What’s the True Value of CAD SaaS?
Michael Alba posted on August 25, 2020 |
Users discuss the TCO of cloud CAD software Onshape.
Onshape has sponsored this post.
These protective screen dividers were designed by Black Lab Design in Onshape. (Image courtesy of Black Lab Design.)
These protective screen dividers were designed by Black Lab Design in Onshape. (Image courtesy of Black Lab Design.)

The days are long gone where you could mosey on down to Ye Olde Software Shoppe and pick up a floppy disk copy of your favorite CAD application. Like it or not, professional software is moving in the direction of software-as-a-service (SaaS), a cloud-focused, subscriber-based software model.

For users who are used to owning their applications, SaaS can be an unwelcome adjustment. They want to pay for their tools once and own them forever. On the other hand, many users who have embraced the cloud never want to let go. The convenience and simplicity of SaaS has them hooked.

The truth is that SaaS is neither hero nor villain; SaaS is what developers and users make of it, and a lot can be made of SaaS applications that properly take advantage of the cloud. Cloud-based software is a paradigm shift in how users work, collaborate with others and organize their businesses.

Consider Onshape, a cloud-based CAD platform accessed through web browsers and mobile apps. The company is one of the pioneers of CAD SaaS and was recently acquired by software giant PTC for $470 million. We spoke to several Onshape customers to find out how they value the CAD SaaS paradigm.

Smart Sheet Metal

Daen Simmat put himself $2 million in debt to start his engineering company, Black Lab Design. He spent that money on a laser cutter and CNC press brake to pursue his goal of getting more accurate sheet metal out of CAD designs.

“It sounds ludicrous when I talk about it now, but it was about just creating smart sheet metal,” Simmat explained from his head office in Sydney, Australia. Today, Black Lab Design has expanded beyond sheet metal to design and produce finished solutions, such as the hand sanitizer dispensers found in Australia’s largest supermarket chain, Woolworths.

The Black Lab Design Hygiene Station XL. (Image courtesy of Black Lab Design.)
The Black Lab Design Hygiene Station XL. (Image courtesy of Black Lab Design.)

For the past three years, Simmat and the Black Lab Design team have been designing their parts in Onshape. The company switched from SOLIDWORKS because Simmat wanted more flexibility with his software.

“We've got a design team in Melbourne and Sydney, and I wanted infrastructure to support that sort of remote working. Also, the simple thing of being able to be device independent. We've managed to now transition the whole organization onto Macbooks, so we're not reliant on Windows hardware and the problems that come with that,” Simmat explained.

Since Onshape is hosted in the cloud and accessed through a web browser, users can plug into the CAD software from any device, whether it runs Windows, Mac or Linux. There are also Android and iOS apps of Onshape that give full access to the program from a tablet or smartphone.

“We're very close as an organization to migrating 90 percent of the business to Macbooks or Chromebooks,” Simmat said. “We've gone from mighty expenses that were up to $5,000 per computer down to stuff that's $200 to $400, maybe $1,200 for a really good one.”

Don’t Even Think About IT

Black Lab Design isn’t the only company that has achieved savings through Onshape. Oceangate, an adventure tourism company that takes customers on deep sea voyages, uses Onshape to design its manned submersibles. Oceangate’s latest sub, Titan, will be headed to the wreckage of the Titanic late next summer. Excluded from the voyage will be Oceangate’s IT administrator—because the company doesn’t have one.

Rendering of the Oceangate Titan, set to explore the wreckage of the Titanic in summer 2021. (Image courtesy of Oceangate.)
Rendering of the Oceangate Titan, set to explore the wreckage of the Titanic in summer 2021. (Image courtesy of Oceangate.)

“I don't have an IT guy. I don't need that with Onshape, which is a big, big benefit for me over SOLIDWORKS,” said Daniel Scoville, Oceangate’s director of engineering.

As a long-time user of locally-based CAD software, Scoville was accustomed to multiple yearly updates that had to be rolled out and tested regularly. Since Onshape is hosted in the cloud, all updates—and there’s a new one every three weeks—happen automatically. The user won’t even notice until they stumble upon a feature that wasn’t there before.

Another reason Oceangate has no need for an IT administrator is because Onshape provides built-in product data management (PDM). The cloud CAD platform neatly keeps track of every change to every design, and there are no duplicate files because there are no files, period. All Onshape data is stored in a database architecture, providing what the company calls a single source of truth.

“I don't need any additional PDM software to go with Onshape,” Scoville said. “At my last company there was a team of guys that administered PDM and kept that thing running. It worked, and I liked it, but it takes a lot of people and effort.”

Onshape’s data management features obviate the need for additional PDM software. (Image courtesy of Onshape.)
Onshape’s data management features obviate the need for additional PDM software. (Image courtesy of Onshape.)

Simmat also knows the pain of traditional file management; having used Onshape for three years at Black Lab Design, he’s glad to have escaped it.

“From an IT logistics perspective, [Onshape] is just so simple,” Simmat said. “I can't fathom actually going back and having to think about maintaining file servers and making sure it's all backed up and that we might lose our data. I don't even want to think about it.”

The Bottom Line

Let’s return to the question of value, starting with the basics. A subscription to Onshape starts at $1,500 per user per year for Onshape Standard, goes up to $2,100/year for Onshape Professional, and tops out at $3,000/year for Onshape Enterprise. Upfront, these costs are less than a seat of a traditional CAD package, but the subscription costs will add up over time.

“The acquisition cost [of Onshape] is a lot cheaper, because you don't need to go through that initial license expense,” Simmat explains.

However, with Onshape’s SaaS model, it’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison. “The structure of the cost is different, because we need to have a license now for every user, where we were running network licenses of SOLIDWORKS,” Simmat explained.

Despite the differences, all things considered, Simmat judges the cost of Onshape to be favorable to his company’s previous platform. Even if licensing costs were identical (the numbers are close, he tells us), Onshape would still have the advantage of saving Black Lab Design the ancillary costs associated with PDM.

“If I compare the cost of SOLIDWORKS to Onshape and the document management component of Onshape, there’s definitely been a benefit with Onshape financially,” Simmat said.

Add to that the savings from being able to purchase less expensive computer hardware, and from being able to reduce IT staff, and Onshape’s annual subscription fees may seem a lot more palatable to those used to owning a perpetual CAD license.

Should I Go With SaaS?

Onshape’s customers are in agreement that the SaaS CAD platform has proven its value. For them, the cloud-based nature of the design software has changed their workflows and business needs in a way that positively impacts their bottom line and their productivity. (Read more about what these users think of Onshape’s collaboration and PDM functionality.)

Could SaaS be right for you, too? One of the other benefits of SaaS applications is that many offer a free version, since the cost of adding new users is so low. In Onshape’s case, users can freely access the software with the caveat that all their designs are publicly visible. With nothing to download or install, it’s as simple as signing up for a free account.


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