted student versions, but they still cost thousands.
Luckily, there have been some active open-source projects that have focused on product designers.  These programs have become stable and useful in the past few years to the point where entrepreneurial designers can now select from a list of options to kick-start their product creation.  Graduate student researchers at Stanford University and Make It Big have performed a comprehensive review of mechanical, electrical, and design software with the intent of creating an entrepreneurial designer’s tool kit -- D.Kit™ design tools.
“A lot of students and entrepreneur’s come to us asking for recommendations for mechanical, electrical, and graphical design software,” says Stanford Consulting Associate Professor of Design entrepreneurship Marc Theeuwes, “The commercial applications are outstanding but too costly for budget constrained startups.  I’m excited about the research that has gone into DKIT because it will give these folks a way to get started fast at a low cost, proving out designs, and getting ideas to market.”
The entrepreneurship and engineering book “Make It Big, Crossing the Entrepreneur’s Gap” highlights several areas where CAD software is helpful for product creation and part production.  Researchers used this resource to create a broad list of mechanical, electrical, and graphical design software which is summarized in Appendix 2 – Design Solutions.  The criteria for feature analysis varied depending on the type of application and are summarized in Appendix 1 – Feature Criteria.  The intent of the research was to present the broad list of commercial options and then select the best free tools to help entrepreneur’s start innovating.  Combined D.Kit 1.0 provides a comprehensive set of functionality that will allow entrepreneurial teams to start designing mechanical and electrical products without commercial restrictions.
D.Kit™ design tools version 1.0 includes the following software.  Follow the links to download them:
  1. FreeCAD for three dimensional (3D) mechanical design,
  2. Express PCB for electrical design,
  3. Gimp for photo editing/image creation, and
  4. Inkscape for vector based graphical design.
Honorable mentions in the mechanical design area include LibreCAD and DraftSight for two dimensional (2D) part designs.  KiCAD is an honorable mention in the electrical design area and it has the added benefit of being able to output Gerber files, which Express PCB cannot (without a fee).  However, Express PCB’s schematic and layout software is simple and intuitive and can be instantly uploaded to Express PCB for fabrication.  LucidChart is also highlighted as very useful for chart and diagram creation.
Appendix 1 – Feature Criteria
Mechanical CAD software criteria:
  1. Runs on Windows and/or Mac OS X.
  2. Has training/user guide.
  3. Generate 2D drawings from 3D models.
  4. Exports 2D drawings as DXF, and 3D models as IGES/STL.
  5. Import existing designs created using other applications.
  6. Include points, lines, planes, circles, dimensions and more that are used to create orthographic, 2D drawings.
  7. Includes extrudes, revolves, fillets/chamfers, lofts, cuts, linear/radial patterns, mirror and more to make 3D models.
  8. Includes parametric behavior for 2D and 3D drawings.
  9. Licensed for commercial use.
Electrical CAD software criteria:
  1. Runs on Windows and Mac OS X.
  2. Includes schematic as well as layout features.
  3. Outputs gerber files.
  4. Licensed for commercial use.
Graphical design software criteria:
  1. Runs on Windows and Mac.
  2. Basic features:
    1. Photo Editing - easily add filters/effects, edit layers;
    2. Vector Software - easily make vectors, trace bitmaps;
    3. Diagram/Creation - click and drag components;
    4. Outputs PDF.
    5. Licensed for commercial use.

Appendix 2 – Design Solutions
1. Mechanical Design Software
$1 to $199
Alibre CAD2D/
$199 / $999 / $1,999
$0 - $40
CMS IntelliCAD2D
$40 (2D), $99 (3D)
$200 to $999
ZW Soft2D/
Over $1000
Creo (Pro Ejngineer)3D
2. Electrical Design Software
Express PCB **Schematic and
ZenitPCBSchematic and
FritzingBreadboard, schematic, layout
PCB123 **Schematic +
KiCadSchematic +
TinyCADSchematic only
** Note: Express PCB is vendor locked to Express PCB for fabrication.  PCB123 is locked to Sunstone Circuits.
$1 to $199
Eagle LightSchematic +
$69 for commercial use
DipTrace Starter and DipTrace LiteSchematic +
$75 and $145 respectively
$200 to $1000
EagleSchematic +
DiptraceSchematic +
Over $1000
OrcadSchematic +
AltiumSchematic +
MentorSchematic +
AllegroSchematic +
3. Graphical Design Software
Creative Docs
GimpPhoto editing/image
InkscapeVector creation/editing
Lucid ChartChart/
$1 to $100
Xara Graphic
$101 to $1000