CAD Report: Onshape Update
Nearing its second birthday, the cloud-based MCAD design upstart shows how rapidly it’s maturing.1
Onshape is currently the golden boy of the CAD world. Other CAD vendors are finding ways to reflect some of the glow onto themselves, or else see the upstart as a clear and present danger to their future existence. On one side, there are organizations like Graebert and Open Design Alliance who are working with Onshape directly. On the other side, Autodesk CEO Carl Bass, on Autodesk’s official blog, welcomed the new competitor on the day Onshape launched out of beta by blasting Onshape executives’ assessment of the MCAD market as “hyperbolic and misleading.”
The reason for the joy and the trembling is due to the US$169-million war chest Onshape has accumulated from investors. That, and the fact that, in a mere two years, Onshape has successfully produced a working MCAD program that actually doesn’t care about the desktop. They weren’t the first; Alibre did the same back in 2000, but the Internet infrastructure of the day couldn’t support something as graphics-heavy as MCAD. It was gaming that pushed Web standards committees to add interactivity between servers and browsers to make something like Onshape work well.
How Onshape Works
To run the Onshape MCAD system for the first time, I opened a Web browser to www.onshape.com and then clicked Register. I signed up and then waited a few moments as the MCAD system loaded and then it waited for me to do something, (See Figure 1). Now that I am registered, I can use my sign-in to run Onshape on any other computer with a Web browser and an Internet connection – whether a Chromebook, Linux box, MacOS laptop or Windows machine.
It is truly independent of the operating system. The only catches are that the Web browser has to be supported by Onshape (as most modern ones are) and that the Internet connection speed has to be reasonable. Onshape needs a modern browser because it runs the HTML5 and WebGL code needed to display, interact with and refresh CAD models – older browsers can’t do this. While I can run Onshape in a browser on Android or iOS devices, the company has written apps specific to these two operating systems (See Figure 2).
Onshape doesn’t work with “drawings” or “models,” but uses the more general term “documents.” It does this to emphasize that a drawing isn’t limited to 2D or 3D views, such as in AutoCAD’s Layout and Model modes (tabs). Documents have as many tabs as I need, each storing any kind information: Individual parts, each in their own tabs; different versions of assemblies; drawing layouts (generated drawings); renderings; raster images; PDFs and other kinds of documents useful for a design job. With some exceptions, different kinds of data have to be in their own tab.
“If you like your software, you can’t keep your software,” to misquote a former U.S. president. A drawback to cloud software is that the company that made it can add, change and/or remove functions at will, and I have no say in the matter. I can’t freeze the release, as I can with desktop software. While continual updates are marketed as a good thing (when it involves new and improved functions), it can also involve deprecation.
For example, when Onshape first launched in 2015, I could work on up to five drawings privately for free. For a while, Onshape increased the number to six; now it’s zero. What this means is that anything I draw with Onshape is seen by all other registered users. This limitation goes away when I pay $125 monthly or $1,200 annually. This negative change lessens the program’s utility for documenting patents undertaken by hobbyists, for instance.
As is pretty much standard now in the CAD industry, the full software is free to students and teachers – documents are tagged with an EDU label.
The two big additions since I last wrote about Onshape are add-ons and programming. Onshape hosts an online app store at appstore.onshape.com (See Figure 3). Add-ons include exporter-importers, 3D printing assistance, renderers, analyzers and BOMs. I counted 41 add-ons in total. Some are free; the others are free to try. Onshape handles the billing, making it part of your monthly invoice. Add-ons are either integrated, connected or desktop. “Integrated” means the add-on runs inside Onshape; “connected” means the add-on runs externally and communicates via file data; “desktop” means the add-on links Onshape with a desktop program.
I found installing an add-on as easy as using Apple’s app store, initially: Choose an app and then click Free or Buy. I chose a rendering add-on that is still in beta, so it was free. But then I found it got more complicated. Just like the Apple store, Onshape asked for my password, even for free stuff (grrr). To use the new add-on, I clicked Onshape’s + menu, selected Add Application and then chose the name of the add-on. It opened in its own tab, but then Onshape asked in a Google-like fashion if I wanted to let the add-on access my account.
With the paperwork out of the way, the renderer took longer than I expected to render a simple 3D part, partly because I had to wait for the remote renderer to wake up. After I chose a 3D model and checked off some options, Onshape shipped the model to the renderer. A few moments later, the image appeared in my browser. That’s not a knock on Onshape, as I’ve found other online rendering systems can also be a lengthy, cumbersome process.
Last June, the programmers at Onshape made public their FeatureScript programming language. I would use it if I wanted to macro-ize repetitive actions or write functions that manipulate geometry that Onshape hasn’t implemented, kind of like what AutoLISP is good at.
As it turns out, all of Onshape’s geometric functions are built with FeatureScript. The company released the code library at www.onshape.com/featurescript. Like my drawings, the code I write can be shared with other Onshape users, and I can see what they’ve written, in case they’ve done something I find useful.
To use FeatureScript, I click the Add Custom Features icon on Onshape’s toolbar, and then choose a program to run or start writing a new one. The programing editor opens in a new browser window (See Figure 4.).
Onshape’s Corporate Tactics
At a conference in Berlin, Bob Miner of Onshape R&D described the company’s tactic to move from a startup to a mature MCAD package: By being agile and releasing new code every 3-4 weeks – 18 updates a year. Being cloud-based means I never download and install any updates; they are just there the next time I start the program in my browser. (The Android and iOS apps still need to be updated with downloads and installs.) I found, however, that Onshape doesn’t highlight changes, so I don’t know what’s new until I visit the company’s blog.
At the time of this writing, Onshape has released a new function that edits parts in the context of the assembly. This is not new for old-timer MCAD systems, but shows why Onshape needs to release new functions often and quickly.
In a twist from traditional CAD systems, however, Onshape baked in collaboration and version control from the beginning, even before the first beta was released. Collaborating is as easy as with Goggle Docs: I send a link to the document to other engineers and specify the level of access, such as view-only or full editing rights. When I branch off changes to parts and assemblies, Onshape tracks the divergent paths with version control in the global document. Desktop MCAD systems usually charge extra for add-ons that do this work.
As it is a very privately-held company, we don’t know how well Onshape is doing – how many users it has or how quickly it is burning through investment funds. The company speaks of tens of thousands of users. That $169 million in funding generates more than $4 million a year in interest for the company, so it could coast for quite some time. In a way, these metrics don’t matter, for it already has cemented its place in history as redefining what is possible with cloud-based MCAD.
I can’t tell you if browser-based Onshape is a better way to draw and edit models. All its functions are free to try, and there is no typical 30-day limit. As for me, I prefer the instant response of desktop CAD systems where I pay once, get to determine the update schedule and where all my drawings are private.
Onshape, however, may well have functions compelling enough for you that put it ahead of traditional MCAD, such as its FeatureScript programming language and version control system.
Ralph Grabowski writes on the business of CAD in his weekly upFront.eZine newsletter. He is the author of many articles and books about AutoCAD, BricsCAD, Visio and other graphics software. He also maintains the WorldCAD Access blog at