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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »

Onshape: The Day After a New Dawn For 3D CAD

March 12th, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

With all the fanfare that took place earlier this week with the official launch of the Beta version of cloud-based Onshape, we thought we’d let the dust settle a bit before weighing in. That said, it’s actually a couple of days after the new dawn for 3D CAD.

Keep in mind, though, as impressive as it is out of the gate, Onshape is by no means the first cloud-based/mobile CAD application. It is, however, a unique true cloud-based technology and not a desktop/cloud hybrid.

Onshape began a couple of years ago and was one of the best and worst kept secrets in the engineering software arena. Worst, because even early on, it was evident that the technology would be cloud based, even if virtually no details were disclosed. Best, because virtually no details were disclosed (until relatively recently under NDA) that just added to the anticipation for the official launch of the Onshape Beta earlier this week.

About a year ago I asked Jon Hirschtick (Onshape’s founder and co-founder of SolidWorks) about Onshape and he said that it was indeed real, and would happen, but kept his cards close to the chest and just said the industry would be turned upside down with what he and his team were working on. Again, having experienced what I have with Onshape in its infancy, Hirschtick’s statement was an understatement.

The video clip that follows outlines the “why” behind building this new set of cloud-based Onshape technologies.

The Onshape Manifesto

One of the advantages that Onshape has is the fact that it was created from scratch by a team used to creating things from scratch with no legacy baggage to overcome and work around. Of course, the development team has not done everything themselves, because Onshape includes software components from Siemens PLM (Parasolid; ironically the same modeling kernel used by SolidWorks) and D-Cubed. This component licensing lets the Onshape team focus its efforts on what it does best.

So, who is Onshape? The following video takes a behind the scenes look at the Onshape team, including Jon Hirschtick, John McEleney, Dave Corcoran, and other team members.

The Basic Onshape Story

The team that Hirschtick has assembled for Onshape reads like a Who’s Who of the CAD industry, drawing upon many familiar names from the industry. The engineering/development group at Onshape has a ratio of about 4:1 over the next largest group in the company (marketing, sales & support). Whether that ratio will stand remains to be seen, but the priorities and percentages seem right for a new technology company.

Onshape Overview

Onshape touts itself as cloud-based CAD, but can alternatively be said to be server-based CAD (SBC). Again, this is not a brand new concept, but one of the big differentiators of Onshape is that it employs different servers for different functions. For example, design, simulation, and rendering are handled by different servers. This makes sense from a functional standpoint, as well as for server load balancing, an issue that I’m sure will be closely monitored by Onshape as server loads ramp up by an onrush of new users.

Because it is cloud/browser based, Onshape runs on a just about anything – Windows PC, Mac, Chromebook, Android, iPad, iPhone, etc. I’ve only tried Onshape on a PC and iPad so far, but the claim is indeed true – it works! Keep in mind, though, it absolutely requires an Internet connection to be used. If this is an issue, then Onshape may not be for you. On the other hand, Internet connectivity is practically ubiquitous, so for most users this will not be a concern.

Although largely dependent on an Internet connection, cloud-based Onshape has several advantages, including:

  • Runs on just about any computing platform
  • Latest version of software is always ensured
  • Work is continuously saved
  • No CPU performance constraints or limitations

Now on to Onshape itself . . .

First off, Onshape is not one application, but rather, a comprehensive set of capabilities that include part and assembly modeling, data management, drawings (coming soon), etc.

The base unit of all Onshape designs and projects are Documents, not files. Documents can contain CAD models, drawings, and data of any other type. The Document concept is especially significant because this makes data management much simpler owing to the fact that many PDM-like features are either built in to or not required when using Onshape. For collaboration (and this is a major positive aspect of Onshape), traditional check out/check in and versioning snafus are virtually eliminated. However, Onshape plays well with many PLM systems with data export and links to Onshape design works in progress. There is enough to cover on collaboration and version control, and those and other topics will be covered in the near future.

On its most basic level, there are two types of modeling in Onshape – Part Studios and Assemblies. Part Studios are used to define parts with a Feature list (parametric history). Part Studios contain two tool sets – Sketch Tools and Feature Tools. Regenerating the feature list is what drives and actually produces Parts. Assemblies are used to define assembly structure and behavior. Each Assembly has its own Feature list that contains Instances (of parts and sub-assemblies), Mates, and Mate Connectors. Crucial here is an understanding of Mates because they are used to position instances and define how they move. Much more about all of this (Parts and Assemblies) later.

Onshape also has direct editing capabilities, especially handy for imported parts that don’t have a parametric history.

Because Onshape supports many native CAD formats, it can be used alongside and in conjunction with other desktop CAD systems, although I suspect over time many users will employ Onshape only. You can also download and store files locally using native or neutral formats.

Now for the million dollar question – who owns the data created by Onshape? The company very deliberately states that “anything you create in Onshape is always and forever owned by you.” Enough said.

The documentation and tutorials for Onshape are fairly good and will only get better as more content is added in the future.

As for pricing, there are three tiers – Free ($0/month with up to 5 active private documents, 5GB storage), Professional ($100/month with unlimited active private documents, 100 GB storage), and Enterprise (price dependent on number of users with unlimited active private documents, storage varies). Private documents are created by an originator and made accessible only by permission of the originator.

Onshape has already aligned itself with several partners who are or shortly will be offering complementary technologies to Onshape. I talked with one of the initial partners late last week, SolidCAM, and saw a brief live demo of their CAM software running alongside/inside Onshape. SolidCAM wouldn’t commit to a release date, only saying it would be soon.

Although I am just getting started, I have to admit that Onshape is one of the best initial implementations I have experienced in a new 3D CAD technology, and even very early on, has left me with a good first impression.

Is it perfect? Don’t be ridiculous, but it is definitely a great start and the beginning of a new direction for design/engineering tools – something a lot of us have been waiting and hoping for.

I thought the CAD thrill was gone, but with Onshape the excitement might very well be back!

Editor’s Note: As Onshape leaves the gate, it should evolve relatively quickly. As major developments occur, we’ll cover their significance on the future of Onshape and what it might mean for competitors.

With this blog post I was only able to touch on a very few things that make Onshape a significant factor in mechanical design and engineering. In the near future, I will continue to discuss my experience with Onshape as I learn more about its features and capabilities with actual workflow examples.

Also, in the coming months, we’ll do a detailed series comparing the features, capabilities, advantages, disadvantages, etc. of Onshape and Autodesk’s Fusion 360. This promises to be an interesting exercise showing what each respective technology is capable of.

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4 Responses to “Onshape: The Day After a New Dawn For 3D CAD”

  1. Kevin De Smet says:

    It’s cool. But this ain’t no new dawn, man.

    • Jeff Rowe Jeff Rowe says:

      OK, then, for technical/engineering software what’s been as or more truly innovative out of the starting blocks in the past 10 years?

      • Kevin De Smet says:

        Good point. I guess I’m merely skeptical of “big bang” new products. Just think about Spaceclaim, while it had a significant effect on the industry, it has since faded into the background. Also I’m not an Autodesk fan but I think Carl Bass is on to something with Fusion 360 being a very similar idea that’s more mature by now than OnShape.

  2. Steph. says:

    The broadband connection you have is critical. I have used it and got impatient at transitions or commands that took a few seconds too long. I could get to like Onshape easily…if there was a desktop version!
    (I also use Spaceclaim and lament that it has indeed faded away under ANSYS, but it is fast and complete.)

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