From Design Database Shards Come Great Products

A design database instead of design files is only one of the things that sets Onshape apart from the competition.

For prospective and current users, there is no shortage of 3D CAD options. Although they all do basically the same thing, design solid and surface 3D models, there are definitely differences in design methodologies, ownership, core and add-on capabilities, maintenance and updates, hardware requirements, design data storage, and a host of other issues.

One of the biggest but often overlooked aspects and considerations of a CAD system is the way it stores design data that influences data integrity, versioning and security, and how it can affect work in process.

After returning from a recent regional roadshow to better understand its customers, Onshape co-founder, John McEleney, said, “The big insight from meeting face to face with customers was that our product is centered around making the process of how people perform design and manufacturing work more seamlessly. This is important because the way in which people did design work and communicated with suppliers with design products built 25 years ago is very different from today.

“I think of my own product design experience prior to Onshape where we designed something in one part of the building and walked down to the shop floor on the other side of the building when questions arose. When you design now, you’ve got suppliers around the world. You’ve got contractors working with you. You’ve got different file formats, different languages and different schedules. It’s just a collection of communication interactions that are quite challenging given that the tools they’re using were designed 25 years ago.

“With Onshape, what we built and what has resonated with people is that we’ve got a collective platform that really takes the tools engineers use in their daily lives, whether it’s email, chat, PDFs, file management or PDM. All of these tools that people use are cohesively integrated instead of being cobbled together as a way to connect and work with people. With Onshape, we’ve built a unified platform that really enhances and facilitates that community.”

Benefits of CAD Databases Versus Files

From the beginning of the CAD era, which is now decades old, virtually all vendors developed their CAD software for storing design information in some sort of file structure. Realizing the shortcomings and limitations of file-based storage, companies such as Onshape realized there was a better way—storing design information in databases.

Some CAD systems have introduced a “new” type of file storage system, so-called “file-less,” “no file” or “zero file” databases. The end user only interacts with the PDM interface, which is often an extra expense add-on, and never sees the actual CAD files. However, the files are downloaded in the background when a user wants to work on them. If you know where to look, you’ll find them hidden in an obscure area of your hard drive. While these files can be technically referred to as a cache, they still contain the editable CAD data and each file must first be downloaded before the CAD system can open it.

There are advantages to this method of data storage. First, there is a central file store so that anybody can get the data they need without having to worry where any of the files are located, which is the same as regular PDM. Second, the cached files are sufficiently hidden and complicated so that they can only be opened by the installed CAD system, intentionally.

However, the downside to this method is that it doesn’t really offer any real benefits to engineers. When a part needs to be edited, it is downloaded locally on a user’s hard drive and locked so that nobody else can edit it. This is similar to checking out the data from a file-based PDM system. Once an edit is complete, the part file is committed back to the database, save and check-in, which, for a large file, can take some time while the file is copied back to the server over a network or internet.

On the other hand, Onshape uses a unique document-oriented database model that supports various forms of data and completely flexible schemas. It is a high performance, distributed non-relational database that is used in big data applications and other processing jobs involving data that doesn’t fit well in a rigid relational model. Instead of using tables and rows like relational databases, a non-relational database architecture is made up of collections and documents.

This fundamental difference is what enables real-time collaboration, simultaneous editing, instant and secure sharing, version control, and release management. There are definitely NO files here.

This absence of files means that an entire design team can work on the same project, same assembly, same part and even the same sketch if need be. At the same time, nothing is locked. All design activities are carried out in parallel. As changes are made, every action is recorded in the database and instantly updated wherever it’s used. There is no save button, no check-in/check-out, no accidental overwrites and no waiting around for someone else to finish their work before you can start yours.

Distributed design teams can co-design complex parts and assemblies without having to be physically in the same location. Since every design change is recorded, conflicts are easily resolved. Your team can experiment as much as they like, either in the same workspace or in their own branch, confident in the fact that any errors or bad decisions can always be undone. In short, Onshape provides unlimited undo/redo.

These are just some of the benefits that Onshape’s unique database architecture delivers.

A New Fundamental Design Unit

“I noticed that people initially didn’t understand this whole notion of the fundamental unit (files) of design changing,” McEleney said. “Specifically, what I mean by this is that every system that’s out there—SOLIDWORKS, Creo, NX, Autodesk Inventor, CATIA and even the 3DEXPERIENCE—are all file-based, where the atomic unit is a file. What people understood with Onshape after this roadshow was that this is a big deal because Onshape is not. It is a database-driven system, meaning that the atomic unit is a database shard versus a file. There is no other CAD system that is a database driven system except for Onshape. Everything else is a file-based system.

According to McEleney, the idea of an atomic unit being a file is what complicates the design environment, leading to the need for a PDM system. Multiple users can’t work on a CAD file simultaneously, just like they can’t both work on something like an Excel spreadsheet. Onshape and Google Sheets, however, are database-driven, which allows for simultaneously access, as well as disaster recovery. Users don’t have “save” a file because that’s done automatically.

“When we created Onshape, we made it as a database-driven system because when you have that, you’re not sending files around. What you are doing is sharing a link, and the link is providing access back to the CAD system and data in the cloud,” McEleney said. “When you click on that link to come back to the CAD system and the data, it’s checking before it lets you in to see that you have the right permissions. And it’s giving you either whole access or partial access or viewing access or commenting access, or maybe you shouldn’t have access at all, in which case it won’t allow you to be able to access the file or access the system.”

In other words, the difference between cloud-based and traditional platforms comes down to database-driven systems compared to file-based systems. Relying on another company’s server in turn gives users a fluid workflow without burdening them with formal release management systems.

“We have the ability, and we allow people to do release management, to freeze and say this is the official release version,” McEleney pointed out. “On top of this was the fact that the Onshape platform itself is a collection of tools that provide access on anybody’s device any place any time.”

Progress Measured with Work in Process

Work in process (WIP)—also known as work in progress, goods in process or in-process inventory—are a company’s partially finished goods waiting for completion and eventual sale or the value of these items. These items are either just being fabricated or waiting for further processing in a queue or a storage area. WIP is a production and supply-chain management term describing partially finished goods awaiting completion and refers to the raw materials, labor and overhead costs incurred for products that are at various stages of the production process.

Optimal production management aims to minimize WIP, which requires storage space, represents bound capital not available for investment and carries an inherent risk of earlier expiration of shelf life of the products. A queue leading to a production step shows that the step is well buffered for shortage in supplies from preceding steps but may also indicate insufficient capacity to process the output from the preceding steps.

Onshape provides a way of getting into WIP and a level of structure without any overhead.

“For work in process, Onshape is a platform that supports release management—the idea that I want to freeze a design and share it with a manufacturer,” McEleney said. “That’s part of the core system, but where we really help people is on the front end of that process. What I noticed from talking to literally hundreds of people on the road tour is that most people have a release management process today. But, there’s so much overhead associated with that release management process that they wait for the absolute last moment before they submit it into their release cycle.”

Release management is a relatively new but rapidly growing discipline within product development. As products and product development processes, and resources become more distributed, they invariably become more specialized and complex. Furthermore, products are typically in an ongoing cycle of development, testing and release, often running on evolving platforms with growing complexity. Such systems require dedicated resources to oversee the integration and contiguous flow of development, testing, deployment and support.

Release management is the process of managing, planning, scheduling and controlling a product build through different stages and environments, including testing and deploying product releases.

“Customers want to keep the process as fluid as possible for work in process because the system, the overhead of their release management, their PDM processes and tools are just so heavily laden that it just slows them down, and it’s cumbersome,” McEleney said.  “What resonated with people when they saw Onshape is that we applied structure to the work in process without the overhead of that structure. This is the way our versioning works. Everything is a transaction along the way.”

Onshape facilitates teams working in parallel. It provides an element of structure, so it facilitates the interaction of WIP. It allows you to do things in parallel without having to work around the system. You can work together and do things seamlessly as compared to using separate tools such as email, chat and PDFs. You could do that, but Onshape is just much easier and faster on the process side of things. It’s providing structure without the overhead.

“If you wanted to do that with any other system, you’d have to copy features over, and you’d have to basically take a product as-is and redesign it,” McEleney said. “Whereas in Onshape, you just say, ‘merge’ and the changes are merged in. You can make multiple branches, so it fluidly allows you to allow other team members to go and work on the basic product design – somebody to work on the styling, somebody to work on the interior, somebody to work on the structural part. You can keep branching these different activities in parallel. At any point you can save versions of these things and revert back to them at any time, restore back to them or make changes to them.”

In other words, users get the benefits of structure with the flexibility of a system that doesn’t require them to be overburdened.

Create and Edit Anytime, Anywhere

“Accessibility with cloud-based systems, such as Onshape, is something that resonates with an increasing number of prospective customers—mobile device, tablet, desktop web browser, etc.,” McEleney said. “No software is installed locally. You can borrow anybody’s laptop, log in like you would for Gmail and work on a design. This is something that you can’t do on other existing local workstation- or server-based CAD systems.”

From the beginning Onshape has had a different take on things CAD. For current and prospective users, that’s a good thing.

For more on Onshape information, click here.

Onshape sponsored this article but had no editorial influence for content. Unless otherwise stated, all opinions are mine. – Jeff Rowe