Alexandre Galin

Since the 1990s, I have been fascinated by the world of 3D design. In my 25 years as an industrial designer, I’ve explored a variety of design tools including 3ds Max, Modo, Cinema 4D, ZBrush, CATIA, SolidWorks, AutoCAD, and Rhinoceros 3D. Like many of my peers, I struggled, at the beginning of my career,  to understand each software application’s advantages and which one would be best suited for my professional requirements.

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In this blog article, I will compare various 3D modeling software, focusing on SketchUp and Rhinoceros 3D ( better known as Rhino 3D ). I don’t like to make comparisons on which 3D tool is better than another one but rather see which tools work best for different purposes and how they can even complement one another. It is, actually,  not uncommon to see multiple 3D applications used in a professional working environment.

Before we dig into a comparison of SketchUp and Rhino 3D, let’s explore the technology behind these software offerings. 

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NURBS vs. polygon models

Rhino 3D is a NURBS-style package while SketchUp is a polygon-based ( also known as mesh-based ) application. What does that mean?

NURBS stands for Non-Uniform Rational B Splines and it is the best way to describe a 3D surface in the digital world. It is based on mathematical equations, using polynomials, that best capture the exactness of a surface design. Why is it important? Companies designing and manufacturing products need to create digital data that require very tight tolerances for manufacturing purposes ( CNC machining, rapid prototyping ).

On the other hand, polygon based applications such as Sketchup and the likes have more control over the polygon counts when the 3D model is created which makes rendering calculations much faster than NURBS type applications. Therefore one can add a lot of design details and maintain the 3D scene relatively small compared to a NURBS type design tool.

This was particularly true 25 years ago when computers did not have the same kind of computing power we see nowadays. Thanks to the constant evolution of technology, CPUs (Central Processing Units) and GPUs (Graphics Processing Units) have become better and faster in rendering complex scenes even when using NURBS surfacing applications.

pixels and vectors

The best analogy to explain the differences between a NURBS-based design package versus a mesh modeler would be to compare Adobe Illustrator to Adobe Photoshop.

NURBS packages have the advantages of behaving a bit like a vector-based drawing application such as Adobe Illustrator. Meaning it is scalable to any size you wish without any loss of resolution, whereas SketchUp and other polygon-based applications are more comparable to a pixel-based software like Adobe Photoshop. It is ideal for special effects and 3D animations we see commonly in video games and the movie industry.

Top courses in SketchUp

Therefore companies from the aerospace, automotive, architectural and product design world rely on NURBS surfacing tools to better capture the design intent and then move on towards manufacturing. On top of that, NURBS surfaces have the advantage of exporting its 3D data towards simulation packages such as for CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) used in aerodynamics or other fields of expertise like acoustics or structural & stress analysis. The most common 3D formats used in Nurbs software are IGES and  STEP formats. They’re better known as CAD files and can be easily exchanged with other Nurbs applications such as Dassault System’s Catia or Solidworks, Siemen’s NX, Autodesk Alias, Robert McNeels and Associates’ Rhino 3D to name a few. 

Polygon (also known as mesh) model vs NURBS model

Polygon surfaces work great for rendering but for FEA (Finite Element Analysis) and manufacturing, NURBS surfaces are needed.


SketchUp, acquired by Trimble in 2012 from Google, is an easily accessible software at a very affordable price. It’s not surprising that many designers get acquainted with 3D modeling using SketchUp first. As mentioned previously in this blog, Sketchup is a polygon-based modeling tool (also known as a mesh modeler ) application, which means surfaces are made up of triangles, quads, or Ngons. Typically, SketchUp is used for 3D rendering as well as for 3D animations. Interestingly enough this software has gained quite a bit of popularity with the interior design field. The learning curve on that software is very easy to pick up.

SketchUp, 3ds MAX, Cinema 4D, and Modo are all popular 3D tools either used for rendering large scenes as well as being used for making special effects as we see in the movie-making industries. 

Rhino 3D

Rhino 3D has been around close to 25 years and began as an AutoCAD plug-in to create complex 3D shapes within the popular 2D application. People familiar with AutoCAD will be pleasantly surprised by Rhino’s similar look and feel. This tool fits in the category of CAD tools or also known as Computer-Aided Drafting tool, where precision is crucial to design complex 3D models. The level of precision with CAD tools can go as low as nanometers, ( 10^-9 m )

In the 1990s the company behind Rhino 3D, Robert McNeel and Associates, introduced it as a stand-alone application. It was primarily used for designing ships, which required a tool that was capable of generating complex ship hull surfaces. Rhino then progressed to other specialties ranging from aerospace to interior and architectural designs. The 3D tool, over time, eventually added functionalities like the integration of powerful renderers (Flamingo, Vray, Maxwell), animation (Bongo), and, most recently, parametric design surfacing tool (Grasshopper).

In the forthcoming Rhino V7, designers will also be able to use subdivision surfacing modeling techniques, to easily create 3D organic shapes even faster. All in all, Rhino is becoming a complete design package and is gaining traction with an ever-growing customer base around the globe. Its affordable price makes it one of the most popular 3D Nurbs applications around. It is also noteworthy that Rhino 3D is available on Windows as well as Mac platforms. 

Example of the Grasshopper window used in parallel with Rhino 3D
Example of the Grasshopper window used in parallel with Rhino 3D. Grasshopper allows the generation of 3D surfaces all parametrically.

In conclusion, whether you want to start learning 3D either using Sketchup or Rhino 3D, it is up to you. Both are easily accessible and both are an excellent way to introduce yourself to the world of 3D design. There are fundamental differences between the two where each has its own sets of strengths. 

I personally teach Rhino 3D and have been a user for 20 years now. I had the pleasure of working on many fascinating design projects linked to the aerospace world and continue in doing so. 

If you are curious to learn more about Rhino 3D, and how you could learn it quickly, I have built many capsules that range from beginner to advanced level.

 You can find all my material here on Udemy by clicking on this link.

I hope this blog helped you better understand the fundamentals between a NURBS and a Polygon modeler. We are lucky to have so many great choices between 3D design tools, the only hard decision to make now is which one do you want to start with?

If you’re interested in learning about the difference between Rhino 3D and Solidworks, check out this article.

Page Last Updated: September 2020