Should you buy your CAD software—or rent?


CAD software isn’t cheap. A mainstream 3D CAD program will set you back thousands of dollars upfront, and a bunch more in annual maintenance charges.

The cost can be daunting. But what if there was a way to spread it out, and pay as you go?

Rental: An idea that’s been tried.

A dozen years or so ago, a relatively new CAD vendor, Think3, started offering their CAD software on a monthly rental basis. It was an intriguing idea, but it would have worked better had Think3’s software been more mature at the time. People tend not to renew rentals when the software doesn’t do what they need.

More recently, Ashlar-Vellum has offered their line of CAD programs under a number of licenses, including permanent, one-year, and monthly rental. Though Ashlar’s software is highly respected (especially by industrial designers), the company isn’t one of the big players in the CAD business.

Solid Edge Design 1Recently, Siemens PLM, which is one of the big players, revisited the idea of renting CAD software—but with a new twist. They partnered with Local Motors, a company that does crowd-sourced design of cars. Members of the Local Motors community can rent (actually “subscribe,” but with enough flexibility that it seems like renting) a special version of Solid Edge called Design 1, for $19.95 per month.

Solid Edge Design 1 is a capable CAD program, incorporating Siemens’ Synchronous Technology direct modeling tools. It’s no toy.

There are a couple of key things that make this initiative interesting. First, Solid Edge Design 1 is capable of effectively importing and editing solid models imported from most common CAD systems, including SolidWorks and Pro/E. Second, Design 1 is a direct modeler (it doesn’t include history-based modeling), so it’s quite a bit easier for a normal person (as opposed to a CAD guru) to get up and running on than systems such as SolidWorks and Pro/E (or, for that matter, the full-blown version of Solid Edge.)

Simplicity can be compelling: Solid Edge Design 1 can work with the data you have, doesn’t take a whole lot of time to learn to use, and only costs 20 bucks a month, with no long-term commitment.

One good question might be why Siemens PLM is offering Design 1 through Local Motors, instead of directly. It’s probably because Jay Rogers, Local Motors’ CEO, came to Siemens PLM, and said “this is what we’re looking for.” Siemens PLM responded, saying “that sounds interesting. Let’s give it a try.”

The only real “catch” with Solid Edge Design 1 is that it’s really only intended to be used for Local Motors related projects. Its native CAD files can not be read by the commercial versions of Solid Edge (though, because it is a direct modeler, it can write perfectly good neutral files, such as IGES, STEP, and JT.)

Siemens PLM has recently gone beyond just offering a $20 per month version of Solid Edge to the Local Motors community. They’re now offering the full-range of Solid Edge versions, up to Solid Edge Premium, with full FEA simulation, wire harness design, pipe and tube routing, for rental prices ranging from $99.00 to $299.00 per month. These versions of the software can technical support from Siemens.

At first blush, $300 a month sounds like a lot of money. It might be, for a hobbyist who just wants some CAD software to play at designing cars. But, for a person who plans to use the tool for serious work, it’s not that much. Put it in context: A commercial license of Solid Edge Premium sells for on the order of $7,500 up-front, plus another $2,000 or so in annual maintenance fees.

To me, $300 per month for this software, including updates and direct support, seems like a bargain.

For small to medium size businesses, the ability to pay for software as an expense, rather than as a capital item, is pretty compelling. Even more compelling is the ability to control costs by adding or reducing CAD seats as needed.

Is software rental the wave of the future?

Software rental has three problems that CAD vendors don’t like: First, the revenue stream has to be recognized for accounting purposes as it comes in, rather than upfront. For publicly held corporations focused on reporting lots of revenue, that’s not very attractive. Second, it’s hard to pay front-loaded commissions and bonuses to salespeople on rentals. And third, there’s no guarantee that someone who is renting software will continue to do so. That is, it’s difficult to “lock-in” those customers (and their revenue) over the long term.

Siemens PLM could get away with this initiative for a few reasons: They limited it to Local Motors community members, so they can learn what works (and what doesn’t) without messing with their entire customer base. As Solid Edge is not the market sales leader, they’re more likely to displace competitive seats than their own. Since the Solid Edge product group is only a tiny part of the giant Siemens corporation, there’s not much risk that this program’s success or failure will impact their next quarter’s financial results (and stock price.) And, finally, they have enough confidence in their product to believe that a pretty reasonable percentage of the people who have a chance to use it will like it.

While the Siemens PLM/Local Motors partnership is probably a bit of an experiment, it’s encouraging. Anything that can make good CAD tools more affordable is likely to be popular with users.

Siemens PLM Systems

Local Motors














4 Comments on “Should you buy your CAD software—or rent?

  1. Pingback: If you rent a 3D printer, how about the CAD program too? | Make Parts Fast

  2. This is a very good concept and I hope that it takes traction.  Budget minded designers have are forced into using low-end CAD packages with limited capabilities.  There are many software options out there for small infrequent users.  However, the best solution would be a low cost short term license rental of the fancy CAD package we are professionally familiar with. This could eliminate the frustration and learning curve of using new software and allow for higher productivitiy.

  3. I can’t believe you haven’t considered this: let’s say you pay $300 a month for 5 years. What happens if you stop paying after that? You’ve got 5 years worth of files that you cannot open anymore. How is that not customer lock-in? It’s even worse than the regular poison.

  4. The only one reason I hate software tools is the fact that they will going to expire one day. If your need is for longer period or permanent then definitely go for paid version. If the requirement is temporary or shorter period of time the go for rent process.

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