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Designing Online with Onshape

In a Cambridge, MA, office park, engineers at Onshape are working to overturn the world of computer-aided design software—again.

When Onshape CEO Jon Hirschtick and his fellow co-founders set out to reinvent CAD software in 2012, they had a good sense of how to do it. That’s because they had done it before. “Someone had to try building this,” he says. As he sees it, the first opportunity to disrupt computer-aided design arrived with Windows PCs in the early 1990s. That’s when he co-founded SOLIDWORKS, with the goal of putting solid modeling on every engineer’s desktop. Now, Hirschtick and a few of his colleagues from SOLIDWORKS, along with a new team of engineers, seek to take advantage of another platform shift—the move to mobile and cloud computing—along with changes in the way people design.

Left to right: Onshape CEO Jon Hirschtick discusses the software with engineers Bob Miner and Steve Hess.

Left to right: Onshape CEO Jon Hirschtick discusses the software with engineers Bob Miner and Steve Hess.

“This change in how people are working is profound,” he says. “It’s about teams being larger and spread out more and working on faster time and really following the idea of agile, innovative iteration. Instead of pre-planned, sequential planning, the premium is on speed in innovation and trying things.”

To Hirschtick and his colleagues, fully cloud-based CAD software looked like a way to both take advantage of the convergence of cloud, web and mobile computing, and also to meet a need that they felt conventional, individually installed CAD software was unable to fully serve.

Models for CAD on the Cloud

The idea of online CAD is not unique to Onshape. Autodesk, for example, began working on cloud-based CAD in 2010, according to Autodesk acting co-CEO Andrew Anagnost. The company’s Fusion 360 product is a hybrid desktop-cloud package that includes not just computer-aided design but also simulation and manufacturing. Onshape is unique in its approach to what aims to be a fully capable, full-cloud model, in which no software installation is required and it can be used without restriction on mobile devices as well as desktops and laptops.

Marc Halpert, research vice president for manufacturing advisory services at Gartner, says Onshape’s model could be a game changer. “Functionally, it introduces a quantum leap in collaboration capability across what we call ‘product development value networks,’” he says. “As a business model, it provides unprecedented access to design software at price points that are barriers to entry for the mainstream vendors using conventional perpetual licensing or SaaS (software-as-a-service) licensing models.” In other words, it provides powerful new collaborative capabilities for engineers, and the price is right for their companies.

Engineers working on open source projects as well as students and educators can use Onshape for free. A professional license costs $100 a month and the fee includes updates that the engineers push out to the system about every three weeks. SOLIDWORKS, by contrast, starts at $3,995 per installation, plus a $1,295 annual subscription for updates.

Not everyone agrees that full cloud is the way to go for CAD, however. “We actually still have both—we have a full, all-in cloud approach and we have a hybrid approach,” Autodesk’s Anagnost says, adding that the hybrid approach is where the money is. “Customers need to be able to work any time they want, anywhere they want. If you’re constantly slaving them to an internet connection or a particular width of internet pipe, you’re not really respecting what they need to do.” Instead, Autodesk is betting on an approach that Anagnost says combines the best features of cloud software and installed software.

“Most of our customers—they’re always online,” he says. “But when they need to go offline or when they need to go work in some other kind of environment, they can do it.” Autodesk, too, offers affordable options for its online product, starting at free for students and startups, and $40 a month or $300 a year for professionals.

After logging on to Fusion 360, the system installs a smaller piece of software on a local computer than would be required for a full CAD package. Updates get pushed to the local machine unobtrusively, ensuring that everything stays up to date. Anagnost says that the advantage to the hybrid system is a small install size that works even in low or non-existent bandwidth situations, like on a plane trip. When an engineer’s machine reconnects with the cloud, design changes are automatically uploaded as a branch that can be merged with the main design, along with changes that other engineers have made.

Cloud Collaboration

Still, Hirschtick and his team insist that full cloud is the future of CAD, one that engineers will increasingly take advantage of to create and iterate products more quickly than ever before, thanks in part to real-time collaboration. Making the point in a demo, Onshape VP of Product Marketing Darren Henry showed how two engineers can collaborate in real time on any device. He demonstrated how changes made on a desktop computer can update in real time on a smartphone connected to a 4G network.

Onshape, which went on sale in 2015 after a few months as a free beta, is still adding features that users have come to expect in a full CAD package. But Onshape co-founder and former CEO of SOLIDWORKS John McEleney says the team is rolling out those features at a steady clip and should have everything most engineers need by the end of 2017—as well as unique features not available elsewhere.

In February, Onshape released its Sheet Metal feature, which, like similar features in other packages, helps engineers to see how flat sheet metal designs will appear when folded. The difference, says Henry, is that the folded version of the design appears in a side-by-side view with the flat design, allowing for faster workflows. The system also highlights potential clashes that would make manufacturing difficult. In addition, Onshape is rolling out an enterprise version that allows managers to keep tabs on the activities of their teams, no matter where each member is located. Analytics show how often and when designs are worked and what changes have been made. McEleney says features like these that non-cloud CAD offerings can’t match will force competitors to play catch up.

Some investors seem to agree. Andreessen Horowitz and other venture capital firms have pumped in $169 million that should fuel the company’s growth for the foreseeable future, McEleney says. Gartner’s Halpern says the company should achieve its goals if it can continue its current pace of innovation and “convince a growing number of companies to try it.” During a visit early this year, I saw Onshape’s sales team working the phones to make the latter happen, standing at standing desks, energized by rock music pumping through the room. That Onshape’s customers include companies in the medical equipment, packaging machinery, furniture, prosthetics and consumer products industries is a testament to the success of their efforts.

Ultimately, it will be up to individual engineers and the companies they work for to decide whether the full-cloud model is the future of CAD. Hirschtick thinks the proof will be in the superior designs that he says will result from the closer collaboration that online CAD offers. “I think that because of what we’re doing, whether you use Onshape or you use one of our future, yet-to-be-released competitors, you’ll have a better design,” he says. “I like to think that’s why we come to work in the morning.”

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About Michael Belfiore

Michael Belfiore’s book The Department of Mad Scientists is the first to go behind the scenes at DARPA, the government agency that gave us the Internet. He writes about disruptive innovation for a variety of publications. Reach him via michaelbelfiore.com.