When We Really Needed to Collaborate, One CAD Company Came Through
Michael Alba posted on July 31, 2020 |
Isolated engineers praise “seamless” collaboration built into Onshape.
PTC has sponsored this post.

A paradigm change is no guarantee of revolution. Many don’t catch on. Paper has never completely been replaced by computers. 3D took decades. The next generation of CAD would be cloud-based for all its can’t-miss advantages. While some made the transition to cloud-based CAD, other engineers chose to keep the status quo, choosing to remain with what they were familiar with – existing workstation-based design software.

Until the world changed. Until they couldn’t get to their workstation. Until COVID-19.

In China, an auto part maker shut down the offices, leaving engineers without their tools. All over the world, engineers were cut off from each other.

Then a Eureka moment. Wasn’t there a CAD program that you could use anywhere? And didn’t it allow everyone on the team to work together – even when they were apart?

Forced by circumstance, away from the comfort and warmth of workstations, engineers got to know this new way to work. It was a little foreign at first, but the language was close enough, the software capable enough. There were things they could do now that they couldn’t before, as well as things they no longer needed to do. There were joys in their discoveries. It worked with far-flung team members. You could use it on your home computer or a tablet without so much as borrowing a license. There was zero confusion about who had the latest version of the model. You’d come back the next day and discover more. The software had updated overnight, added features, while you slept. No downtime, no reboots.

It was as if the future had arrived. And it was not too bad.

Collaboration in the Age of Coronavirus

Onshape was founded in 2012 with a new vision for CAD—one not bound by desktop workstations but available anytime, anywhere, through the cloud. Onshape’s founders were not up-and-coming millennials clamoring to make their mark; Jon Hirschtick and John McEleney had already left their mark on the CAD world, having created the prototypical CAD program they were now planning to dethrone: desktop-bound SOLIDWORKS.

Onshape co-founders John McEleney (left) and Jon Hirschtick (right).
Onshape co-founders John McEleney (left) and Jon Hirschtick (right).

Hirschtick and McEleney couldn’t have known that eight years and one $470 million acquisition later, their cloud-CAD brainchild would be a relief for engineers locked out of the office by COVID-19. Onshape wasn’t made for a pandemic, but it can help you work through one.

“From a work-from-home standpoint, Onshape was great because it was already all set up,” said Daniel Scoville, director of engineering at OceanGate. OceanGate is a high-end adventure tourism company that builds manned submersibles for deep sea voyages. The company is currently putting the finishing touches on their third sub, Titan, designed to survey the 4,000-meter-deep remains of the world’s most famous shipwreck, the Titanic.

OceanGate’s newest submersible, Titan, will set out for the Titanic next summer. (Image courtesy of OceanGate.)
OceanGate’s newest submersible, Titan, will set out for the Titanic next summer. (Image courtesy of OceanGate.)

“When we decided to all go home, there was zero effort on my part,” Scoville continued. “Everybody had full access to their models, didn't have to worry about if they brought their desktop home, none of that was a concern. If they had a computer, they could get on and run with it.”

OceanGate couldn’t let COVID-19 get in the way of their work if they wanted to meet Titan’s target maiden voyage of summer 2021. Hopefully, they still will. But for some companies, the stakes were even higher.

The Stirling Ultracold SU780XLE ultra-low temperature freezer. (Image courtesy of Global Cooling.)

The Stirling Ultracold SU780XLE ultra-low temperature freezer. (Image courtesy of Global Cooling.)

“We were deemed an essential business,” said Dave Berchowitz, founder and CTO of Global Cooling, another Onshape customer. Global Cooling produces the Stirling Ultracold brand of ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezers. Among other things, ULT freezers are used to store samples of the SARS-CoV-2 virus for research.

“No one anticipated the COVID crisis, but [Onshape] works especially well in this circumstance,” Berchowitz proclaimed.

Collaborative by Nature

Onshape is collaborative by nature. It comes with the cloud territory. Think of the now-ubiquitous Google Docs—a sheet of online paper that everyone can gather around and make their mark on, simultaneously. There’s no need for files, because there’s just one file, and you’re looking at it together.

CAD in the cloud works in much the same way. Unlike traditional CAD systems, with their panoply of parts files and their tedious check-out procedures, an Onshape document (“file” is not in Onshape’s vocabulary) welcomes all users at all times. Two or more engineers can work on the same model simultaneously—if they want to. And from any device— laptop, tablet, or even a phone.

“Collaborating often means that you need to understand why your colleague has done something,” Berchowitz said. “By following them on the same document, it's an easier process for them to explain to you a change that has been made rather than just looking at the change history. Sometimes you actually need someone to take you through it. Why did you do this? Or, what was it that made you move this component here rather than there?”

Onshape allows members of a design team to collaborate in real-time with live chat or by leaving comments and annotations for future reference. There’s a Follow Mode to facilitate design reviews or demonstrations where all users see shared interactions with the model. Plus, sharing designs is trivial; forget about sending Zip files over email—just send a link.

“If you want to share something, you hit the share button, you send the link, you send the model,” said Scoville. “There's no download, there's no Pack and Go. It's real easy for me to bring other people into the design. Hit share, send the link, or just add their name to the team and they've got access.”

As useful as this is internally, it’s even better when collaborating with contractors or suppliers.

“That's big for me as a manager,” Scoville continued. “If I pull in another contractor who is not local, I don't have to worry about their machine. What do they have, do they have enough power, do they have enough graphics? All I have to do is put their email address in my admin account and they have all the access I want to give them. It's fantastic.”

Example of two users collaborating on an Onshape document—one in a web browser, another on a phone. (Image courtesy of Onshape.)
Example of two users collaborating on an Onshape document—one in a web browser, another on a phone. (Image courtesy of Onshape.)

No Better Way to Work Together

Scoville and Berchowitz both have years of experience with CAD, and so do the engineers on their teams. Among these veterans, there’s likely no CAD application left unevaluated, with many having spent much of their careers with market- leading SOLIDWORKS (both Scoville and Berchowitz used SOLIDWORKS before Onshape). But even the most diehard SOLIDWORKS fans admit Onshape’s superiority in how it fosters collaboration.

“Three of my mechanical engineers are contractors and they're not local,” Scoville said. “One of them would definitely stick with SOLIDWORKS if he could. But there are some pluses for Onshape that even he can recognize—like the portability.”

Berchowitz, who was initially drawn to Onshape for its cloud computation, now regards collaboration as his favorite aspect of the CAD software. Even before COVID-19, Onshape had made it easier to work with his most frequent collaborator based in the Netherlands.

“I have to say the thing that I really, really enjoy about Onshape is the collaborative system. It's so seamless,” says Berchowitz.

To learn more about collaboration in Onshape, visit Onshape.com.

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