A SOLIDWORKS User Looks at Onshape
Phillip Keane posted on January 24, 2019 |
A veteran SOLIDWORKS user tries a browser-based CAD program and finds a few pleasant surprises.

Onshape is a cloud-based software as a service (SaaS) CAD company founded in 2012 that includes two former SOLIDWORKS CEOs among its cofounders. Indeed, the company has a whole bunch of former SOLIDWORKS staff currently on its roster.

It’s fair to say that Onshape has a solid pedigree when it comes to making CAD software.

Get it? Solid pedigree? Er—Sorry, we’ll show ourselves out.

As a long-term SOLIDWORKS user, I am interested to see what the differences are between SOLIDWORKS and Onshape.

We’ll take a look at the features of both software packages, make price comparisons, and review the usability and learning curve required to get you up and running with Onshape, if you choose to check it out. And we hope you will.

Getting the Software

The first steps in testing or buying a new CAD package are actually determining the cost, as well as obtaining the software. Should be easy, right?

How do our competing programs fare on these considerations?


Onshape starts at $1,500 for the Standard version, and goes up to $2,100 for the Professional version. Both prices are based on a per-user, per-year structure.

An Enterprise plan, which is available for $20,000, provides a whole bunch of other stuff, including resource provisioning, intellectual property control features, real-time analytics and a whole lot more.

In addition, there are the Onshape EDU and the Onshape Free plans, both available for the princely sum of zero dollars. While the Onshape EDU plan is exclusively for students, the Onshape Free plan is available to anyone, just not for professional purposes.

Getting your hands on Onshape is easy.

If you want the Student version of the program, you just have to submit your details on the form, receive an activation email…and that’s it. You then click the link in the email you receive from Onshape, sign in with your details, and boom…Onshape will appear on your screen—right in your browser. No waiting for downloads—the process is ridiculously easy and quick.

The same is true for the Standard and Professional versions, except that with these you will need to add your payment details to the form. Then, as soon as your payment goes through, you will receive a link from Onshape, and you’ll be ready to start working in your browser.


If you want to find out the cost of SOLIDWORKS, you have to sign up for the company’s mailing list. Once you’ve done that, a new page will display the program’s price list.

There are three tiers of the SOLIDWORKS modeling package, which are the Standard, Professional and Premium versions. A permanent license for these versions will retail for $3,995, $5,490 and $7,995, respectively.

Or, you can get an annual subscription for under a couple of grand.

There is also a Student version, but it’s not free. We can’t tell you how much it costs, because it’s not explicitly mentioned on the SOLIDWORKS website. Also, if you are a student and you want to pay for a Student version, you’ll have to provide some form of identification proving that you are a student.

There is a demo version of the Commercial version of SOLIDWORKS available. To obtain it, you simply have to fill in the form, request the demo, and wait for a representative to contact you. 

In terms of pricing transparency and accessibility of the software, it couldn’t be easier than it is with Onshape. It’s less expensive, easy to obtain, and you don’t have to jump through any hoops just to find the price of the program. And, as noted already, the Student version of Onshape is free.

Within 5 minutes of deciding to try Onshape, I had all the info I needed, had set up an account, and had Onshape running on my computer.

In comparison, within 45 minutes of looking at the SOLIDWORKS site, I still had no idea how much the Student version costs, and I had to look at a third-party site to find out the subscription details.



There is no installation required for Onshape. It’s on the cloud and in your browser within 5 minutes of signing up.


We already have SOLIDWORKS Premium installed.

It wasn’t especially complicated to install. All you have to do is just pop your disk in, or use the download link, then install the software using the onscreen instructions. Installation times can vary depending on your system. We’ve seen it take a couple of hours on an older computer, and recently it took about 30 minutes on a CAD workstation. SOLIDWORKS is a fairly hefty piece of software, with many additional features, so it’s not surprising that the installation process takes a while. It’s not really a problem—it just takes longer.

Starting Modeling

Here we come to the nitty-gritty.

How long is it going to take to start modeling? Is there a steep learning curve? Are we going to need to watch online tutorials before we can design anything? Let’s find out.


Opening Onshape in the browser displays the workspace as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Onshape’s opening workspace display.
Figure 1. Onshape’s opening workspace display.

The panel on the left of the figure shows a feature tree, while the top of the figure shows the software’s modeling features. All the favorite features are there, ranging from sweeps, lofts, extrusions, fillets, mates and sheet metal functions. It should be very simple for SOLIDWORKS users to get to grips with the layout and features of Onshape.

SOLIDWORKS users may be a little confused if they look for solid versus surface modeling operations, because in SOLIDWORKS, these are all located on the top ribbon in discrete sections.

But worry not. In Onshape, the solid and surface features are all present—you just access them slightly differently.

As you can see in Figure 2, clicking on a modeling feature (such as revolve) in the top panel will open the Revolve dialog box, from where you can see two tabs—one for solid and one for surface.

Selecting which one you prefer is as simple as clicking either tab.

Figure 2. The Onshape Revolve dialog box.
Figure 2. The Onshape Revolve dialog box.

Also, at the top of the screen is the sketch button. Pressing this will open up the software’s sketch tools, which are fairly self-explanatory—curves, circles, and all the other geometry tools that you would expect to find. Clicking on these, then clicking on the plane will allow you to sketch on that plane.

You can see more information about how to perform surfacing operations in Onshape in this video.


Both SOLIDWORKS and Onshape, being parametric and history-based modeling tools, function similarly indeed.

In fact, it’s very hard to identify any differences between the two programs when it comes to pure modeling features. It mostly boils down to the UI. SOLIDWORKS is a wee bit more cluttered, but we kinda like that. Everything is front and center and in your face. There’s no need to look in other areas to find functions as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. SOLIDWORKS modeling features.
Figure 3. SOLIDWORKS modeling features.

The user interface for modeling in Onshape is a little less cluttered, which may appeal to some people, but again, there isn’t much difference in how you model in either program. If you know how to loft, sweep, rotate or extrude in SOLIDWORKS, you will in all likelihood be able to do the same in Onshape.

Importing Files

Both software programs are capable of importing a wide range of engineering CAD formats. Details are below.


Onshape’s preferred file type is Parasolid type files, but the program can also import the following:

Parasolid mesh (.xmm_txt or .xmm_bin) 

ACIS (.sat)

STEP (.stpor .step)

IGES (.igs or .iges)





JT (.jt)

Rhino (.3dm)

STL (.stl)

OBJ (.obj)


Solid Edge (.par and .psm)


To test the functionality of import functions in Onshape, I downloaded this model of a Ferrari LaFerrari (created in SOLIDWORKS) to see how it works (see Figure 4).

It should be noted that some file formats (especially assemblies) do not support a direct import, and in such cases you must follow a specific workflow. It’s not difficult to import a SOLIDWORKS assembly, for example. You simply go into SOLIDWORKS, select Pack & Go, and then export the packed zip file. You can then import it into Onshape without any hassle. You can read more about importing files into Onshape here

Figure 4. Importing a file created in SOLIDWORKS into Onshape.
Figure 4. Importing a file created in SOLIDWORKS into Onshape.


SOLIDWORKS can import the following file types:

Drawing Exchange Format (.dxf)

Drawing (.dwg)

Adobe Photoshop (.psd)

Adobe Illustrator (.ai)

Parasolid (.x_t)

STEP (.stp)

ACIS (.sat)

IGES (.igs, .iges)

VDAFS (.vda)

VRML (.wrl)

STL (.stl)

Pro/ENGINEER Part (.prt and .asm)

Unigraphics (.prt)

Industry Foundation Classes (IFC)

Inventor (.ipt and .iam)

Solid Edge (.psm and .asm))

CADKEY (.prt, .ckd)

Add-Ins (.dll)

IDF (.emn, .brd, .bdf, .ibd)

Rhino (.3dm)

CATIA (.cgr)


Importing non-native files into SOLIDWORKS is a slightly more direct process. Well…it’s direct. You just direct SOLIDWORKS to the file location and it opens the file. Simple.

And Figure 5 shows the LaFerrari in its native habitat—SOLIDWORKS. 

Figure 5. The Ferrari LaFerrari in SOLIDWORKS.
Figure 5. The Ferrari LaFerrari in SOLIDWORKS.

By pure numbers alone, SOLIDWORKS can import a slightly wider range of file types, and it can import the assemblies directly.

But to be honest, using the Onshape workflow isn’t a major chore, provided you have the original software handy for exporting into a format that Onshape recognizes.


Everyone loves rendering, right? To witness a CAD model transform into a photorealistic image before your very eyes is a wonder to behold. So, what are the options for each software?


SOLIDWORKS’ rendering capabilities are pretty sweet. And there are a couple of options available.

You can use the traditional PhotoView 360 inside SOLIDWORKS itself, and you can create some fairly awesome images. Or, you can fire up SOLIDWORKS Visualize, which runs externally on your desktop outside of SOLIDWORKS to create super- photorealistic images. In fact, the new version in the latest release of SOLIDWORKS 2019 even contains a driving simulator, for all of your automotive product visualization needs.

Of course, running on your home or office hardware means that the render time is entirely dependent on your own hardware capabilities. The difference in those capabilities could mean the difference between a 10 minute render or a 4 hour render.


Although Onshape doesn’t have its own native renderer designed by the company itself, there are a number of options available through the Onshape App Store.

These options are, OneRender (by Prefixia), RealityServer (from MiGenius), and KeyShot Connection (by Luxion Inc.).

The renderer you prefer is down to personal choice, but, hey, it’s sure good to have a choice.

And the best thing about it all, is that all of these are cloud-based, which means you aren’t limited by your own hardware. You will have to purchase render credits of some description though.

Rendering, in that regard, is the perfect application to try on the cloud. And the user interface in Onshape is very user friendly, as any renderer should be.

Third-Party Support

Both programs offer modeling right out of the box. But there’s more to both programs than merely making pretty shapes on your screen.


At first glance, Onshape is just a 3D modeling program. But open up that App Store, and you’ll see it’s a lot more than that.

We’ve already taken a look at Onshape’s renderer. Let’s take a look at some more of the apps.

In terms of simulation, the Onshape App Store offers the following apps for integration into Onshape:


Intact (FEA)

SimScale (FEA, CFD, Thermal, Acoustic, Particle)

SimWise 4D (FEA, multibody, thermal, fatigue)

Simscape Multibody (Simulink, MATLAB, MBD)

CONSELF (CFD, FEA, pre/post-processing)

SimForDesign (FEA, pre/post-processing)

Simright (file converter, FEA, topology optimization)

There are a whole load of other apps too, if simulation isn’t your thing. Or if you simply want more stuff!

These include various packages for CAM (including integration for Mastercam and CAMWorks), additive manufacturing (including an i.materialise plug-in) and some apps to help with your mathematics, including Swift Calcs and CADWOLF.

There are a lot of useful tools on the Onshape App Store—way too many to list here. But you get the impression. If you’d like to see the full library of available apps for Onshape, please go check them out over at this link.


Now, having been around for a while, SOLIDWORKS has amassed a fair number of features of its own, as well a very well-developed third-party community.

Many of the SOLIDWORKS features require additional licenses, and you can install the extra features during the installation process.

Conclusion: Who Is the Ultimate Champion?

While Onshape is easier to obtain and set up, in terms of actual 3D modeling and sketching, there isn’t much difference between it and SOLIDWORKS.

The real difference comes with Onshape’s cloud capability, as well as the collaboration benefits that come with it.

Onshape benefits from being cloud based in much the same way that any cloud-based SaaS program does: it has “always-on” capability and has all the compute that you need, regardless of what kind of PC you are using. Indeed, you don’t even need to use a PC. You can use a Mac, Android, Linux—essentially anything that has a browser. Heck, if you have a smart fridge with an Internet connection, you could probably use it on that too.

And this leads to the next important point: you can run Onshape anywhere, at any time—even at 3a.m. from on top of Mount Everest (assuming you have a satellite Internet connection).

Your ability to access your Onshape projects is only limited by your Internet connection.

This results in some key benefits as it relates to other stakeholders or members of a design team. Because changes in Onshape are asynchronous and occur in real-time, there’s no need to send files around, eliminating confusion associated with who has the right version. Security is also improved because, without the need to send documents over the web, there are less opportunities for IP and security leaks.

Now, let’s get to that elephant in the room: software stability. To put it simply, with cloud-based solutions, software stability (or lack thereof) resulting from hardware configurations isn’t your problem. The software, if it is stable at the source, will be stable on your PC, your Mac, or your smart fridge.

A major bugbear for SOLIDWORKS users is the inconsistent stability of each release. This is why it burns through 4 or 5 service packs every year. You won’t have that issue with Onshape.

This is not to knock SOLIDWORKS. What it does (when it works properly), it does very well. It’s a mature product.

SOLIDWORKS has obviously been around for a very long time, and consequently it has had the time and resources to develop lots of new features and add-ins, including the aforementioned simulation suites, PLM, technical communications, and electrical add-ins, and they are all native to the program.

The choice of CAD programs, if there is a choice, depends on many factors: your budget, the size of your company, and the requirements of the engineer.

For that reason, Onshape may be better suited to SMBs that aren’t able to shell out thousands of dollars on new hardware every time a new release comes out. Or for students, who wish to dip their toes in the 3D modeling pool (for free). 

And SOLIDWORKS may be better suited to those with deeper pockets who require all of the features that the package offers, or high-tech companies such as those in aerospace that still prefer to host their files locally.

The best thing you can do is go visit Onshape at its website, and test drive the software yourself in your browser. The company’s friendly customer representatives can be contacted through the chat interface on the website if you have any questions.

Onshape has sponsored this post. They have had no editorial input to this post. Unless otherwise stated, all opinions are mine. —Phillip Keane

Recommended For You