Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 12.03.20 PMOnshape, the latest CAD company founded by Jon Hirschtick, John McEleney and other names you likely recognize, took the wraps off this morning to finally let us talk about the worst-kept secret in the CAD world. To skip right to the part you probably care about: What is it? It’s CAD-in-the-cloud with no local install, free unless you want your designs to be private, has nifty data management and collaboration capabilities built in, and is so easy to use that even I can do it. Now in public Beta, you can request access here.

Expectations are incredibly high. What else could they be when the likes of Hirschtick, McEleney, my CV colleagues Scott Harris and Dave Corcoran, and other CAD veterans start a CAD company. But then they team up with recognized experts in cloud, mobile and security, and bring in Harvard’s CFO and people take notice.

According to Fortune, “Onshape’s goal is to modernize CAD software. “The vision of the company is that everyone on the design team is able to use CAD together, on any computing device, anywhere,” Hirschtick says.” That vision enabled Onshape to raise $64 million and values the company $295 million, including the funding. Crazy for a company with one product that’s still in Beta, no? Expectations …

The vision does seem to be on its way to realization. Joe Dunne (another ex-CV, ex-SolidWorks guy) gave me a demo last month and made it possible for me to try Onshape myself. It’s typical CAD –insert shapes, modify them, fillet/boss/etc.– with a couple of added twists:

  • Onshape runs in your browser with no local install. The user interface is simple, clean and uncluttered
  • You create parts and assemblies, and use them to create drawings (though the drafting elements are not fully implemented yet)
  • Your parts are stored at Onshape where a PDM-like container structure creates version and access control. No checking in/out, no locked files, no local copies; your entire team is working on the part at the same time and Onshape’s secret sauce lets everyone see what’s going on in real time
  • Because it runs in a browser, you can use Onshape on Macs, PCs and mobile devices (am told Linux, too, but haven’t tried that). Playing with a design on my Mac and iPhone 6 at the same time was easy and fast (though a bit weird — will we really try to do CAD on that tiny screen?)
  • The collaboration is natural. I can pull on a feature while you fillet the surface next to it, if that’s how we want to work. Whoever “sets” the design first has their changes communicated to the rest of the team. I haven’t run across that work process, but perhaps that’s because the tools haven’t encouraged it –I’m used to working on one aspect of a project while others work on theirs– but am interested to see how people who aren’t constrained this way will use it
  • Since designs rarely start from scratch or operate in a vacuum, you can import and export common CAD formats. Onshape uses Parasolid, so expect the smoothest transactions with other Parasolids-based modelers
  • How much does it cost? It depends. There’s a free version, but you can only have 5 private designs; the rest are visible to others. If you want your designs to be private, that’s $100/month (though there are apparently enterprise deals as well)
  • The viral aspect to Onshape is interesting, too. Working on a design? You can notify collaborators by asking Onshape to send them an email that invites them to join Onshape. Presumably, once they try it, they’ll like it and want to sign up for one of the premium accounts

But whether you’re using the free or premium version, this is real CAD. And it’s the same version regardless of payment model: no dumbed down or less capable versions. For a beta, it feels remarkably stable. The business model is interesting, too: free or $100/month is going to get a lot of people to try Onshape, and the invitation mechanism will get them to sell it to their friends and collaborators. It’s not trying to replace corporate CAD but coexist with it, at least for now. It appears to be a “try it, you’ll like it” model, with the potential to be insidious: an IT manager might find dozens of Onshape users in a SolidWorks/Creo/Solid Edge environment, forcing a keep/let go decision. Someday.

Boston Globe article yesterday pointed out something I hadn’t realized: the average age of Onshape’s founders is over 50. Can so seasoned a team create start-up magic again? Are they able they step back from what they’ve done in the past (impressive as it is) and come up with a new and novel solution to a problem that really hasn’t changed since SolidWorks debuted 20 years ago? It seems to me that they really did start from scratch, looking at what designers need today, how they like to work and what devices they want to use. Yes, it has to have the essential CAD functionality we all expect but in addition,

  1. Eliminating software download/install removes the possibility of version conflicts (and those pesky IT people getting in the way).
  2. Storing the parts in the cloud gives everyone access; controlling that access becomes key and is handled by a relatively simple Google-docs like permission model. Backed by, I am told, world-class security protocols.
  3. Building in collaboration creates a different way of working, more naturally, with remote partners and customers.

It’s an impressive start.

Image courtesy of Onshape.