Mike HudspethAlias used to be the one real choice for industrial-design software. Today there are many. Besides Alias ($25,000), good packages include Rhino ($895), ICEM ($2,300 and up), NX (a lot, depending on what bundle you pick), and even SolidWorks ($3,995). So besides price, how do you decide? The only significant differences between programs are capability and interface. When selecting ID software, look for these capabilities:

Free-form surfaces is the absolute most important thing to look for. Any kind of modeler builds 3D models, but a free-form modeler lets you create flowing lines and biomorphic shapes for visual excitement that in some cases make the product work.

Good sketching. I don’t mean parametric sketching, but drawing as if with pencil on paper — that is, a way to roughly and quickly capture your ideas. In other words, the legendary paper napkin. Make sure the software includes bitmap-creation tools.

High-quality rendering. When you’ve spent a lot of time designing a great product you want to show it off. Good renderings are often a great way to do this. But, believe it or not, they can be a problem too. When a rendering is too good, the customer sometimes thinks it’s a real photo of a physical product and asks for accelerated delivery. Also, it’s preferable to see models portrayed in the materials they will be made of. This helps you wrap your mind around the model for better understanding.

File export. Most times customers ask for models they can use in their software of choice. Make sure what you buy can export in as many different formats as possible. Especially look for stereolithography (STL) export. These days, it’s an absolute must.

Lastly, when it comes to the interface, once you’ve selected the program that will do what you need, see how it accomplishes tasks. A difficult-to-use interface might provide more power but limit users to whomever can figure it out. Look for simple and obvious. Look for what you can live with.