I was setting up to do an interview with John McEleney on Onshape, but I realized the conversation won’t mean much if we don’t know much about the software. So I need to cover some basic facts about Onshape first, before we continue talking about more esoteric details with John. Onshape has been around for a few years by now, but to be honest, I just haven’t paid much attention because I’ve been wrapped up in other things.
First, and this is more for my benefit than yours, it’s Onshape. Not OnShape or On Shape, On-Shape, ONSHAPE, or even One Shape. CAD companies and their capitalization/concatenation fetishes…. And yes, it’s full-on cloud CAD. Why am I of all people reporting on cloud CAD? First, I think there is some value in cloud CAD, even if it’s not for everyone. Second, there has been more development here than just cloud development.
The cloud CAD bit gets all the headlines, but you can decide for yourself if that is warranted later on. After taking a look at Onshape, I personally think the choices of what to develop and what not to develop have gone well past the simple cloud/local question. It is this list of other things that interests me most about Onshape for the purposes of this article in particular. In this article, I want to enumerate some important objective facts about Onshape (and this has all been checked by Mr. McEleney) to make sure we are basing opinions on real information, not on debatable statements or opinions or misconceptions or worse yet, lies.
Here are some aspects of Onshape that you will find familiar:
1) History-based – I was frankly hoping for something from Onshape that transcends history, but this is the route they went. History-based modeling has obviously worked for a lot of people for a long time, but the reasons for relying on it no longer exist, and I think we can do better. Onshape is making the most of this method, but to me personally, real progress in CAD would come in the form of something that steps beyond this aging paradigm.
2) Parasolid – Parasolid is powerful and popular. The Onshape team is familiar with it from SolidWorks days. What’s not to like here?
So, what is it that makes Onshape more than just SolidWorks reprogrammed for the cloud? When you look at the software, it does have that general appearance of looking like SolidWorks, or Solid Edge, or Creo, with the feature tree on the left, toolbars on the top, orientation tool in one corner. A lot of it looks familiar. But here is some stuff that isn’t so familiar:
The data in Onshape is stored in a database, not in traditional discreet files. This has a lot of implications, such as infinite undo, sharable features, a new solution to the external reference problems in traditional CAD, searchability, automatically attached metadata, total traceability, no need for pdm system (which in itself has a whole list of benefits), google docs sort of sharing, simultaneous file access, go back to any point in time on the design, there is no need to save – everything is a transaction. You can be designing on your laptop, shut the screen and login from some other device (no need to install software) and you are exactly where you were prior to shutting the screen. If the software crashes, there is no loss of data. It also means, for better or worse, you don’t share, transmit, or store data in the same way. For example, you can’t take native data out of the system, but on the other hand, there is no need to, because Onshape only exists on the Amazon AWS cloud servers.
Yeah, the software runs on cloud servers, and the data is stored in a database on cloud servers. Without pounding on the disadvantages of cloud (we’ve done that before, likely might do it again in the future), there are some advantages of being in the cloud, if you believe what the cloud proponents say. Centralizing the executables gives you certain efficiencies. First, only the administrator of the entire system has to do the upgrades when they come out every 3-4 weeks. That’s big. So you’re always using the latest stuff. No more downloading and testing, scripted installs, blah blah blah. You don’t have to have dedicated hardware (aside from a GPU in your device), so if you have a connection, you can CAD. This means distributed design teams, contractors with weird hours, and customers. The cloud also gives Google Docs type sharing. Just flip the switch for sharing. Subscription – as long as you keep paying, you still have access to your data. Usually this means smaller up-front costs than perpetual licenses, but you’re going to have to discover that for yourself, I’m not here to do a cost analysis this time. It looks like they have some partners set up for rendering, flow analysis, and CNC, but this would be another very important area where the whole cloud scheme could potentially hit a roadblock. Again, I’m not checking into this aspect at this time. Later we will have to ask questions such as what happens to your data when you stop paying? What happens if Onshape develops a new kernel? What happens if Onshape goes out of business? These are all valid possibilities that you should have answers to before committing the future of your company to this manner of storing your data.
3) Feature Script
This is a very cool programming language that allows Onshape users to create their own custom features. It treats the feature tree as a script, and as you remember, the feature tree is already stored in a database, so you wind up with scripts stored in the database. It essentially embraces the often-used criticism of history-based modeling that building a history-based model is more like writing a program than doing design or engineering. For example, if you want an asymmetrical fillet, you can copy the Fillet feature code, and change a few things to make a fillet that is twice as wide on one side as the other. Yes, you have to have some sort of programming skill to take advantage of this, but once its made, you can use it internally or share it with other users on the Onshape community. This is similar in some ways to a combination of libraries and macros, but feels more integrated.
If you’re looking for detailed functionality on a specific feature, you’re probably going to need to get a demo or a trial license to answer that type of question. For now, I’m just looking at this as generally as I can. You can get the full schpiel at Onshape.com. My next blog on Onshape will be the interview with Mr. McEleney where he will address some of the specific issues I’ve raised about cloud CAD in a previous blog post.