GrabCAD’s PDM Workbench: design collaboration in minutes

I know you’re all looking for posts on this week’s PTC Live Global and PTC Live Service Exchange, and I’ll get to those, but I need to fill you in on a little shindig GrabCAD threw on Tuesday.

You know about GrabCAD, right? It’s a library of nearly 500,000 CAD parts, generated by its community of over 1 million designers and engineers. Want something to make with your new 3D printer? Browse there. Looking for a CAD model to complete a design? Post a request. Need to hire a designer? Reach out to the GrabCAD community and browse their work. Want to crowdsource a design? Set up a GrabCAD challenge.

GrabCAD says it’s the de facto standard for sharing CAD files, with over 30,000 parts downloaded per day and 2,600 new users signing up every day. What do those designers and engineers want, once they’ve got a CAD model to jumpstart their latest project? A way to manage the data they’re using and to collaborate more effectively with one another and with clients.

So what did GrabCAD do? It created PDM Workbench, a cloud solution for designers and engineers that “makes it easy to manage and share files, work with partners and complete projects on time.” The company says that 70% of CAD users don’t have any sort of PDM to manage data or processes and built Workbench to fill that gap — focusing on personal productivity with a no-IT infrastructure solution.

That’s big. Most PDM and PLM systems are intended to solve enterprise problem, with an attendant investment in IT infrastructure. Talk to most designers, and they’ll tell you that PDM gets in the way, requires them to fill out forms, slows them down. GrabCAD’s not alone in focusing on improving the experience for designers, but it’s a welcome shift for smaller companies, solo-entrepreneurs and others who don’t want to deal with IT simply to control revisions and collaborate.

Workbench lets users sync desktop files to a project defined in the cloud, notifies team members of changes, enables users to share specific data with some partners and not with others via partner spaces, and locks files when someone is using them so there’s no danger of overwriting one another’s changes. Standard PDM stuff.

What’s perhaps different is how Workbench handles CAD files. I’m getting a deeper dive on this soon (so this is a bit superficial) but I understand that GrabCAD processes each CAD file upon upload into a proprietary BREP format that makes it easy and fast to share — viewers don’t need a license of the model-creating CAD software, and markup is done right on the 3D model, in a browser on the desktop or on Android and iOS devices.

How, exactly, Workbench does this varies by CAD creation engine. SolidWorks users, for example, are alerted when a file is locked or when it is affected by a change to another model. Autodesk ­Fusion 360, AutoCAD, Inventor; NX and Solid Edge; and PTC Creo are supported, but NX and Inventor don’t have the same level of integration as the rest. With the summer release of Workbench, Creo will be the most tightly integrated, with the ability to view native models, assemblies, and drawings, and access assembly information. Workbench will also automatically detect the latest Creo file for upload.

GrabCAD office

GrabCAD invited press and industry analysts to their offices this week for their first-ever media event, to brief us on the integration of Workbench and Creo and to introduce us to customers using Workbench. After two days at the Boston Convention Center, it was great to be someplace normal, less sterile. Above is a panorama of GrabCAD’s Boston-area office, in a funky neighborhood that straddles Somerville and Cambridge. Standing in front of the monitor is founder and CEO Hardi Meybaum; seated to the left of the monitors is VP Jon Stevenson and to the right, pouring tea, is Product Manager Blake Courter, who gave a quick demo of Workbench.

Mr. Meybaum works at a standing desk; his team has workstations with plenty of space (although I can’t help but think there was some serious tidying before we arrived; it can’t always be this neat!), a ping-pong table and an espresso machine. As you can see, it’s an open space. No cubicles. There’s a sign over a desk at the right, welcoming a new mom back to work. The vibe was young, energetic, customer-centric and very focused. No wasted time here. Play ping-pong to blow off steam, not kill time. By all means, have some more caffeine.

What started as a free CAD parts exchange is now transitioning into a money-making software-as-a-service enterprise. With Workbench, GrabCAD introduced fees that start at $59 per user/month*. Mr. Meybaum said that Workbench, launched a year ago, already has 50,000 users, with an average installation of 10 CAD users. Mr. Stevenson said that customers typically buy a paid seat for each CAD user, but on periodic subscriptions that let them ramp up and down as projects ebb and flow. Subscriptions are the way of the future, especially for small customers with uneven workloads — why pay for a capability when you don’t use it? Similarly, getting a project started fast is essential, so adding new subscribers quickly is key.

We heard from GrabCAD customers who told us that Workbench enabled them to communicate more effectively with customers and partners who may not have CAD experience and aren’t used to “thinking CAD”. Workbench’s model sharing, visualization, dimensioning and markup capabilities, they said, are so intuitive that collaboration is smooth and easy.

The users seemed genuinely excited by how Workbench opens their business to new opportunities. They see many of the benefits of PDM (greater efficiency, since no one spends time searching for the correct model or, worse, working on an old versions) but with the added advantage of no IT overhead. As Mr. Meybaum likes to say, “It’s Dropbox for engineers.” For these customers, and for GrabCAD, Workbench appears to be a game changer.

* There is a free plan, which the company says is intended for occasional users with small projects and file sizes. The free version limits some capabilities.

UPDATED after initial release to say that Inventor and NX are supported but not with the same level of integration as the rest; and to change 50,000 customers to users.

Note: GrabCAD graciously provided transportation and snacks but did not in any way influence the content of this post.

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