A few different articles have popped up over the last few days discussing Jon Hirschtick, his new company and the Browser based CAD product, Onshape. Predominantly they have focused on the enviable history of those in charge and the recent success of raising a decent whack of funding to continue development. You have to give this team respect, they absolutely nailed it with Solidworks from the mid 90’s onwards, then John McEleney and his executive team went on to grow Solidworks into a US$400m revenue company, they clearly know what they are doing! But let’s not hide from Onshape’s elephant in the room, Autodesk delivered Fusion 360 several years ago now and it was in development long before that. Onshape have their work cut out, and as of today they will be doing it publicly with the launch of OnShape Beta. So how are they doing?
Design & Motion have had access to Onshape for a couple of months now. Personally I haven’t played with it anywhere near as much as I would’ve liked, so this evening I threw myself into it, watched most of the tutorial videos and set about trying to recreate Jon Landeros’ 12 sided dice.
Free – This edition, touted for students, makers and startups, is fully featured, but limited to 5 active private documents. You can create unlimited numbers of public documents, but nested away under the feature pull downs is a limit of 5GB storage space. We can’t tell the size of each document, so there’s no way of telling how many documents you can store publicly, at this point it’s not clear if the storage limitation applies to both private and public documents, or just the 5 private ones.
Professional – The first paid for version of Onshape. At US$100 per user per month right off the bat, and for a beta grade product… it seems a bit steep. But, Onshape will need some revenue and there is no better gauge of a product’s usefulness than if people will actually pay for it. What did take me by surprise was the lack of a discount for the annual subscription, that rolls in at US$1200. For that money you get ‘Unlimited’ private documents and billing management tools. I put unlimited in quotes, because again there is a storage limit of 100GB.
Enterprise – This level of the product is Price On Application. So I would imagine it would be much better pricing based on your negotiating skills and the clout you can wield within the industry. Most of the additional goodies revolve around enterprise level support & SLA’s etc.
While you can’t tell the size of individual documents, you can see the amount of storage you have used so far from your account page. So far my account contains 3 basic parts, and I’m up to 31.59 MB…. they are some seriously storage hungry documents.
When you first get access to Onshape your initial view of the product is the Documents page. Here you can access and view your Private documents, but also Public documents. Tutorial and sample files and can be accessed from the navigation pane on the left side of the page. Essentially it’s no different to using Windows Explorer, but with a web UI twist. Each document displayed in the center of the page is listed in a Detail view, with a settings button at the end of each row. This allows you to inspect the history and versions of the document, as well as share and make the document inactive.
Inactive? What’s that all about? At this stage I think it only applies to the Free product. So you can actually create more than the 5 documents listed, up to your storage limit. I haven’t come across any significant road blocks as a result of the active/inactive behaviour. But I would imagine it being a pain when it comes to collaborating with others. And that’s the point I believe, after all, they need us to pay for the use of this tool.
So what’s a document? Essentially it represents a single design set, within the document you can create parts, assemblies and eventually drawings. These appear at the bottom of the screen in tabs, Onshape refer to these different environments as ‘Studios’. I actually quite like that name and may give a hint of what’s to come with the product.
One area of the Documents I haven’t really explored yet, and one which is clearly at the forefront of this product from an architectural standpoint, is the version branching. I will try to circle back and review that in a later post. I’m keen to compare it to the similar functionality about to be released later this week with Autodesk’s Fusion 360. Exploring design ideas, managing internal change but also change imposed by customers is a big deal within design and engineering companies the world over. This feature could end up being a big differentiator between the two products, making it inherently functional but intuitive will be important for these ‘next-gen’ CAD products.
Help & Tutorials
One area where Onshape has to perform is within the support network for the product. They don’t have a worldwide network of support staff and sales people yet (although they are openly accepting applications for partners). Is it needed? I don’t think it’s needed for sales necessarily, but large deals in large companies are done face to face. There is no doubt the current Onshape sales team will be doing face to face sales with large companies in the USA moving forward. But the general stand alone user and SMB, probably couldn’t care less. What they will care about though, is getting good support and training. Can that be delivered satisfactory with online resources & phone support? That remains to be seen. So what is there now?
At any point you can access Help, Videos and Tutorials from the Help drop-down menu in the top right corner of every page. So far I haven’t done any tutorials, but I have watched most of the videos and used the help file. I enjoyed watching the videos and the help file is well laid out and appears to be complete. Without a support channel in the form of resellers around the world to provide a support buffer, I’m interested to see how well they keep this documentation and these videos up to date as the product quickly develops, and navigates in line with users needs. This is an area where Fusion 360 has struggled, you often find videos & tutorials for Fusion features, but the product has moved on since then. As you will find within CAD departments with Standards documentation, it can be hard to keep up with the pace of change. Cloud driven products accentuate this more than ever.
I slipped straight into sketching in Onshape, it’s remarkably similar to Autodesk Inventor, placing sketch dimensions is visually different, but ultimately you are just typing in a dimension or Expression. Onshape refer to them as parameters, but to be clear, Onshape doesn’t support parametric sketching yet. There is no provision for global variables, you can however type in a wide array of expressions as values for dimensions (as well as mates in the assembly environment). There are also a number of cues within the sketch environment very familiar to me from Fusion 360.
The problem is, sketching is inherently a fiddly process and therefore it’s one which demands a dexterous user interface. As soon as your internet connection gets squeezed so does the responsiveness of the UI. This translates to multiple attempts at activating the dimension to edit it, or waiting for a sketch highlight to highlight only to become frustrated a click it again thinking you missed it… then you realise you just deselected the damn thing. The user interface is to it’s create more nimble than other cloud hosted UI’s I’ve played with from New Zealand, but they weren’t saleable products and not something being touted for production use. What is clear though is WebGL and browser based UI’s are improving fast (So is NZ’s local internet and connection to the USA).
Currently, the sketch environment doesn’t contain any tools for creating text objects, so I had to draw my 1 & 2 manually. In that respect I couldn’t reasonably recreate the embossing typically found on the face of dice. I really couldn’t be bothered trying to sketch out each number. It was upon zooming this close to my model, that I discovered an issue with the way the selections work when applying selections (I haven’t provided this feedback to Onshape yet). To select multiple sketch objects, you don’t have to hold down CTRL or SHIFT, you can just keep clicking. You can click a second time to deselect objects, but to completely reset the selections, you have to click on the graphics window background. That is fine if you aren’t zoomed right in. It’s not a major, but I found it threw me a few times and found it awkward to work around.
At first glance it seems like most of the modelling tools you would need are in the part environment. There are quite a few, but the immediate one I found to be missing while starting to create this dice, was a boundary patch command. I couldn’t find a way to create a flat surface other than extruding one. I worked around it by starting the model with an oversized lump, then hacking it up with work planes, splitting the solid into two bodies and deleting the orphaned body. Boundary patches are essential in CAD modelling, so I have no doubt they won’t be far away. It is still the first day of the beta after all.
There were a lot of work planes to create for this model… about 12 funnily enough. But the process, although repetitive, was a breeze. Onshape have done a good job with the user experience when creating work planes.
One of my favourite modelling features so far, is the ability to select faces within the Chamfer tool. Inventor and Fusion require the user to select the edges they want chamfered. Onshape’s pedigree is showing through here, since Solidworks allows face selections for chamfers and fillets also. This will save a tonne of time eventually.
Beyond this I haven’t explored the modelling tools any further yet. But it is clear they are currently very limited, which you may be surprised to hear having already read popular press covering Onshape in the last 24 hours.
The assembly environment is an area where I need to spend some time, but I was curious about some of the samples. I quite liked the look of this cute little fan mechanism, upon opening I fondled it somewhat, only to find it doesn’t work. The components are all Mated into position, but none of them interact with one another (i.e: the gears don’t work). Clearly this is an area which will be improved.
But what surprised me about this particular assembly was the lack of edge smoothing being applied to the blue ring. Graphics of that quality are not acceptable by many in desktop products. Again I have no doubt this will be something the Onshape team will be keen to work on.
I have of course watched the assembly tutorial videos to see what it’s all about. I was pleased to see Onshape’s Mates are very similar to the Joints found in Autodesk Inventor and Fusion. This approach is far more user & simulation friendly than the old skool Mates found in Solidworks and Constraints found in Inventor. In addition to being able to create Mates between placed components, you can create some additional design intelligence by applying Mate Connectors to your components prior to them getting anywhere near being used in an assembly. These in turn speed up the placement of the components and avoids repeated application of the same Mates in future assemblies.
Earlier on today and late last night (just prior to the beta going live), I noticed a significant performance drop off from what I had been used to with Onshape. I had to continually reload the page whenever I opened a new document. The Onshape team were very responsive with respect to dealing with the issue, as evidenced with this tweet from John Rousseau:
@ScottMoyse: Onshape network ops is looking into your issue. We made a perf change in Asia. Let me know if you see improvement. Thanks.
— jrrousseau (@jrrousseau) March 9, 2015
To John’s credit, also immediately after that tweet, I didn’t see that connectivity issue again. However, I do still spend a lot of time looking at this rotating wheel of boredom. This product isn’t as snappy and responsive as it needs to be. I have fibre at my home office and the office in Auckland, in both those locations the UI lag is tolerable, but it does take a while to load documents still. Then I was using a hotel ADSL connection last night, and honestly, the experience was horrible. And this is the challenge Onshape must overcome to make this product successful. It’s all very well having it perform within the major centers of the USA, but the internet in New Zealand is faster than it is in the vast majority of continental USA. How many servers, in how many locations around the world can Onshape afford to have running to deal with this user experience issue?
As I mentioned earlier WebGL, HTML5 & Internet connectivity are all improving at such a blinding pace, these issues will likely dissipate over the next 2-3 years. But in the meantime, Onshape need to keep customers paying $100 a month.
I am aware this is day 2 of the beta, I can’t be too harsh, and some of my comments about product may seem harsh to some. But Onshape are asking people to pay to use this product from day 1, some they say, already are. So that notion has been in the back of my mind while writing this up.
Although it may not have seemed like it at times, I am genuinely glad Onshape has arrived on the scene. Fusion 360 & Onshape will drive each other forward and hopefully keep each other honest. Competition is good. However, my biggest disappointment with Onshape so far relates to a word I used in the opening paragraph, Respect. Onshape have continually brushed off the existence of Fusion 360 as viable competition for them, I don’t think they have used the name Fusion once. Fusion 360 started out life as a desktop based technology preview, Inventor Fusion, available from Autodesk Labs in mid 2009. Then in March 2013, it graduated into a full blown cloud hosted CAD product sitting inside a custom browser. While it did work (with similar issues I’ve experience with Onshape), it wasn’t what users wanted. Autodesk listened, and chose to focus on a hybrid approach. This kept users coming, trying the product, then continuing to use it. So all this ongoing hoopla about Onshape being the first true CAD product in the cloud, is misleading and assumes the users they are communicating with to be fools. Business is business, but so is competition and with competition, there is sportsmanship. If an up and coming athlete behaved the way Onshape have been, then their peers and fans would most likely look quite dimly on it. Far better to acknowledge the competition in public, then take greater joy from kicking their arse in the future.
I enjoyed reading Adam O’herns post earlier today, the first few paragraphs got me all riled up but he then diffused me with aplomb. However, I don’t entirely agree with one section of his post:
“What about all those folks buying ShopBots, OtherMills, Carveys, Form 1’s, and those love-to-hate Makerbots? Every stinkin’ one of ‘em just signed up for Onshape. What about the rapidly increasing number of engineering contractors, freelancers, and boutique design shops all over the world, Dads with too many power tools, kids who take things apart, or anyone currently using Sketchup?”
While I think they should definitely sign up and take a look at Onshape, at this stage they really would be silly to use it over and above Fusion 360. They just get so much more from it from freeform surfacing to FEA and CAM to 3D printing. Given the fact Onshape do have a free plan, you would be silly not to sign up and have a play. I will say this, from the very first time I tried to use Inventor Fusion until very recently with Fusion 360 I found it a struggle to ‘click’ with the program. But Onshape immediately felt different, I felt relatively comfortable pretty quickly (helped by it’s similarities to Autodesk software), for all it’s issues and challenges ahead, it does have a certain ‘Je ne sais quoi’. I even quite like all that grey iconography.