How Do I Get Started with Shapr3D?

A “natural” pen interface will make you question using a mouse.

Shapr3D started about 10 years ago as an iPad-only mechanical design tool but it has graduated to a multiplatform mobile-first tool. It works on iPad, MacOS and Windows. The primary targets here are Apple and Microsoft tablet, laptop and desktop users. Conspicuous by its absence is Android.

The big idea behind Shapr3D is to simplify the CAD interface and make it (really) work on (truly) portable hardware. Shapr3D addresses the largely ignored portable touch-enabled workforce. Touch interface opens up a lot of possibilities for design in general and CAD in particular. Although fat fingertips aren’t necessarily precise enough for detailed sketching, the stylus or pen is.

Shapr3D is built on Parasolid and the most recent release (in beta at this writing) builds history-based models and allows users to exploit the tree. Previously, the software was considered direct edit. It still uses some of the interface elements of direct edit, but the merger of the two philosophies tends to introduce the less attractive side of history modeling to preserve some of the slick interfaces of direct edit.

The most compelling use case for Shapr3D is for a mobile, low-barrier-to-entry CAD tool for quick concepts or creating a design starting point for a more thorough model. Let’s look at the various aspects of getting started with Shapr3D.

1. Licensing

All Shapr3D licenses allow you to use the same account on Mac, iPad and Windows machines—so you can move back and forth between tablets, laptops and desktops. The license gives you access to the software and Shapr3D cloud storage and the ability to sync data between machines. Of course, your online account manages the license through a browser.

Software is installed locally. Data is stored on the cloud and synched locally on each machine from which you have logged in.

This is ultimately a very sensible approach, especially for a product that is so mobile centric.

Shapr3D offers free (called Basic) licenses and paid options. The free licenses limit the number of design projects you can save (2) and export to 3D print is low resolution. (Think of a project as an assembly.) Also, you don’t get access to the 2D drawing tools. Think of this as a trial license.

The free license does not appear to have a time limitation, although Shapr3D may force you to use updated software when it is available.

For the purposes of the author’s work with Shapr3D, a gift license was used to write this article, which is assumed to be equivalent to the Pro license. Full disclosure: The author has been contracted by Shapr3D for some other work that is not related to this article.

The Pro license costs $25/month or $299/year and provides unlimited access to Shapr3D cloud storage, full resolution 3D printing, augmented reality (AR) and major CAD formats in addition to real-time rendering, 2D drawings and priority technical support.

The closest competition for Shapr3D is arguably Fusion 360, which is almost twice the annual fee but includes electrical design and manufacturing tools.

I must emphasize that this is subscription software. There is no one-time fee, but you have to be paid up with the monthly or annual plan to keep using the software and accessing your data on the cloud.

Enterprise options are also available for larger groups of users.

One of the nice features of this arrangement is that you can send anyone a link to view your model and even if they don’t own a license, it will come up in a viewer. The viewer has some AR capabilities but lacks markup and sectioning and other advanced functions.

2. Hardware

Shapr3D can be used on tablets, convertibles, laptops or desktops. It can use stylus input, some finger input, mouse input and space ball input. On the touch interface, a stylus is needed for some of the more delicate or precise input such as sketching.

Full-powered CAD like SOLIDWORKS can run on a portable device, but it had better be a mobile workstation with serious amounts of RAM, a professional video card, a big battery and/or power block, and it will output a lot of heat. By contrast, you can use Shapr3D on a very basic tablet or laptop like the kind you take to a coffee shop.

The Shapr3D support site notes that you can use Shapr3D without touch or stylus input and that you can get started with the pen/stylus that is shipped with your device. However, they recommend a pen designed for 3D applications, specifically the Wacom Pro Pen 3D.

Putting the interface right on what you are designing synchronizes your hands and eyes. It seems instinctively the right thing to do, but other CAD programs have resisted this sort of usability enhancement. The tools have long been available, but the big software companies have kept us using mice.

Whatever hardware you use needs to be able to accommodate local files. Shapr3D is installed locally and the files are stored both locally and backed up on the cloud so that you and others can access those files on any hardware without needing to move files between devices. You can also access files when you are not online. Shapr3D syncs these files for you automatically. Shapr3D files use the *.shapr extension and contain the 3D model, 2D drawing and visualization information in the same file.

3. Users

The users who are going to be able to get the most advantage out of Shapr3D will be nonspecialist CAD users and traveling professionals who have to be able to put together 3D models of products or proposals quickly. These models would be either for making presentations, printing or sending on for detail modeling. Remember the Shapr3D viewer is easily accessible for nonusers.

Whether Shapr3D is primarily for professional or amateur users may generate some debate. The Shapr3D company clearly aspires to be a professional CAD tool and it has tools that can support a professional product development workflow. But it would probably not be the first choice of CAD professionals who would spend 100 percent of their days deep down in the details.

The argument could also be made that hobbyists would welcome its easy-to-learn interface, links to 3D printing and ease of assembly modeling. For a hobbyist, $300 a year for modeling is not too much to ask. If the hobbyist already has a 3D printer, they are already accustomed to spending more than this on their tools.

4. Projects

What kind of projects can you undertake with Shapr3D? You might expect a low-price solid modeler to be limited to prismatic shapes, but Shapr3D can do multi-section lofts and sweeps. The limitations are actually fewer than you might think.

The biggest limitation is the lack of assembly and assembly constraints. They do have strong capabilities in multi-body modeling tools, and if you can get into them, they will almost cover that deficiency. The recent move to history-based modeling means they are definitely targeting professional CAD users, but the lack of a full set of assembly type tools will keep them from hitting the target.

On the other hand, introducing assembly tools may complicate things, which doesn’t seem the right direction for a tool that is bent on being simple to use. In any case, Shapr3D is not remaining idle. The product has a steady stream of releases of new functionality and it continues to develop. We can only guess that some sort of assembly enhancements are in the wings.


Shapr3D aims to develop real usability in professional mobile-first CAD tools. The latest release is based on Parasolid and produces history-based models with an editable feature tree. This is the kind of software that you can figure out how to use while you’re actually getting work done. There is enough online information in addition to the supplied help documentation to get you up to speed quickly.

If you are hoping to start using Shapr3D, the main headings in this article will help you make sure that you’re prepared to make the most of your time once you decide to make the jump. You may find that once you remove most of the complexity from CAD, this kind of work can still be a lot of fun in addition to being productive.