The Future of MCAD?

SolidWorks founders look to revolutionize mechanical CAD again with browser-based modeler, OnShape.

0 May 22, 2015
by Ralph Grabowski

Around the year 2000, the Internet bubble was getting seriously big. Established CAD vendors looked for ways to show they were hip to the new thing. PTC integrated a web browser into Pro/E and Autodesk came out with a lean file format, DWF, so that drawings would be transmitted in less time over slow connections.

Meanwhile, an unknown CAD company caught the attention of Microsoft, who was looking for software to promote its upcoming Windows 2000 launch. That company, Alibre, had figured out how to run MCAD software on servers, with the results appearing on remote desktop computers.

The problem, however, was that most of us still had dial-up modems, and so this Internet-based CAD system didn’t catch on. Alibre was rewritten as a traditional program and then was purchased by Geomagic and 3D Systems. Today, it still runs from the desktop.

Fast forward a dozen years, and Internet-based CAD is busting out all over again. A fresh round of financing and advances in web programming has encouraged all kinds of companies (e.g., ShapeSmith and TinkerCAD) to feverishly write cloud-based CAD programs and viewers that run in today’s heavy-duty web browsers.

Figure 1: OnShape collaborating in a Mac Web browser and on an iPhone at the same time.

Figure 1: OnShape collaborating in a Mac Web browser and on an iPhone at the same time.

Enter OnShape
The most serious of these renewed efforts is OnShape. I label it “serious,” because it has snagged the largest amount of investor money ($64 million to date) and is being lead by one of the most storied development teams in the CAD world. Besides instantly recognizable names like SolidWorks founder and CEO Jon Hirschtick and former CEO John McEleney, OnShape’s leadership includes original SolidWorks developer and former VP of R&D, Dave Corcoran, as well as SolidWorks co-founder and former VP of new product concepts, Scott Harris. In total, eight former SolidWorks employees and managers helped start the company, which has since grown to 50 employees.

Back when SolidWorks was launched in 1995, it surprised the industry by running only on Windows. This was at the time when serious CAD ran on Unix, like Pro/E, or on DOS, like AutoCAD. CAD on Windows was thought to perhaps have some potential, just as today CAD on servers is considered “interesting.”

The OnShape guys are determined to rewrite MCAD for the post-Windows age. As such, it has to run on any kind of hardware and operating system, access files from a central repository, allow simultaneous editing by many users, and throw away difficult aspects, such as saving, backing up, forking and revising models.

In short, OnShape wants something that functioned like SolidWorks but works like Google Docs. After nearly three years of development, the new software is ready to be unveiled.

Using OnShape
In January, the folks at OnShape gave me access to the beta program so I could experienced the software for myself. The MCAD program is both a history-based parametric modeler and a direct modeler/editor. It runs in any modern web browser, which means the operating system is immaterial — Linux, OS X, Windows. However, due to the small screen sizes of Android and iOS devices, the company is writing native OnShape apps for these two platforms (see figure 1).

 Figure 2: Version tracking is shown graphically in OnShape.

Figure 2: Version tracking is shown graphically in OnShape.

I accessed the program by going to the site and found that files loaded fairly quickly, but that editing and making view changes ran more slowly. I tested OnShape on two Windows computers: One a quad-core 3.1GHz desktop and the other a dual-core 2.7GHz machine. Even though the speeds were similar, the quad-core computer worked significantly faster than the dual-core, so it appears that cores matter. Opening files that need to be translated occurred nearly as quickly as opening native files.

Model files are not stored locally, but on servers. At this point, OnShape operates server farms located on the West and East coasts of the United States, Ireland and Asia. To keep everything together, the model and all of its support files are stored in a single container file. There is no Save command so that we don’t need to think about saving or backing up drawings. Instead, there is a Save Version command that archives the current state of the model.

At this early stage in development, the number and variety of OnShape commands is basic. The reason is that, when writing a brand-new Google Docs-like CAD system, there is a great deal of work at the beginning to write the file and collaboration portions that underpin the web-based program.

As a result, collaborating on a model involves emailing a URL; anyone receiving it gets full access to the program and the model. Parts can be edited simultaneously, down to the feature level. The program supports forking to create variations of models, as well as merging to bring multiple versions together again. To keep track of things, versions, forks and merges are displayed graphically (see Figure 2).

Most of the commands are located in a single line of icons, a few having flyouts. The icons displayed depend on the modeling mode — parts, assemblies or sketches. Figure 3 shows the commands available for creating and editing parts next to the word “Sketch.”

Pause the cursor over an icon to get a paragraph of help text. Clicking the icon displays a docked dialog box with the command’s options. More than one user can work in this dialog box at the same time — whoever clicks the green checkmark last, wins. In fact, I could sign in twice into my own account on two different computers and work on the same model that way.

As an alternative to icons, users can enter shortcuts on the keyboard, such as Shift+E to extrude or D to apply dimensions. Right-clicking a part displays a shortcut menu with display commands, such as Hide Other Parts.

Figure 3: History tree in OnShape (at left), editing a fillet (dialog box next door), help tip (at center) and view cube (at right). Tabs along the bottom hold parts, assemblies and support files.

Figure 3: History tree in OnShape (at left), editing a fillet (dialog box next door), help tip (at center) and view cube (at right). Tabs along the bottom hold parts, assemblies and support files.

Models are displayed in wireframe, hidden, shaded and other visual styles in orthographic or perspective viewpoints, as well as three forms of isometric view. A viewcube rotates the model in steps. Zoom, pan and rotate are available from the middle mouse button, naturally. The program does not, however, have specific touch controls; just the few that work with all programs in Windows 8.

The pancake button (three horizontal lines) lets me select units, specify properties, rename the model and print. Printing is rudimentary at this early stage, and in fact did not work for me. I got a print preview in a separate browser tab, but then my laser printer spat out a blank sheet.

I really liked the tabs along the bottom of the OnShape window. They segregate the open drawing into different aspects. In separate tabs, I can open parts (this is known as the “Part Studio”), assemblies and support files like PDFs, scans and photographs. Indeed, there can be more than one Assembly tab, each with a different collection of parts. The 2D drafting portion of the program was not, unfortunately, ready for me to test.

Price and Availability
The base price of OnShape is free. This includes all the functions and is not limited by time. The catch is, however, that all our models are available to everyone else. I suppose this is one way to quickly build up a parts warehouse. To make models private, you need to pony up $100 per month per user.

OnShape Beta is available now at At some point in the future, the application will achieve Release 1.0 status. In the meantime, the company plans to keep adding functions, while they look for partners to provide ancillary operations like FEA and CAM.

OnShape is another attempt to create a CAD system that runs well over the Internet. This has its advantages, such as having no program to install, accessing the program and models from anywhere by one or many users, and working with most operating systems. But because it relies on the Internet, we cannot use it off-line, so it could suffer from latency (delays between our browsers and their servers), and the software is always updated, whether we want it or not.

The company designed their new program to be attractive to existing SolidWorks users, yet not be unfamiliar to users of similar programs, like Inventor or Solid Edge. Now it’s up to those users to figure out if working on the web is preferable to the desktop.
The team behind this software is smart, and has spent much time thinking about how an MCAD system should operate in 2015 and beyond. They are taking as much a gamble with the web as they did twenty years ago with Windows 95.

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