The last time I bought a PC it was specifically for CAD work since at the time (around 2012) there was no support for SOLIDWORKS on a Mac. That CAD-designated “laptop” still exists, mostly as a 15-lb paperweight. Recently, while working for an early-stage device startup, I had to break out that old PC for some CAD work. Despite my best efforts, I could not find a way to get access to SOLIDWORKS on a monthly fee basis so I contacted a value-added reseller and snagged a trial version for 30 days. After a few hours of downloading things, I settled in and I was able to do what was needed. Once the designs were complete, I quickly exported them to various formats, saved them to Dropbox and Google Drive so I could share them and tucked the CAD machine back in storage where it remains today.
I am writing this article on a Macbook Pro and editing at night on an iPad. These are my primary creation devices, except for the occasional note on my phone. Much of that has been presentation based, but because of that search for CAD work, I knew it was only a matter of time until I needed some more serious design tools. Not wanting to subject myself to an increasingly outdated machine, I went on the hunt for new software that was more portable to my choice of devices and was affordable enough to move with any professional applications and me through side projects. Only a few years ago, that would not have been possible, as all MCAD/CAM software was professional only, not only in price but in hardware requirements. Thanks to cloud-based and lightweight software, it is increasingly becoming an option, even with limitations in hardware.
After a few helpful recommendations, and checking out the pricing structures, I narrowed the search down to two packages, Onshape and Fusion 360, and decided to take them both through a few trial runs.
Pricing Comparison of Software as a Service Cloud-Based CAD
First up on the list of items to test out was Onshape. They have been covered heavily in the news recently thanks to their founding team (the same folks who founded SOLIDWORKS) and for their new-CAD-kid-on-the-block status. Personally, I was turned onto them when I realized that they run a freemium model. This is typical in the software-as-a-service (SaaS) industry, where a service is free up to a certain amount of usage. This is a distinct comparison to the reseller distribution method of SOLIDWORKS, which gives free trials that rarely last long enough to do anything useful and result in thousand-dollar spends, I’m still getting biweekly calls from a reseller from the last time I got a trial SOLIDWORKS. That being said, the Onshape file limitations (10files or 100MB) are a fairly low bar of storage, especially for anything that is an assembly. I hit the limit pretty much immediately since my test design is an assembled CNC machine downloaded from GrabCAD. Annoyingly, that means some of my uploaded files need to be made public or I have to pay.
With Fusion 360, I was also able to reach out to their product management team and get a handy run through of how they are positioning the product. Daniel Graham, a senior product manager for Fusion 360, and Stephen Hooper, a senior director for industry strategy at Autodesk, were great at showing what the road map and through process was behind many of Fusion’s features.
Onshape’s pricing. To my knowledge, this is the first CAD solution that has anything around a $0 user cost without limiting things to just students.
Fusion 360 is really Autodesk Fusion 360. This is worth noting and somewhat explains the coverage the tool has had. Though a new cloud-based product is a huge advancement, the Autodesk brand may actually hurt Fusion since users have preconceived notions of what their products must be (notably a desktop tool). I was not immune to this thought process, despite having heard the name Fusion 360 numerous times, I did not realize that Fusion 360 had predated Onshape with the SaaS model. Fusion 360 beats Onshape outright on the pricing model with a perpetual free license to students, hobbyists and startups, and for the professional version,Fusion 360 is about 60 percent less expensive.
Fusion 360’s pricing. There is also a free version for students, startups and hobbyists.
Interestingly, Hooper was keen to point out that Fusion is more than just a CAD program. “What we’re doing is moving away from individual product categories (MCAD, CAE and CAM) into a product innovation platform,” Hooper explained. To that end, Fusion 360 touts a number of interesting built-in tools, including CAM software for CNC machine toolpaths, simulation tools for stress testing and 3D-printing features that can automatically optimize support structures (so-called “design optimization” tools).
Autodesk's A360 tool managed files for me flawlessly and was more intuitive than other file management systems. It also easily works in the cloud, though editing of files is done locally.
Most of these are features that exist in other systems too, but the big thing that I found useful was the integration with Autodesk’s A360 product (a file management and product lifecycle management tool). Because A360 is hosted in the cloud, I found it very useful and didn’t need to sync a Dropbox account or anything else for setup.
Speed, Usability and Feel
Pricing aside, the functionality of MCAD or CAM software is paramount to its adoption. Since the software is used to enable the design of a 3D product, there is a lot to consider, specifically what portion of the design process the software is intended to aid in. For my part, most of my work has always been in designing components for manufacturability, and though I’ve used simple flow simulations (for molded components) and the occasional animation to walk a colleague through a design, my experience has been to design a part in a parametric modeling system, save the file and hand it off. My criterion for judging new software goes like this:
- Does it efficiently (i.e. without crashing) handle the modeling and design work I need?
- Is it easy to grab a colleague’s files and work with them? And is it easy to share with vendors/suppliers/etc.?
- Is the day-to-day workflow easy to get up to speed with?
Efficiency and Speed
It’s worth noting my setup is as follows:
- Macbook Pro
- OS X ElCapitan 10.11.4
- 2.5 GHz Intel Core i5, 4GB RAM
- Intel HD Graphics 4000, 1536 MB Graphics
- Chrome browser (for in-browser Onshape review)
Fusion 360 was easy enough to install. It has a downloadable client that took a matter of minutes to set up, and though no drivers were out of date, I had to uninstall, restart and reinstall before the software finally opened. The browser-based version (titled “Project Leopard”) looks to have a similar interface, but signup for it is still in limited beta with a planned release slated for late 2016. A mobile client is also available; it works well but is not designed for editing of files.
Onshape was even easier to setup, though “setup” is a bit misleading of a word. I was able to get a free account using just my email address, and the next thing I knew, my browser was working as a CAD tool. Coming from multihour downloads for SOLIDWORKS, and even the mild headache of Fusion 360, I was shocked at how simple this was.
Onshape does have APIs for third-party add-ins as well as an app store for other integration. I was able to get an integrated bill of materials (BOM) support (published by long-time SOLIDWORKS blogger/podcaster/developer Lou Gallao) installed with a few clicks.
If I were a CAD manager at a large organization, used to managing installs, updates, etc., I would be worried. Both of these systems were a breeze to install, though Onshape was easier, and expanding features also seemed easy, though Fusion 360 (with the backing of Autodesk) won with the number of pre-integrated add-ons.
Maybe my experiences are unique, but I have never worked in a design or development group where everything was developed and handled in house. There have always been purchased subassemblies or components, outside vendors to share details with, clients that require design reviews and, more often than not, internal groups who needed something but couldn’t use the software (this is where everyone piles on marketing for needing new renderings).
Onshape has made it easy to share the files. There is a “share” button located atop the browser, and accessing it brings up all the share rights of the file. Accessing the file or link does require an Onshape account, but as covered above, that was a breeze.
Easy save and share control settings for Onshape design files.
Fusion 360 also has a similar setup of sharing, but it’s all done through A360. This is where the first major difference comes. Because everything in Onshape is hosted in the cloud, the versioning and editing is much easier to handle. Everything is immediately stored in the cloud. Though this sounds great, it is still a bit limiting in that you must have a connection. Sure Wi-Fi is all around us but I noticed a considerable difference in Onshape’s responsiveness as I moved to the known problem areas of my Wi-Fi network.
This, overall, gives me pause. On the one hand, the idea of never losing work due to a local system crash is hugely enticing. On the other hand, being reliant on a quality connection is a concern for anyone who works with files while traveling or generally on the move. It is worth noting that Fusion 360 started out as an in-browser system before Autodesk moved to develop a desktop client. It’ll be interesting to see if Onshape follows suit.
A360 helps to manages files and provides storage for all Fusion 360 files. The integration across products makes it easier to manage the complete product lifecycle.
A360 also has a “Live Review” feature that made Onshape’s cloud seem less necessary. During my call with Graham, he walked me through a live sharing of a document that allowed for instant transfer of control, so anyone on the call could zoom in, call out a specific area and manage a design review remotely.
Feel and Function
Both of the products feel like a traditional CAD tool in many respects. The design space is given a good chunk of real estate, and the editing menus appear around the edges. Fusion 360 had a right-click shortcut menu that made things easier in finding the base functions (sketch, extrude and revolve) and really distanced itself when moving to other functionality as the options changed to match the context (for example, adding surface tools or animation tools as necessary).
The right-click shortcut menu in Fusion 360.
That being said, for part modeling, I found no major difference in either software. I pulled in a few sample parts, made some direct edits and generally found everything I needed. Minor differences exist in the workflow, but that is expected.
Onshape's design window.A classic feature tree on the left and design window on the right. All the menu options are splattered at the top of the screen.
Fusion 360 began to distance itself in all the other features though. It became obvious what the team meant when they said they wanted to design a product for “the future of making things.” For less than the cost of a smartphone, the software has integrated CAM toolpath options that automate the process, a relatively straightforward rendering tool and an animation tool. High-end renders and marketing materials will need something additional, such as KeyShot or an expert who knows what they are doing, but the baseline functionality is there, and if past developments are any indication, it will only get easier for a novice in one area to be able to get something that passes as professional.
Fusion 360. File management pane on the left side and the traditional design window on the right. The feature tree is a series of breadcrumbs at the bottom of the screen.
Overall, I liked both Onshape and Fusion 360 and found them both capable of taking over for any other professional MCAD system. Certainly there are some features that don’t live up to the more costly competitors, but I have yet to see a parametric modeling system that was entirely complete.
Each was easier to setup, when compared to experiences with SOLIDWORKS, and sharing and collaborating functionality was more than adequate. Fusion 360 is still out ahead when it comes to CAM and rendering, and the file management also seemed less clunky. For the time being, I plan to keep both of my accounts active, especially since they are both free. In times where I find myself on shared machines, I can see how Onshape’s cloud system has its benefits, while for the bulk of work, Fusion 360 has a more robust functionality that is likely to allow me to move a product further through the process without moving to other systems.
About the Author
Chris McAndrew (@CbMcAndrew) is a product development and marketing executive with nearly a decade of experience bringing concepts from the idea stage to market release in a variety of industries. He is a trained mechanical engineer, with a B.S. from Tulane University, and received his MBA at UCLA Anderson School of Business.