Is Browser Based CAD Really the Future for Product Design Development?

With CAD seeing an increased popularity in the recent years, the related tools and services have seen vigorous new developments and innovations with effort directed towards making it easier to operate. When weighing its several recent changes, attention is drawn to the browser based applications such as OnShape, AutoCAD Fusion 360, etc.

The advent of browser based CAD application promises better communication and collaboration at a global level; and a cheaper, more efficient alternative. To a certain extent, these applications deliver on these promises, successfully overcoming the shortcomings of conventional software, the most predominant of which are

  1. PC based systems are usually heavy, making them slow to load.
  2. The files pose difficulty in sharing and exporting.
  3. Different updates and versions are troublesome as an older version cannot run a file made on a newer one.
  4. These applications are usually costly to use.

Whether they prove to be a viable alternative to the traditional software is still uncertain.

CAD as a web-app has been around for nearly two to three years. Yet, there is still a vast scope for improvement with this regard. With all publicity banking on their convenience, the applications in themselves need refinement to answer for their functionality. We need better integration with the existing systems.

That aside, a more important perspective is drawn from that of the CAD/CAE services. Impacting nearly every industry, each major development and innovation has the potential to drastically improve productivity of the engineer or designer. An inference can be drawn that any major shift from its paradigms can lead to a disruption in the economical system surrounding the technology, making it important for the users of this technology to responsibly educate themselves about such developments and to analyze their consequences.

As web-based companies target CAD enthusiasts and freelancing professionals, there is an impending battle between these and the PC based software. Though it is an amazing new way of file sharing or presentation, the designers are still hesitant to rely completely on them; and reasonably so.

While the new professional might appreciate the features and intuitive structure of these applications, existing mainstream CAD users are put at a loss. Industries will need to run training programs and existing file customizations will have to be configured. It can be argued that this might be beneficial in the long run but the change isn’t strategically sound.

Online CAD does in no way help one make better designs. While it enables better collaboration, it also causes a security risk. Internet speed and connectivity are also an issue while considering online CAD as an alternative to conventional CAD software.

Another interesting aspect would be to consider the integration with CAM applications. While the website for OnShape mentions some major CAE, CAM and CNC companies as partners, no clear disclosure has been made if or when they intend to launch a related CAM service. Currently, users can import the STL file generated by the web app for CNC operations. Web-based CAM does not see the same excitement as web-based CAD, having little to no benefits over the services currently in use. Even so, some web based CAM applications are available and in development.

Jon Hirschtick makes for an interesting story when talking about browser based CAD. The Solidworks founder took a departure from his former company along with his original team to found OnShape, a web based CAD platform. The site promises better and faster designs at a cheaper price. Though the basic package is free, the cost for professional usage is recently matched by the conventional software.

Small businesses have emerged offering CAD files on sale and providing professional referrals. As the web-based CAD service providers are relying on crowd-funding, advertisements and added payment for their pro features, an entire new set of manufacturers are surfacing, that help in product lifecycle management based on these cloud-based models.

The high cost of PC based software comes from the need for frequent upgrading and multi-platform testing. While most companies are trying to adapt cloud collaboration and web-apps at some level, the conventional software applications are being provided on subscription basis over the internet using the “Software as a Service” delivery model to make usage more cost-effective.

The underdogs in this change are the CAD consultancies that might reluctantly be prompted into adopting this software by the user. As most professionals are still working on conventional PC based platforms, this just makes another cumbersome step in file transfer and conversion for presentation purposes. While sharing is made easy, they also have to account for the level of detail, customization and security of these files.

Nothing can be said conclusively about the mainstream success of these apps in replacing the traditional software, but it is surely making its own space in the market. This disruptive technology should only be seen as one possible answer and room must be kept for further innovations. Though it might fall short on the title of a “step forward”, it has established itself as an important tool for communication and for design and developments amongst students and hobbyists.

About Author: Gaurang Trivedi is Engineering consultant at TrueCADD. He has applied his engineering expertise across several highly complex and big scale projects, consequently managing to flawlessly deliver as per the client requirements.

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