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Onshape’s Roll of the Dice – Initial Review

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.

Pricing Model

Onshape pricing

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.

My 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.

Onshape My Documents

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

Onshape Help and TutorialsOne 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.


Onshape Sketching

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.

Part Modelling

Onshape dice closup - part ribbon

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.

Onshape ChamferOne 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.


Onshape Sample Assembly

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.

Onshape MatesI 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.


Onshape Browser Based Errors

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:

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. Onshape LoadingI 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.

Closing thoughts

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.

GrabCAD Workbench just got a lot smarter…

Today was an exciting day. I’ve been following the development of over the past year or two and they keep impressing me.

I’ve always been excited by companies that diversify in unpredictable, but sensible directions. GrabCAD is one of these. Starting out as an online CAD file sharing platform, they broke the mold in the way they delivered their product, not only by using community sourced content, but also by creating a fun user experience with innovative features like point ranking systems for popular files and users. As their geometry-viewing technology improved, the site morphed into more of a web app with a lot more useful functionality and social media integration.

GrabCAD's content sharing portal, with social media integration


When GrabCAD first announced Workbench as a cloud based collaboration tool, I was keen to dive in and give it a go. It was fairly basic at that stage and I looked at it as “a good start.”

The real diversification started however, when they decided to become more than a content sharing tool, and add content creation/editing tools. In a somewhat timely fashion, Autodesk’s new 360 products, namely AutoCAD 360 and Fusion 360 arrived on the scene, and a partnership was set up which meant that GrabCAD users could now create and edit 2D and 3D geometry inside the GrabCAD environment. It should also be noted that Luxion added a GrabCAD integration for their very popular Keyshot, to allow rendered images to be sent directly from their application to GrabCAD. A GrabCAD app for mobile devices rounded out the sharing/viewing workflows to make an all-round pretty useful toolset.

There was something missing though……

Collaboration quite often means multiple users actively working on the same dataset, and when this happens, version control obviously becomes hugely important.

So coming back to why today was exciting. There was an announcement that GrabCAD had added a desktop sync client (think Dropbox for engineers), version control, and partner workspaces. I’ll go through these in a bit more detail below.

Desktop Client / Version Control:

The desktop client is the link between your GrabCAD workbench (in the cloud) and your computer (in your office). To set it up, you just download and install it, and then map a Workbench project to a local folder on your hard drive. It monitors differences between the local copy of the file and the cloud copy using Git (Wiki reference) technology which was developed for Software version control. This technology looks at file at a bit level and creates snapshots of the data which can be compared to see where differences have occurred. What this means, is that if someone that you are collaborating with, edits your files, the GrabCAD desktop client will detect that your local copy is no longer the latest, and it will give you the option of keeping your version, or getting the latest one from Workbench. The conflict resolution dialog is slick and the feedback is clear and concise. The application also provides quick links to your local folder.


GrabCAD Workbench desktop sync screen showing 408 changes that need to be uploaded to Workbench.

Figure 1 – Sync Screen showing 408 file differences that need to be uploaded

GrabCAD Workbench desktop sync details screen shows specific differences and status icons.

Figure 2 – Details Screen shows specific differences and status icons

The version control extends through to the Workbench cloud app, where a version history is kept, and features exist that allow you to compare differences between versions. Of particular note, is the cool little version compare slider, which lets you visualise the changes using a clever colorization key based on whether material has been added or removed.

GrabCAD Workbench version compare shows material removed (in purple) in web app.

Figure 3 – Version compare shows material removed (in purple)

Partner Workspaces

This is probably the feature I’m most excited about. A very common hassle for designers/engineers is getting their manufacturing data ready to be sent off, and then the actual process of sending it off, to the suppliers. While many tools exist for rapid creation of data such as profile cutting data, there aren’t many tight workflows for actually delivering this data. Most companies I have seen resort to sending it via email. Everybody knows the frustrations of following conversations by email. Let’s face it, it’s an old technology, and while it has its place, I think the delivery of manufacturing data can be done much better.

Enter Workbench Partner Spaces….

Right-click file in GrabCAD Workbench to add to a Partner Space.

Figure 4 – Right-click a file to add to a partner space

Partner spaces can be created and assigned to external teams / contractors / suppliers. Any files that you send to Partner Spaces will be accessible to the collaborators that you nominate for each one. The file doesn’t get moved from your original location, but what ends up in the Partner Space is effectively a link. This means that you can easily control who gets access to which data. The nice thing about this, is that your partners can review / comment on data in the workbench environment, and also visualise version changes and updates. Sure beats a long email trail.

Files shared in GrabCAD Workbench Partner Space.

Figure 5 – Files shared in a Partner Space

Here you can see files that have been assigned to Roy’s Router Room Partner Space. A short list of the files can be expanded in the browser, or full details viewed in the main window. On the right you can see the access control list. What I’d really like to see GrabCAD do now, is to make available some more property information, as well as filters, so that model files in the main Workbench project folder can be sorted and grouped by material, thickness. When this is possible, categorising your files to send to partner spaces will be a very very nice way to work.

Well done GrabCAD, keep up the good work and I look forward to hearing more exciting developments.


Fusion 360 Goes Live

Fusion 360 priceFour years to the day after Autodesk announced Inventor Fusion as a technology preview, Autodesk announce that Fusion 360, their cloud accessible 3D CAD modeling platform, is commercially available. The licensing cost is $25 USD / Month / user, however beginning today there is a 90 day free trial. Although significantly, the product will be completely free for Students and Enthusiasts, that’s a game changer right there.

Fusion 360 offers easy to use, easy to learn interactive direct modeling of solid objects, as well as complex surfacing capabilities via the integration of their T-Spines technology. One of my favorite parts of Fusion 360 is the ease of assembly; the interactive assembly joints are quite easy to apply and manipulate. Not only only do they get recognized within the simulation environment, but you can use them to create motion studies

Fusion 360 keeps track of your model version information in an easy to use project workspace, and keeps track of that information automatically. This frees the user from checking data in and out.

Fusion 360 implements the new Joints approach previously seen in Inventor 2014


Fusion 360 motion study

One of Fusion’s earliest claims to fame is their far reaching model format translation, able to import almost any format of 3D CAD model into their projects. Furthermore users can control which team members have access to the project data. The project data is tied to a Fusion 360 account that is perpetually available on the cloud, including when you don’t wish to license the service.

Fusion 360 Surfacing

Fusion 360 allows users to open the data and export it, you simply can’t edit it until you need to license the service again. This makes Fusion 360 possibly the most flexible, collaborative 3D modeling tool available.

A significant part of Fusion 360 is its Social Collaboration tools. The product leverages Autodesk’s 360 storage technology and builds a social interaction layer over the top of it. This allows users to interact with each others models, commenting, reviewing & requesting changes to better suit the overall design end goal.

Fusion 360 Project

Another announcement is coming in a few days that ties in another partnership with this service. Check back in this week for those details. In the meantime go download your trial and start playing with this awesome bit of kit:

Fusion 360 Download Link


PLM 360 | Is Your Existing Management System Losing Money?

I’m sure you’ve noticed that my PLM kick isn’t quite over. Yes we’re still on top of the Autodesk manufacturing industry, but I need to get through all this PLM stuff that’s trying to get out of my head.

I was performing a simplified cost analysis of a company’s existing management system, compared to the capabilities offered by PLM 360, as they relate to searching alone. This was important to me because I’m the poor bastard that often has to do all the seemingly complex data search tasks that no one else wants.

Existing ‘Not So Free’ System

Autodesk PLM 360 vs Time Many companies refer to their existing management system as a free system. Most of us use Microsoft Office products such as Outlook, Excel, and so on to do many project management tasks. Since we still need email and Excel for other purposes, and still have to purchase the licenses, the cataloguing expenses can be seen as essentially nil. Well, that’s not exactly true.

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Civil BIM | Is it Coming to my Cloud?

Scott and I have been working to bring out the best in Autodesk Vault and Autodesk PLM 360 as most of you know. Additionally, we’ve been looking at numerous Autodesk Labs offerings that are cloud based, as well as unmentionable non-Labs software that leverage the cloud in various ways.

Autodesk BIM 360

So I was interested when Autodesk announced BIM 360, the cloud centered civil collaboration platform. I asked about what other applications are planned for the civil side, and threw in Civil 3D. I ask this because of the continuing saga of transportation and BIM, or the lack thereof. Segments of the user community have been requesting more BIM functionality within Civil 3D, seeing the great benefits where applied in other circles, such as Revit. The specifics of these requests and which concentration of users are not important in this article, but might be worth mentioning later.

Infrastructure Modeler takes to the Skies

Infrastructure Modeler has been initiated on the cloud, with increased capabilities and the ability to pass information back and forth with Civil 3D, something that seems to be getting better as the product matures. I was given a link to a great article on the subject at Informed Infrastructure.

At present the tool is only capable of conceptual planning and collaborative design, but it is still a wonderful time saver, as it is much easier to perform numerous what-if scenarios, where the complexity in civil 3D is a hindrance… and my best client like to change his mind A LOT.

Autodesk Imfrastructure Modeler

Will this product be expanded beyond conceptual design?

The Recent Carl Bass Statement

Autodesk was a usual reluctant to make a statement regarding the specifics of and future plans. I specifically mentioned company CEO Carl Bass’ comment that everything Autodesk offered would be available on the cloud within the next three years, which indicated to me that there was likely a company mandate to do so. I imagine the company reaction going something like this: “Oh crap, did you hear what the boss just said? Well we’d better figure this one out fast”.  Hahahaha… who knows, but still, it’s funny because it could have happened that way.

Autodesk’s Response:

“Autodesk is very excited about the possibilities for cloud computing to enable our customers to do things that they simply can not do today.  We’ve already seen how Autodesk 360 is helping some customers with rendering, simulation and analysis using an almost infinite amount of computing power, and how other customers are achieving new levels of collaboration between stakeholders and in the field using mobile technologies.  You will see new cloud services and technologies from Autodesk that will help our customers move from a tool-centric approach to an information-centric approach, and enable companies and organizations of all sizes do more with their Autodesk software so they can imagine, design and create a better world.”

Some Painful Reality

Sentiments range from indifference to bitterness over Autodesk’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for a Civil 3D / BIM / Object oriented model structure, where structure is the key element. Two hurdles lie in the wake of Civil BIM.

  • The need for rigid composition in specific structures
  • The need to code a new product

From my perspective, there is nothing, and I mean nothing that will be done to accomplish this task within the AutoCAD environment where Civil 3D currently sits. For Civil 3D users, AutoCAD is not the limitation, but is freedom. Freedom to do things in a non-perfect world is not an occasional requirement, but is the norm. There is nothing regular about the field, and the name of the game is quantifying and working within irregularity.

Can Autodesk make a new Civil product that is BIM-centric? Sure, but think of the limitations that a non AutoCAD platform would require. Are you willing to give up the flexibility that you have. The painful moaning would never end…. Well, it would ebb, but only after many software cycles, and the ‘I used to be able to do this in Civil 3D’ griping would go on forever.

What I think

When you develop something as widely used as Civil 3D, you are always going to hear griping. You cannot make everyone happy, all the time.

  • I do not believe that Autodesk is the evil empire, where they are bent on screwing their customers.
  • I do however think that they are faced with innumerable desires and views of how their software should be developed, and only so much time in order to make the best products on earth.
  • I do believe that increased revenues help develop increased capabilities, and naturally they will continue to try to pick up  a greater consumer base.

I feel that it is extremely unfair, and unreasonable to say that any product is useless or offers no value to a group, when you  or I are only a tiny portion of any group on this planet.  I also feel the same about accusation that a software company has ‘ignored us’ or similar statements.  Have I felt let down before? Sure, but that’s part of the process, and knowing that my ideas are not necessarily what drive a development team. (In fact, it seems quite the opposite is true  😉

I feel reasonably confident that the development of the products surround the simple process of deciding what is possible, that will provide the best benefit, over the greatest width of the plans for the future, with the resources and time that is available… just like everything else that is accomplished in our personal day-to-day lives, from your grocery list to your child’s future and education.

While I am of the opinion that a BIM oriented Civil solution would be great (and I’d be glad to go that route), it’s not up to me. It’s not my product to develop, and I’m not the only one using it. I am however, keeping my eyes on that cloud growing overhead.

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