A major CAD vendor is betting the modeling software’s future is in the cloud
By Jean Thilmany, Senior Editor
Onshape set off ripples across the computer-aided design community five years ago when it announced its computer-aided design software would exist completely in the cloud. Last fall, PTC acquired Onshape.
The purchase signals PTC’s conviction that engineering companies are ready to embrace CAD in the cloud. The SaaS model, while nascent in the CAD and PLM market, is rapidly becoming the industry’s best practice across most other software domains, said Jim Heppelman, PTC president and chief executive officer.
By bringing Onshape in-house, the software maker has placed itself ahead of the pack in what the engineering software maker sees as the inevitable industry transition to SaaS, Heppelmann said.
“Today, we see small and medium-sized CAD customers in the high-growth part of the CAD market shifting their interest toward SaaS delivery models, and we expect interest from larger customers to grow over time,” he said.
In the future, CAD sellers may reach unique arrangements with resellers to bring CAD in the cloud to a wider user base, according to one potential reseller.
But PTC isn’t going all-in with the cloud. It will continue to offer its on-premise CAD software, Creo.
With CAD in the cloud, designs reside on the software provider’s secure server —rather than on individual workstations. Because the software is accessed and managed online, engineers and designers can work on their models from any location and on any device. The SaaS refers to a provider’s capability to deliver everything needed to run CAD in the cloud—including the cloud infrastructure and the CAD software itself.
Though other CAD makers do offer some type of cloud capability, it’s generally the capability to check files into and out of an application on a cloud-based server; engineers don’t design directly with cloud-based software on other applications, said Jon Hirschtick, president of SaaS, PTC. Onshape differs in that its software exists fully in the cloud and can be used by multiple users in real-time, he added. (Hirschtick founded SolidWorks in 1993 and then went on to co-found Onshape with another former SolidWorks chief executive officer, John McEleny.)
The everyday cloud
You’re already using cloud technology. That’s almost certain. If you have an email account ending in gmail.com or yahoo.com, if you’ve checked a social media account from your desktop or mobile device, if you’ve streamed a movie via Netflix or Amazon or any other provider, you’re a cloud user. The email, social media, and streaming software exist on the software owner’s server (let’s say Google), as does your little piece of it—like your Gmail email address.
Though it’s been possible to run CAD as a SaaS for the past few years, CAD has always been slower than other large, graphic-intense and complex applications to pivot to new platforms, says Len Williams, content manager at designairspace, which gives engineering companies the capability to run any CAD system in the cloud.
“Last year’s acquisition is a very clear statement that vendors like PTC see cloud as a platform of the future for CAD and for all their other software,” Williams added, calling the acquisition a “Windows-level” move.
“CAD systems were originally based on UNIX running on silicon graphics workstations. Then Windows came along and people were laughing at the thought of using CAD on Windows,” he says. “Now most of the major CAD systems run only on Windows.”
Likewise, the way companies buy their CAD software has evolved, he said.
“We went from the old perpetual model, where you buy the software for a workstation, to today’s subscription-based model, where you rent the software,” Williams said. “The next step is when a CAD vendor is running it for you so don’t have to buy hardware or worry about upgrades.”
Large companies already run CAD in the cloud because of the benefits the delivery method offers, Williams added. The difference is, those companies—the French automotive manufacturer PSA Peugeot Citroen is one example—have the funds to build their own, private clouds. Designers, engineers, and suppliers at those companies can access CAD on the private cloud whatever their location: Tulle, France; Brussels, Detroit, or elsewhere.
Working remotely and sharing with suppliers
For the smaller guys, the cloud can bring the same benefits their larger counterparts already enjoy; mainly real-time working together and version management, Hirschtick said.
“Versioning” is built-in, which means file changes are tracked in a central database in real-time. Because any engineer with permission can access the software from any device with internet connection, engineers in different places can work together on a design, such as a power supply, for example. There’s only one power supply file; Onshape doesn’t copy it. But with cloud, everyone in the world accesses real-time single source of truth database. We’re not passing around copies all over the place, he added.
“If multiple engineers happen to be working on that file at the same time, it’s not a problem. If one engineer rounded a corner and another one drilled a hole, both changes get captured,” Hirschtick said. “If we’re both rounding a corner at the same time, you would see my hand there in real-time—at the same table—and a box around the corner would indicate that another engineer is editing that right now.”
The bigger the team is, the quicker the product development process, as everyone—even suppliers—has visibility into the real-time database rather than a copy of something emailed a week ago.
When the workflows are quicker, engineers have more design time and are more willing to innovate to try new things, he added.
Most cloud service providers automatically update their programs. Thus, IT staff can focus on other tasks and engineers know they are working with the latest version of the applications.
Also, engineers aren’t bound to their workstations. The software exists at one central server while engineers work from many. They can be globally dispersed and can work from home or other locations outside the office.
Smaller companies that scale their workforce and supplier base up and down as projects change also stand to benefit from SaaS CAD software. When suppliers move away from a project, the company can easily suspend their CAD license and use of the CAD system, Williams said.
When the coronavirus began making headlines in early 2020, engineering companies running one Onshape customer with offices in three major Chinese cities particularly welcomed the remote-work capability, Hirschtick said.
“Using Onshape analytics, they showed us where people were working before the virus situation in China,” Hirschtick said. As expected, employees worked at the offices in the three major cities.
“Then they showed a map of activity of first two weeks of virus quarantines and lockdowns in China,” he added. “This time there were 20 little circles in regions all over in China. They could see where their employees logged in remotely.
“It doesn’t matter if employees are caught at home with only an Android tablet, they can still do their work,” Hirschtick said. “Even with the phone they can even do some of their work.
There are cases where running CAD in the cloud just doesn’t make sense. Some companies may use CAD only a small amount of time and will do better essentially renting a CAD program, perhaps through the cloud, Williams said.
With cloud-based systems, issues of total cost of ownership and return on investment are generally murky because companies want to see how cloud applications compare to traditional on-site infrastructure.
“But there are so many intangibles wrapped up in the cloud that it makes it hard to put calculations on it,” said Andrew Sroka, CEO at Fischer International Systems, which helps companies manage identities for on-premise and cloud-based applications. “It’s important to factor in expenses like utility costs and power requirements.”
If you can’t buy, rent
With CAD in the cloud being not if, but when, designairspace has new ways to bring benefit to users and CAD makers; reselling vendor software in the cloud. The company would offer customers workstations with major CAD vendor’s programs already installed. Designairspace can track use, which allows the vendors to charge based on time spent using the programs.
“It would be just like mobile phone plans back in the day, where you buy a plan based on minutes. We can do this with CAD in the cloud,” Williams says. “Let’s say you buy a plan with 500 minutes. If you need it for only one or two days a week, you can buy it in a small, affordable plan that’s a small portion of what it would cost you to buy the software.
“Why limit CAD-in-the-cloud to large companies? In the olden days, only big companies could afford 3-D CAD systems. We want small companies to have cloud benefits,” he added. “They would still need to buy their own licenses, but at least they can run it in the cloud, like the big guys.”
The pricing model would benefit companies with project managers or suppliers who don’t design in CAD but log onto the program intermittently.
“These people use the software only a little bit at a time, so we can price it so it’s not so expensive for them,” Williams said. “This is a whole new market for major vendors.”
Becoming a CAD-in-the-cloud reseller and offering online training in those CAD programs is the “next step” for designairspace, he added. With the business model, potential customers can also receive on-the-spot, specialized training if needed and can test the software to see if it’s right for their needs before buying a priced plan, he said.
Or, engineering companies might choose to run hybrid CAD, in which they host some CAD systems at workstations on-premise and buy CAD in the cloud subscriptions for intermittent users, Williams said.
“That way you can gradually move more and more users to the cloud. You can move one or two and see if it works and if it does move more to the cloud,” Williams said. “The heavy users will never move to the cloud.”
That brings up another point. Workstations that run CAD will always be with us, he added.
Companies that do work for the defense department or for the military must do their engineering work on company workstations. They cannot work remotely, Williams said.
For his part, Hirschtick is dreaming big. He expects widespread cloud adoption for CAD as users begin to see the advantages.
“People think cloud tools don’t have the power or speed but that’s an old fable. Cloud tools have more advantage and speed, it’s not a fair fight,” he said. “With desktop tools, you have one CPU sitting on the desktop. With the cloud, we’re able to use unlimited amounts of CPUs. I gave a demo and opened up ten models with thousands of thousands of parts on Macbook in Chrome on a web browser. There’s no CAD workstation that could open them that fast, even the best desktop configuration.
“In a few years, people will be saying ‘how did you ever do CAD on a desktop. How was it fast enough?’” Hirschtick says.
While the future remains cloudy, PTC is backing clearing skies for CAD in the cloud. With a large CAD maker backing SaaS, expect to see a flurry of news and updates. In other words, don’t delete your desktop program.
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