25 Best CNC Software for CNC Machines 2023
Learn more about the best CNC software options and how they are used for CNC machining.
A CNC (Computer Numerical Control) software program creates codes and instructions that control and guide CNC machines. Today, many software tools are available in the market for this purpose. The choice of the "best" software for a situation depends on the features needed, the machine application, the software budget, and the user's experience level. Among the best CNC software packages for CNC machines are Aspire, Fusion 360®, and TurboCNC.
This article will further discuss the 25 best CNC machining software programs available in 2023, briefly describe their features, and provide insight into the factors to consider when choosing one.
Aspire is a software solution that is a capable tool for designing and creating toolpaths on a CNC machine. Among its features are: tools for 2D design, calculation of 2D and 2.5D toolpaths, and texturing capabilities. Aspire covers design and toolpath creation for the four stages of processing. It costs $1995 —and offers a free trial.
Easel CNC is an all-in-one package that covers part design to machine control. It automates complex settings and is easy to learn. Easel Pro (the paid version) provides an accessible and flexible design package targeted primarily at CNC routers. It can be paired with X-Carve CNC Machines, which have design and manufacturing capabilities — including the ability to directly drive a range of CNC machines. Easel offers a free version with limitations or its full premium version for $24 per month.
AutoCAD® is a popular 2D CAD package first launched in 1977. While it lacks any tools that assist in CAM processing, AutoCAD 3D model files are easy to use in other software packages. It is widely used in both architecture and mechanical design. An AutoCAD license is $1,700 per year, though a free 30-day trial and a free (limited) student version are also offered.
Inkscape is a free vector graphics editor that works with all major formats. It is widely used in art and industrial design. Inkscape includes an option for uploading direct toolpath files to CNC software. It lacks most of the functions of full-featured CAD/CAM software packages, but it is widely viewed as a good starter tool for designers. Inkscape is a free, open-source program developed by RepRap users.
Marlin is firmware that can be used with a 3D printer and supports spindle and CNC laser configurations. It can be set up to control CNC drivers including: Arduino boards, Sanguino, and Brainwave products.
Because it is a 3D printer focus, setting up Marlin for CNC machine control can be difficult, and it will not have all the capabilities of a software package developed specifically for CNC machining. With a one-time charge for Marlin of only $14, it may be worth evaluating.
Fusion 360® offers plug-ins for a complete suite of CNC tools, making it a powerful and well-liked all-in-one solution. Its CNC CAM and machine control plug-ins facilitate tool path creation, toolpath verification, and direct machine control. A license costs $495 per year and includes all the CAD/CAM software tools needed.
SolidWorks® is one of the leading professional CAD packages. It offers various levels of add-ons from CAMWorks, which operates within itself. CAMWorks has a great reputation for CNC router and milling applications. It’s easy to call up the specifications for the machine being programmed, create toolpaths, and automatically update the toolpaths when model changes are made. SolidWorks licenses are expensive, though. They cost thousands of dollars per license. The student version, however, is very low cost for those properly accredited by an institution.
eCAM is an integrated CAD/CAM program with relatively simple CAD tools and good CAM tools. It can drive CNC mills, routers, and lathes well. The CAD system, however, is limited to basic profiles and simple edits of imported data. eCam is well-liked for its easy generation of toolpaths through conversational programming. A simultaneous split-screen view of the conversational toolpath programming and the resulting G-code accommodates all skill levels of programmers and enhances the rate of learning. eCAM costs $180 for basic milling capabilities and $420 for the full professional mill/lathe package.
GRBL is a free CAM software developed to enable Arduino boards to be used to control CNC machines. It has an extensive user community. GRBL has been adopted as the native controller software by several machine manufacturers in the hobbyist sector. Some problems with GRBL have been observed, including G-Code issues that have surfaced and remain unsupported, and unplanned activation of CNC machine spindles. However, GRBL generally works well for Arduino drivers.
NC Viewer is a free online service that allows users to upload their 3D models and get back a toolpath. It’s not specific to any particular CNC machine brand. One disadvantage of NC Viewer is that it is not capable of using cutter boundaries to define beds, vises, and other no-go areas. For a quick review of the part design, however, it is easy and capable.
Mach3 CNC is widely used by hobbyists for CNC machine control. It has a long development track record and a customizable user interface that makes it easy to learn. The software can be configured in a variety of ways. The most common way to use Mach3 is for driving the boards with which it is most compatible, such as SmoothStepper. Superseded by Mach4, this software is still well supported by its creators, and costs around $180.
LinuxCNC is a free and widely used tool in the hobby CNC machine sector. It can directly drive a machine using a parallel port interface and real-time extension (RTAI) to reduce the risk of timing errors. LinuxCNC is highly customizable. It runs on Raspberry Pi and communicates through Ethernet and Mesa external cards.
Universal Gcode Sender (UGS) is a free, accessible, and simple tool for creating cutter paths from models. It’s open source and can be adapted to both preset and custom machine setups. This flexibility and simplicity of use make it ideal for hobbyists and new users, but it requires separate software that downloads the generated G-code cutter path to the CNC machine.
UCCNC runs with CNC drive controllers such as: UC100, UC300, UC300ETH, UC400ETH, and AXBB-E. It is a standout in that it easily works with up to 6-axis machines. UCCNC allows customization of work screens and provides a real-time 3D toolpath visualization that is a powerful aid to understanding cutter action. UCCNC costs $60 per motion controller, and each license only works with a single controller.
The Planet CNC software solution is a full hardware/software setup. It uses unique driver boards to control the CNC machine. Planet CNC works with most boards, as long as they're set up to work directly in G-code. It does not include a conversational command language that translates to G-code. Intuitive interface design, great configuration flexibility, and simulation tools make PlanetCNC a popular choice. The software is included in the controllers and the prices of these controllers start at $8,477.
OpenBuilds Control is a flexible software tool that can drive most CNC machines, plasma and laser cutters, and even drag-knife tools. It is a stripped-down user interface that's quick to learn, supports G-code editing, and has special tools for raw material preparation. OpenBuilds Control integrates with OpenBuilds CAM and their web app for generating G-code from 2D drawings and sending tool path data directly to the CAM software. This software is free and supports Windows, Linux, and iOS. It is also well served by an OpenBuilds user page.
ChiliPeppr is a free browser plug-in that creates G-code. It allows users to build their work areas to directly drive hardware from the browser. There are predefined workspaces, but configuring these to work well with your CNC mill or router is easy, with the addition of a driver that connects your machine tool to the browser. ChiliPeppr also has an active expert user community that can answer complex and beginner questions readily.
GRBL Candle provides control software for GRBL-type CNC machines. It is a capable and low-cost controller, best suited to CNC mills. GRBL Candle provides before-cut and real-time visualization of the cutter path, adjustable machine coordinates, and direct G-code editing. It can also be applied to laser cutting. GRBL Candle is community-created and supported, and free to use.
Mach4 is a modular and flexible CNC software. Its motion controls are calculated in the core and have improved features compared to Mach3 including: 4 slave motors per Axis, a unified (GUI) Interface, and easy customization. The support is as good as it is for Mach3. The cost is $200 for home use and $1,400 for the professional version.
G-Wizard Editor is a software tool that can write, edit and manage G-code. It includes line-by-line “translation to English” to assist in reading and interpreting the G-code. It also offers advice-based editing and optimization advice in plain language. One powerful feature is its ability to precisely simulate the cutter path for a wide range of pre-defined machines and cutting tool descriptions. This tool costs around $269.
CNC Simulator Pro includes virtual CNC controllers for CNC machines to run simulations. This CNC software is a whole suite of combined software tools that can simulate milling and press machines, lathes, and 3D printers. The software also includes limited 2D and 3D CAD capability. Purchase options range from a free version up to a full-featured version for around $100 per year.
Machinekit is a relatively new but promising tool that has been developed as an update of LinuxCNC. The changes include support for a GUI of remote keypads and displays and integration with Beagle single-board computers. Machinekit is sourced from GitHub. The installation process can be a bit difficult and will challenge the newcomer, but the program is free. There is a growing support community and support is likely to improve with time.
HeeksCNC is an open-sourced CAD/CAM software that runs only on Windows. It has a helpful community where advanced users can share their work with the rest. For $14, HeeksCNC is a good package to try with features such as: document management, toolpath simulation, one-line diagram, and animation.
OpenCNC Pilot is free firmware specializing in pure CNC machine control. One of the unique features of OpenCNCPilot is its ability to use the CNC machine's position sensors to define the flatness of the section of the raw material that will be engraved to make the current part. The program adjusts the toolpath to compensate for the warpage of the feedstock, resulting in a product with the expected feature sizes and depths. OpenCNCPilot is Windows-based.
TurboCNC is a DOS program. While its GUI is a bit primitive and its approach is archaic, TurboCNC includes: a code editor, 8-axis common motion with integrated hysteresis compensation, parametric programming, multi-axis threading, and more. Priced at $60, you get the source code and developer support.
The primary purpose of CNC software is to provide instructions to a CNC machine on how to cut a finished part out of a piece of raw material. It may also offer capabilities upstream of the actual machining stage: modeling of designs, creation, and verification of toolpaths, generation of G-code, and finally, machine control.
CNC software controls the CNC machine by generating the instructions to do so. These are often limited tools and they are best used for small edits, rather than for building complex parts and assemblies. The encoding tools turn a completed design into G-code. The simulation tools allow checking of toolpath - avoiding miscuts and in-motion crashes into parts or machines. Finally, the machine controllers take your validated G-code and drive the machine to deliver the part you have designed.
One factor to consider when selecting CNC software is the technical level of the user. Beginners should choose simpler tools, moving to more complex CNC software programs after mastering the basics. Another factor to consider is price. It’s a good idea to try the free version of a program before committing to a purchase. Finally, consider the complexity of the design. Make sure that the CNC machining software you select is capable of all the operations required to create the part.
The best CNC software choice for beginners is Aspire. It is easy to learn, works well, and has enough features to satisfy new users' needs for some time before they feel the need for additional tools and capabilities.
Yes, CNC software is required for a CNC machine. To perform any manufacturing task, a CNC machine must receive instructions in a language it can understand, to tell it what to do next. CNC software can improve upon manually controlled machining processes in many ways: finding the optimal tool path, communicating with the machine tools, integrating feedback from sensor probes on the machine to make sure the path is being followed, and precise and complex motion control. For more information, see our guide on CNC Machines.
This article presented the 25 best CNC software for CNC machines, explained the differences of each, and discussed CNC software is used. To learn more about CNC software, contact a Xometry representative.
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- AutoCAD® and Fusion 360® are registered trademarks of Autodesk, Inc., and/or its subsidiaries and/or affiliates, in the United States.
- SolidWorks® is a registered trademark of Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp.
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