From the Sopranos of CAD to the Rebels in the Cloud – the Remarkable Journey of SOLIDWORKS Founders
Verdi Ogewell posted on April 24, 2018 |

The world of product development is changing rapidly—but are you changing with it? This is the question posed by Jon Hirschtick, CEO of cloud CAD developer Onshape. The thought of “reinventing” the basic CAD toolkit is a bold one. “But that's exactly what's happening now,” he claims. “The product development solutions that manufacturers depend on every day now respond quickly to the demands of new times."

For those unfamiliar with the CAD program Onshape, the company is led by founder Jon Hirschtick, one of the CAD industry's most well-known personalities. Hirschtick is the man who started SOLIDWORKS, a solution that, when released in the mid 1990’s, would bring about a revolution as the world's first desktop 3D CAD software. By using Windows NT as its operating system, it made 3D CAD technology available to the masses.

Systems that had previously cost tens of thousands of dollars were suddenly available for a few thousand. The success was immediate and the company developed a culture that was street smart, much like the characters in the Sopranos TV series—minus all the murders and racketeering. But old habits die hard, and today Hirschtick and his team have become "rebels in the cloud" with their browser-based CAD solution, Onshape.

So, the question is whether this entrepreneur and innovator can make lightning strike twice. According to analyst ORA Research, there are between 10 and 15 million engineers globally who could benefit from an MCAD solution. However, the number of active commercial licenses hovers slightly over one million. Can Onshape become the solution that changes this?

"CAD in the cloud has many advantages," Jon Hirschtick said to engineering.com. “First, this is the only fully cloud-based CAD solution. The cloud platform means that it is more cost effective than traditional solutions, while at the same time eliminating the upgrade process. We release new updates continuously and in a steady stream at short intervals. This means that all users immediately—in the same second as the new release is out—work with the same version: the latest one. Engineers and designers can work with Onshape together in their teams via web browser, smartphone or tablet.”

THE ONSHAPE ENTRENEURS. Together, John McEleney (left) and Jon Hirschtick established SolidWorks as the market's leading 3D CAD desktop solution, which was subsequently sold to Dassault Systèmes. For a few years now, their attention has been focused on a cloud-based CAD software called Onshape, which seems to be off to a good start. The question is whether Jon Hirschtick can make lightning strike again, just as it did in 1995 when SolidWorks first launched.
THE ONSHAPE ENTRENEURS. Together, John McEleney (left) and Jon Hirschtick established SolidWorks as the market's leading 3D CAD desktop solution, which was subsequently sold to Dassault Systèmes. For a few years now, their attention has been focused on a cloud-based CAD software called Onshape, which seems to be off to a good start. The question is whether Jon Hirschtick can make lightning strike again, just as it did in 1995 when SolidWorks first launched.

Strong words, but Hirschtick knows what he’s talking about, having witnessed, influenced and actively participated in the invention of digital tools for more than four decades.

But what factors affect the development of modern design tools?

There are five main factors, notes Hirschtick, and these factors are shaking up the manufacturing world. We will review them later in this article.

Aims at Attracting SOLIDWORKS Users

Among other things, Hirschtick has worked hard to attract SOLIDWORKS users to his new world of CAD in the cloud. Though he sold his company to Dassault Systemès back in 1997, Hirschtick remained in the organization for many years, keeping track of and acquiring interesting new tools that appeared on the market, and directing further integration into SOLIDWORKS or Dassault's environments.

This worked well for both parties up until 2010. But as time went on, Hirschtick found the environment less conducive to his dream of revolutionizing the product development world with a cheap, easily accessible and competent “tool for the masses."

That's why, in 2012, Hirschtick acquired capital and pulled together many members of his former SOLIDWORKS development team to help him realize his idea.

During a visit to Stockholm two years ago, Hirschtick told me, "We need 10,000 users who choose the Pro model (which has all possible Onshape functions added) to break even." He later clarified this statement, saying that while they have yet to exceed 10,000 users, “Thousands of companies have purchased Onshape.” He added that this number does not include the tens of thousands of students, professors, robotics teams, open source projects and others that are using the solution for free.

ONSHAPE ON ANY DEVICE. With its cloud platform, Onshape is available on multiple devices, including PCs, tablets and mobiles. This is a good capability to have when you want to share models or drawings.
ONSHAPE ON ANY DEVICE. With its cloud platform, Onshape is available on multiple devices, including PCs, tablets and mobiles. This is a good capability to have when you want to share models or drawings.

However, after using some of the $64 million in development capital to build the new Onshape together with his old friends from SolidWorks—including Dave Corcoran, Scott Harris and John McEleney—Hirschtick says that they are well on the way to reach the break-even point.

The business model is focused on delivering what it does best, which above all is offering an easy-to-use, hassle-free CAD tool with a good line-up of tangible features. The Onshape team is also working in partnership with like-minded companies to make up for the areas that aren’t their specialty—things like Finite Element Analysis (FEA), rendering, and other tools needed in the app store.

For its cloud CAD solution, the Onshape team has created a modern database architecture, an equally modern API and added integrated product data management. These are all based on Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud and positioned well to handle the latest trends in product development, such as digitization, analysis and control.

ONE OF HIRSCHTICK’S SOLIDWORKS FRIENDS. Dave Corcoran is one of Hirschtick’s old SOLIDWORKS friends who joined his new Onshape development team.
ONE OF HIRSCHTICK’S SOLIDWORKS FRIENDS. Dave Corcoran, co-founder and vice president of product at Onshape, is one of Hirschtick’s old SOLIDWORKS friends. He helped form and lead the team that achieved what many thought impossible with the development of Onshape.

Regarding design work, Onshape offers a combination of direct and parametric modeling in CAD, set in a single geometric system that guides the model throughout the design process, from concept and detail design to production documentation. 3D direct modeling features, branch and merging features, and real-time layout make it easy for users to work together in the same document.

As mentioned above, Onshape also offers a new type of data management—one built into the CAD system and with transparent delivery in the cloud. This is a significant step forward. Although Solid Edge from Siemens PLM was the first to offer built-in PDM, the technology has generally been considered an add-on solution for a long time.

Onshape seems to have approached the problem from the opposite direction, and "actually built a CAD system around PDM, rather than following the traditional pathway," as PLM blogger Oleg Shilovitsky describes it.

Clearly, data management is becoming increasingly important for manufacturing companies, which is why integrating it into the base solution is particularly interesting.

Notably, this was a development that SOLIDWORKS, and Onshape’s John McEleney, foresaw all the way back in 2006 stating that, “the notion of PDM will eventually disappear and become a natural part of the CAD system”—and now, the idea has been implemented in action.

“THE FOUNDING FATHERS.” Onshape's one-year anniversary, with cofounders (from the left) John McEleney, Scott Harris, Michael Lauer and Jon Hirschtick.
“THE FOUNDING FATHERS.” Onshape's one-year anniversary, with co-founders (from the left) John McEleney, Scott Harris, Michael Lauer and Jon Hirschtick. Not pictured, co-founders Dave Corcoran and Tommy Li.

What Does Onshape Cost?

Onshape offers everything from free solutions, to paid professional design with expanded functional capabilities. Both variants, free and paid, provide full functionality, but the free solution has limits for data storage and the number of documents a user can access at any time.

The advantage of the free level is that it makes things easy for those who want to share the work in collaborative arrangements, just like other companies’ viewer solutions. However, Onshape offers more capability to partners in product development work, who are able to inspect, twist, turn and zoom in on the view of 3D models and drawings.

With the paid versions, if you want a tool with a slightly broader scope of capability, the Standard solution costs $125 a month charged annually.

Besides being, “an excellent CAD solution,” as Hirschtick puts it, the Standard solution includes:

  • Part and assembly modeling
  • Drawing capabilities
  • A solution that works on the web and on mobile
  • On-demand education and training
  • Technical support available in direct communication

For those who want Onshape's advanced solution Professional package, the price increases to $175 a month. In addition to the CAD solution, you also get a complete data management solution:

  • Part and assembly modeling
  • A drawing solution
  • A solution that works on the web and on mobile
  • On-demand education and training
  • Priority Technical Support
  • A solution for formal release management
  • Workflow solution for approval and a notification solution
  • Enterprise level administration tools

Nothing to Install, No License Keys, No Service Pack

The cloud and browser solution is an important component of the Onshape package, as it makes the platform available everywhere and on all modern mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. Needless to say, there’s no need to download or install anything, and no need think about license keys or service packs. The latest version is always available and compatible when you connect to the Internet. You also don’t have to spend time on file management or PDM issues.

“The check-in, check-out and IT-overhead, which comes with the old kind of PDM system, is history. Onshape's sharing, collaboration and control capabilities are actually purely revolutionary”, claims Hirschtick. It's very easy to share documents with suppliers and partners, and data management is no longer a headache. You also save on local storage space plus the need to manually back-up your data disappears. No more lost files or broken links.”

ADDING CAPABILITIES. Onshape collaborates with like-minded companies to provide important capabilities such as FEA (Finite Element Analysis), rendering and other tools in the app store.
ADDING CAPABILITIES. Onshape collaborates with like-minded companies to provide important capabilities such as FEA (Finite Element Analysis), rendering and other tools in the app store.

Keeping Track of the Intellectual Property

Hirschtick also claims that with the older type of CAD files and data organization, it was easy for a company to lose track of its Intellectual Property (IP). “Here you get control of data in a safe cloud environment. You are constantly in control of who has access and who changed what and when,” Hirschtick says.

He also believes that Onshape has changed the way in which drawing reviews are made.

“We can share models with varied levels of availability, from full permissions to editing to sharing with the ability to see the model. Importantly, models and drawings can be made available on all PCs, mobiles or tablets. Instead of forcing everyone to crowd in front of a computer screen, everyone can now look at a complete assembly on their respective devices.”

Five Trends that are Changing Product Development Work

Jon Hirschtick thinks that the new era of product creation we’ve entered requires the kind of tools that Onshape offers. What are these changes? The Onshape founder points to five key trends:

1. AUTONOMOUS HARDWARE - Many of today's most cutting-edge products include software and electronic sensors. This can be true for a coffee machine that remembers how much cream and sugar you like, or a pillow equipped with sensors that can track your sleep patterns. Hardware is increasingly more than just hardware, which makes the design work more diverse and complex—and requires tools that allow seamless integration with electronic and software components.

2. ADDITIVE MANUFACTURING - New high-tech materials (metals, gels, polymers, composites, etc.) and processes have developed rapidly, and 3D printers are no longer just for making prototypes. Large car companies and airlines now print real parts and components for their products.

3. AGILE PRODUCT DESIGN - Inspired by the idea of agile development, which has become widely used in the software world, manufacturers take a new approach to building products faster and making them more innovative. "Agile design" is about emphasizing strong and rapid iteration, tight communication between a geographically varied team and the ability to adopt new knowledge. Agility is responding to change with the help of feedback from, for example, customers, to determine what the next set of priorities will be.

4. INFORMATION FLOWS AS A MEANS OF COMPETITION - Solely looking for a way to find cheaper labor and materials is not a good way forward, as this race to the bottom leads to a position where the possibilities of developing new things approaches zero. The real competitive advantage for today's manufacturers is to accelerate the flow of information at all stages of the process. Old file-based technologies create unnecessary design locks, program crashes and corrupt files, while outdated data management tools block collaboration and slow down business development processes.

5. THE NEW MILLENNIUM'S OPERATING CHANGE - Perhaps the most significant demographic population factor today in terms of labor is the fact that up to 75 percent of the labor force in 2030 will have grown up with mobile and cloud technology. To millennials, social networks are second nature, and they have little tolerance when communication is not immediate and the tools are not intuitively collaborative.

Of course, these pieces are not the only things that are changing the product development industry—but they are a good starting point for discussing where we are heading.

CAN ONSHAPE MAKE A DIFFERENCE. In a related article, Roopinder Tara discussed whether Onshape should be bought by one of the major companies in the industry to secure its future. Hirschtick, however, rejects such thoughts and points instead to the enormous potential of a readily available CAD program in the cloud. There are close to 15 million engineers globally, of which only slightly over one million have a 3D CAD software license. Onshape could be a solution that gets more of these engineers on the 3D wagon.
CAN ONSHAPE MAKE A DIFFERENCE. In a related article, Roopinder Tara discussed whether Onshape should be bought by one of the major companies in the industry to secure its future. Hirschtick, however, rejects such thoughts and points instead to the enormous potential of a readily available CAD program in the cloud. There are close to 15 million engineers globally, of which only slightly over one million have a 3D CAD software license. Onshape could be a solution that gets more of these engineers on the 3D wagon.

Can Onshape Be the Tool that Makes a Difference?

Finally, one can think about how a tool like Onshape could make a difference. Easy accessibility, ease-of-use, real-time functionality, continuously updated version management—these are definitely things that speak to its potential.

Strangely, the market for professional mechanical CAD systems in 3D is actually smaller than you would imagine. According to analyst ORA Research, there are between 10 and 15 million engineers globally, who could benefit from a MCAD solution. However, the number of active commercial licenses hovers slightly over one million. The cause? Instead of doing it themselves, many engineers get other, more CAD-savvy users to manage the design for them.

This is only one of several potentially promising areas, asserts Hirschtick.

Can his solution become the software that makes up for this difference? I wouldn’t bet against it.


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