Shapr3D: Cool CAD on an iPad (and now, macOS too)

Apr 6, 2021 | Hot Topics

You probably don’t know this about me, but I used to be really good at CAD. A long time ago, after the advent of the PC but before Bitcoin. I used to demo CAD in some of my product management roles. Still, stone age. Today I love talking to CAD people about what they do, along with the why and the how. So when the good folks at Shapr3D combined my love of CAD with my Apple fangirl-ness and sent me a spanking new iPad Pro, Apple Pencil, and an M-1 Apple MacBook Air on which to try Shapr3D, I couldn’t resist.

First, some backstory.

Late last year, Shapr3D’s Ron Close arranged for me to speak with Radek Fáborský at ŠKODA AUTO, the European car company. Mr. Fáborský works in the tooling department, with 1300 other people, preparing all of the tooling for welding, casting, and stamping production lines. Mr. Fáborský’s particular expertise is the design and commissioning of robots on welding lines.

These robots are guided by cameras and other optical instruments, another of Mr. Fáborský’s specialties. One area of expertise Mr. Fáborský doesn’t have is traditional CAD, yet he needs to sketch out how the robot welder moves, the bins it picks from, and the enclosure it works in, to design the optimal setup. Mr. Fáborský tells me he spends hours on the production floor, sitting next to the robot and watching how it acts in response to camera guidance. He’s really passionate about this: “Yes, we have webcams pointing at the pallet—so we could monitor remotely—but then we don’t have the feel or hear the sounds of what is going on.”

Combine the desire to be on the production floor with the need to create sketches of the pallet, grippers, and other parts of the system—or the whole system—and what technology do you use?

Mr. Fáborský (remember, not a CAD guy) found out about Shapr3D from the Apple App store and decided to give it a try. “Traditional CAD didn’t work for how I work — I must be surrounded by living things, pallets of parts, the robot, its camera, the computer that shows the point cloud generated by the camera … I need a living canvas in my hand, with a pencil, so that I can draw what I see and imagine. Digital paper isn’t enough; I need CAD but also to be looking at what’s going on, maybe even using Shapr features, like importing a picture, to start a design idea.”

Well, if Mr. Fáborský can do it, so can I.

The boxes arrived—there might have been a little dancing with excitement at unboxing—and I dove right into Shapr3D’s tutorials. Honestly, Shapr3D is so much easier to learn than any CAD I’ve ever used (but remember, it’s not my primary job anymore, so YMMV) and the touch/Apple Pencil interface on the iPad is incredibly intuitive.

Shapr3D uses direct modeling (as did my stone-age CAD, so I was very familiar with how it all works) to create geometry, and its user interface is fast and easy to navigate. One creates an outline shape, sweeps it, Booleans with others — a very natural way to create even complex shapes. And for Mr. Fáborský’s applications, which would be primarily rectilinear shapes, this seems perfectly suited. The user interface guides users to the next potential logical steps, using an adaptive and predictive scheme that the company says is perhaps 30% faster than traditional UIs for direct modeling.

Shapr3D also allows entry from the iPad’s keyboard and mouse, more like a traditional CAD setup. I didn’t try this since my interest was in trying to duplicate Mr. Fáborský’s environment. I understand why some users would want this—and the iPad is certainly as powerful as many laptops—but I find the idea of using the iPad / Apple Pencil combo fascinating.

My Shapr3D experience was terrific, but I was just playing around. Mr. Fáborský has a real job to do, so let’s let him finish the story.

His goal is to design the robot’s physical interfaces within its surrounding world—gripper, slides, special tools that are autonomous like an artificial human hand that stirs parts in a pallet—so he starts with a sketch of that entire setup. This enables him to imagine what type of robot makes the most sense, what to put around it, and how to organize its space.

He sketches in Shapr3D, exports a STEP file, and forwards that to engineers who use a more traditional desktop CAD tool to finalize his concepts into manufacturable models and drawings. (Since our conversation, Shapr3D has come out with a drawings capability, but it’s unlikely Mr. Fáborský would be doing that — it’s not part of his job.) The project is complete when Mr. Fáborský receives the gripper, pallet, or other gear and determines that it’s fit for purpose. The concept is then rolled out across the production lines.

Will Shapr3D replace traditional CAD at ŠKODA AUTO? No, or at least not yet. Mr. Fáborský and his managers see Shapr3D as a “superb CAD designing tool that does everything we need and can easily exchange ideas with the desktop solutions.” He is introducing Shapr3D around ŠKODA AUTO (and parent, Volkswagen) as a “brilliant, agile tool to communicate ideas to the 3D environment … Shapr on an iPad won’t replace everyday CAD — they need different hardware, with a keyboard, mouse, a huge screen. The iPad suits me because I’m a prototype developer, sketcher, on the production floor.”

Since my chat with Mr. Fáborský, Shapr3D came out on Apple’s new iMac M-1 chip hardware, so perhaps that perception will change. Mr. Fáborský is an iPad person in part because he’s rarely at his desk. To him, Shapr3D on the iPad is “fantastic, like drawing on canvas but creative, intuitive — I don’t want to go back to desktop solution.”

But many people are desktop users, and for them, Shapr3D running natively on the macOS platform extends the mouse+keyboard idea from the iPad to the full-on laptop/desktop experience. I didn’t play with this as much, but it works well and feels more like a traditional, direct modeling CAD desktop experience. Somewhat reimagined with a modern UI, but much more along the lines of what you might expect.

Shapr3D continues to evolve. Shapr3D CEO Istvan Csanady told me that he has an aggressive roadmap that will, in time, make Shapr3D a serious contender in traditional CAD, but with what the company says is a better design experience. It started as a concept design tool, but the ambition now is to add functionality that appeals to more traditional workflows — and the far larger potential user base that brings.

Mr. Csanady also said that his users are atypical in the staid CAD world. He told me that as millennials get into management positions and make strategic IT decisions, they value user experience and IT usability: “this generation is super-bullish on great user experiences, and demands easy-to-use business tools. And that includes CAD. You can purchase Shapr3D with a single click, are onboarded in one click, don’t need formal training to become productive. This changes the mindset for buying and using, and our quality experience keeps users with us.”

2020 saw 24 Shapr3D releases. 2021 will see early releases on the Windows platform, more drawing capability, continued rollout to large industrial clients, and a change in packaging and pricing to appeal to three diverse audiences: corporate/business customers, hobbyists, and free/trial licenses.

I found Shapr3D to be useful, intuitive, and much more enjoyable than I was expecting. The new hardware, to be sure, played a part. But the adaptive UI, the Apple Pencil interaction, and the ability to move around in the real world while working on a design, as in Mr. Fáborský’s experience, also played a big part.

FTC: Shapr3D provided loaner hardware and software licenses but did not compensate Schnitger Corp. for this blog post.

The image was provided by Shapr3D. My models were good but nowhere near this good.