The learning curve is similar for both. But if you learn one, the other will be much easier. We used Inventor for many years but are using Solidworks now that a sponsor would like to see drawings made in that format.
Many people have asked the same question on CD. The answer usually consist of people saying this:
Use the Software that your engineers use. They will be able to help you CAD that way, if you were to use something else then it may be difficult for them to help with troubleshooting and what not. I prefer Solidworks, but some companies use Inventor. One of our mentor’s/Alumni was using Solidworks at work and at University so they got it for us and taught us how to use it. Now we still use Solidworks even though that mentor isn’t around as much. As Al said a sponsor may prefer one program over the other if they are helping you make parts. try to chose the program which will best suit your needs.
Use whatever you can get the most support for. If your mentors or alumni know Solidworks, use Solidworks. If they know Inventor, use that. If nobody has used either, it seems like Autodesk is more committed to FIRST than Solidworks is, and you’ll have a slightly easier time getting help from these forums.
But from my experience, and almost everyone else I know, your students will use Solidworks in college. Outside of education, it feels like everyone uses Solidworks, and its better to be able to say you know Solidworks than it is to say you know Inventor. I know there are employers and schools out there that use Inventor, but it just doesn’t seem as common.
Either way, the skills will transfer from one package to the other pretty easily. If you can CAD the entire robot in Inventor, you’ll be proficient with Solidworks in no time. Just be aware that it may be difficult for the team to switch over. It does take a little bit of time, and you will lose all your old models (importing is finnicky and you lose the feature history). It’s hard to go wrong with either, but all things being equal, I would say Solidworks.
Given the choice between the two, I’d pick SolidWorks. Adding Creo (Pro/ENGINEER) as an option, I’d seriously consider it as well. (I’ve used them all considerably, albeit older versions.)
In terms of learning curve, high school students can learn any of them, but all have annoying quirks. SolidWorks is probably the most popular 3-D CAD package in small-to-medium industry,1 while Creo is the most accessible of the heavy-duty CAD tools (principally Unigraphics NX and CATIA) used in major industries like automotive and aerospace.
1 AutoCAD is still very popular for several reasons, but its 3-D capabilities are a dead end, so I would consider it a 2-D package.
Inventor comes in the KOP, so you’re going to see a lot more people who have access to and use Inventor than Solidworks. A quick look at the subforums here says there are 7000 posts in the Inventor category, and about 800 in the Solidworks category.
I prefer SolidWorks, though they both have their quirks. Our kids seem to get it faster, and it’s much more popular in academia and industry. Autodesk does seem to be at least more public with its support though, including making specific videos. But the SolidWorks tutorials have done us just fine, and you’d likely be able to find someone local to give a few tips even if you don’t have CAD mentors. You’ll get plenty of help from fellow teams here as well. (Hi!)
Basically, I’d go SolidWorks if you don’t have an institutional advantage towards Inventor …which it sounds like you do not, but do check with any machining sponsors. Either way though, be careful–learning a CAD package during build season is quite stressful, regardless of which you pick (or even how many you’d know beforehand!) Good luck, and you know where to find us.
Meaning fill out the form online and receive the SolidWorks discs in the mail. (don’t put the form in the mail ;))