CAD Report: MCAD on the go

Mobile CAD-related apps have progressed in recent years but which are worth becoming part of the design process? 

0 November 1, 2017
by Ralph Grabowski

The mobile market is a brutal one. Google and Apple boast that their online stores host more than a million apps each, many of which are trivial. So how do serious developers get noticed above the noise? It helps to have been in there early, as Autodesk was; AutoCAD 360, for example, has somewhere between ten to fifty million installs on Android alone. In CAD, nothing else comes close. (For installs, Google reports a range of numbers, whereas Apple reports only “likes,” a much less accurate figure.) Another reason for AutoCAD 360’s high number is as the CEO of a competitor told me, “Why should we bother writing a DWG app when Autodesk already did it for us?”

The CAD industry loves playing coy about seat numbers, but Google’s app store shines a harsh light on the true utility of mobile apps. For instance, at the far end of the install scale is the PLM app from Oracle, which I would think should be rather popular, but has just 100-500 Android installs. Perhaps people who use PLM are desktop-bound and don’t need to access PLM on the go – or use iPads instead. PTC, for instance, has no Android apps, but develops all its mobile apps for iOS only.

The mobile market is also topsy-turvy; software that’s big on desktops could flop on mobile devices or not even exist. Siemens, for example, probably has the most mobile apps of any CAD-related company, and yet when I search for “CAD” apps, neither Apple nor Google listed any from Siemens. (Apps returned by a search can vary by geographic location.) Dassault Systemes has several mobile apps but none for its CATIA MCAD program and just one for Solidworks (eDrawings).

Once developers navigate the permission hoops to host their apps in the stores, staying there requires an income. But how do developers get paid in an online economy that expects apps to be free? Even the typical price of 99 cents is effectively free, from the developers’ point of view, once Apple and Google take their 30% cut. Developers can’t sustain themselves on these tiny amounts, unless they have an enormous user base.

So developers turn to making an income by adding advertising to their apps, by releasing Pro versions that cost more and/or by charging subscriptions to collect money annually. Some, like Autodesk, pressure customers to pay by removing functions with updates to the free version, $50 a year in the case of AutoCAD 360. Once users are on subscription, developers then try to increase the annual charge over time.

Chief technology officers tell me that when a price tag is involved, Android revenues tend to be smaller than iOS revenues. While Android devices command approximately 85 percent market share, the people who buy pricey iOS devices are more likely to spend more on apps later.

Sometimes, however, pricing tactics don’t work. Siemens, for instance, reverted from an annual subscription to a one-time purchase for CatchBook, perhaps because Android installs of the app are a rather dismal 1,000-5,000 users. Similarly, IMSI/Design initially charged $995 for their TurboSite Pro app, then backed down to $200. When the revenues aren’t there, the developer stops developing, resulting in abandonware. The last time IMSI/Design updated its Turbo line of DWG viewing apps for Android was nearly three years ago, although the company does continue to update its apps for iOS devices.

Anatomy of Survivors

If the app market is this brutal, who’d want to stay in it? The fact is, some CAD vendors make money at it, while others see mobile as a form of marketing. Several provide access to the mobile version as a benefit to having an annual license with the desktop version.

To compile the following list of MCAD apps available in 2017, I searched the Apple and Google online stores for the keyword “CAD,” which returned about 40 apps in each app store. I then narrowed the field to those updated in the past 12 months, an indication that the developers are still paying attention to the software. As a result, I didn’t look at otherwise popular apps like GrabCAD or Autodesk Inventor Publisher, since they haven’t been updated in more than three years.

Each review lists the app’s price and popularity as indicated by the number of installs on Android. I installed them to see how well they worked. If an app runs on both Android and iOS, they tend to operate nearly identically. I did not review apps meant primarily for working with DWG files, as they tend to emphasize 2D and have limited 3D capability.

3D Model Viewers

The most common mobile app for MCAD is the file viewer, which often allows redlining (markup) and perhaps translation to other formats.

CAD Models from CADENAS
Price: Free, with advertising
Installs: 100,000-500,000
Registration: Not required
Internet connection: Required

Figure 1: CAD Models from CADENAS.

Hosting part catalogs from 800 suppliers, this app consists of a database that finds 2D and 3D CAD models by type, name, QR code or visual part searches. For a 2D search, we sketch the part using the simple editor; for 3D searches, we upload an STL or STEP file.

Once we select the part, we view it interactively in 3D on the screen, or with Cardboard or red-green glasses – even rendered with backgrounds (Figure 1). Users have access to the part’s dimensioned 2D plans (although sometimes at low resolution), and then download it in any of dozens of formats, including Solidworks, JT, DWG, 3D PDF or TIFF – or all of them at once. The app also shows “paper” catalogs from suppliers in PDF form and can request quotations from local distributors.

The large number of functions explains the popularity of this app. The primary irritant is that the app has no tooltips for its many UI icons, and so I found myself stumbling around. The primary limitation is that, being a parts catalog, this app doesn’t display user-created models; for that, you would need another app, such as one of those listed next.

Fusion 360 from Autodesk
Price: Free
Installs: 100,000-500,000
Registration: Required
Internet connection: Required

Figure 2: Fusion 360 by Autodesk

Despite the name being identical to the desktop program, this app does not create or edit 3D models; it only views and marks them up, albeit from “more than 100 CAD formats.” (Figure 2) However, we cannot access any of the app’s functions until we register with Autodesk. With credentials entered, all the files stored in Autodesk’s cloud become immediately available. One surprising drawback is that Fusion does not show thumbnails or file types of models, so we have to rely on filenames alone.

Once a file is open, we view the assembly and its parts and can isolate, slice and mark them up. All work is done on Autodesk servers, so Fusion operates only when connected to the Internet. Fusion is one of the rare apps that provide helpful mini-tutorials for first-time users.

TFT Pad from TFTLabs
Price: Free
Installs: 10,000-50,000
Registration: Not required
Internet connection: Not required, but needed for full interaction

This app is meant to show off the capabilities of TFT Labs, one of the most significant translation providers in the MCAD industry. First, though, we need to upload our 3D models in CATIA, Pro/E, NX, Solidworks, Inventor, and other formats (maximum 10MB) to TFT’s Web site for conversion to JSON3D (JavaScript Object Notation), a compressed format designed for Web pages. After this, we can view them in this app, which only displays them: No slicing, no changing their render modes, nor emailing them. Very basic.

CAD Exchanger by CADEX
Price: Free, $30/year subscription required to export
Installs: 1,000-5,000
Registration: Not required
Internet connection: Not required

Figure 3: CAD Exchanger from CADEX

This app imports, displays and exports 3D models, but only industry standard formats, such as ACIS, Brep, IGES, and JT – no proprietary formats like Solidworks or NX. Many sample files in several supported formats are included in the installation, so no WiFi connection is needed for them.

The viewer can show the model’s structure like parts of assemblies (Figure 3). To import files larger than 10MB and/or to export them, we need to pay a $30/year subscription, the first 30 days being free.

VR CAD Viewer for Cardboard by Sebastian Dombrowski
Price: Free
Installs 500-1,000
Registration: Not required
Internet connection: Not required

Figure 4: VR CAD Viewer for Cardboard by Sebastian Dombrowski

This app displays 3D models in VR devices like Google’s Cardboard so that we can see them in actual 3D. Even the user interface is adapted to Cardboard (Figure 4). The problem is that models need to be in OBJ format, which few CAD programs output. In practice, the Cardboard interaction didn’t work great for me; I needed to tilt my head all the way back to see the top of the model or bend over deeply to see its bottom.

MCAD Programs

It’s not easy running an MCAD program on a mobile device. It has limitations, such as the limited amounts of operating RAM (iOS devices suffer from this the most) and user interface hindrances. Our finger tends to cover over that which we are most interested in editing. Nevertheless, here are a pair of the very few apps that actually create and edit parametric drawings.

Onshape from Onshape
Price: Free or subscription
Installs: 50,000-100,000
Registration: Required
Internet connection: Required

onshape-android MCAD

Figure 5: Onshape from Onshape

Onshape is famous for getting $168 million in funding to attempt to unseat Solidworks with a Web-based, cloud-only MCAD program. While browser-based CAD works reasonably well on the desktop, mobile browsers are not as powerful and so Onshape needed to write apps specific to Android and iOS.

Upon starting the Onshape app, we don’t get anywhere until we enter our credentials, just like Fusion 360. Be aware that Onshape is very picky about the password, so the ones regularly used at other sites probably won’t work. Once in, we are in public mode, where any drawing we create can be seen by all other Onshape users (Figure 5). To make our models private, we need to pay $1,440 a year, which includes the desktop version that runs in Web browsers.

This 2D sketching app has a special ingredient: It uses parametric technology to automatically recognize lines and circles from the squiggles we sketch with our finger, and even places constraints on the geometry (Figure 6). As a bonus, it starts off with a series of interactive tutorials, which is rare among apps. The free version is rather limited, so to start new drawings and save them we need to pony up $5, a one-time fee, to export our drawings to DXF, SVF or PDF is another $3/year.

Catchbook by Siemens PLM Software
Price: Free; $5; $3/yr subscription
Installs: 1,000-5,000
Registration: Not required
Internet connection: Not required

Figure 6: Catchbook by Siemens PLM Software

I myself am not keen on using full CAD on mobile devices, but mobile apps are great for viewing drawings to solve problems that arise on job sites and recording changes. Many apps for Android and iOS devices are free to try. Even if you have to pay for an app, you can get a refund from Google easily, and ask for one from Apple – but within 48 hours. When considering an app that involves files, make sure it works with email and/or Dropbox-like services. When I find a good app that works for me, I enjoy paying the developers. They deserve our support.

Ralph Grabowski writes on the business of CAD on his WorldCAD Access blog ( and weekly upFront.eZine newsletter. He has authored many articles and books on AutoCAD, BricsCAD, Visio and other design software.

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