The cloud - a bright future ahead

07 April 2015

There are big changes afoot in the 3D design market. Al Dean takes a look at the challenges that the cloud is trying to solve. It’s not just about your data being centralised; it’s something much more fundamental

The last few years have been building up to this pivotal point. Now that Onshape is out in the public, we’re going to see the 3D CAD market get a long overdue kick up the arse. It’s not even the fact that the SolidWorks founders got back together, it’s about a group of vendors trying something new, something that hasn’t been tried before.

When it comes to 3D design in the cloud, Autodesk was first out of the gate with Fusion

Despite some of the technical differences between Autodesk Fusion and Onshape, the former has been banging the cloud-enabled design tool drum for the last few years. Now we have two major players and therefore a market. Once Dassault Systèmes’ cloud and V6-based products start to get traction, we’ll have three.

I came to the realisation that the cloud was the future a little while ago. The traditional design and engineering software market is perhaps one of the last to hang on to the desktop software business model.

It is also hanging on to a pricing structure that simply doesn’t suit most design and engineering organisations anymore — and arguably never did.

To use traditional 3D design tools there’s a heavy upfront and considerable investment — and that’s not just about the software costs and on-going maintenance. In addition, there’s also the requirement for heavy duty workstation as well as servers for license management.

Then you get into the realms of data management (or indeed, lifecycle management). Costs at this stage can then start to ratchet up as you add in additional software, hardware, infrastructure and even consultancy — just to be able to use the software you’ve invested in.

Of course, software vendors could change this overnight with a shift in pricing, but if they have a stable business and customers are paying, they’ve no real impetus to disrupt it. It takes external influences to cause a rethink — which we now have.

New tools, new sales model

Cloud-based applications change this, but the manner in which they change it varies between vendors, but that will also change.

At present, we have Fusion offering that focusses on centralised data and collaboration via the cloud but which has a streamed (rather than an explicit installation process) local application that does much of the heavy calculation.

Dassault’s Mechanical Conceptual works in a similar vein, but doesn’t have the same local solve and calculation. It’s a streamed application, but through local application none the less.

Onshape differs in that everything is done by the cloud server — you’re working it remotely through a browser. No download of software, just streaming of graphics and user interaction. But don’t think that this is how things will be for ever.

Things will normalise

I’m sure we’ll see a slew of claims and counter claims from all the involved parties over the next few months. That’s par for the course, as wasteful of resources it is.

What’s key to remember is that things will settle and this new set of applications will all start to normalise and we’ll have similar working methods from all the vendors — it’s what happened when we shifted from UNIX to Windows and it’ll happen again. Each vendor will try their own approach, each will experiment and each will learn through their own and other’s experience.

Eventually, Fusion will be available via the browser (I’d put a fiver on that being before the end of the year). DS’ next generation SolidWorks products will get better and more accessible. Though strangely, this is the unknown in the calculations as DS is reluctant to talk about the whole thing, presumably to protect its dominance with SolidWorks.

And hopefully, OnShape will have a way of working when you’re offline, as well as internet connected. Finally, I’d hope that DS is much more open about getting its customer’s access to the tools it is developing . The excuse that “They’re using our resources so they should pay” simply won’t cut it as these tools need to be played with, discovered and explored. At the moment, they’re not getting the exposure that they deserve — leaving a whole new market open to Autodesk and Onshape.

Onshape’s launch this month will kick start a new chapter in 3D design tool, not because it’s first, but because two players means that there’s competition and a market

A sterling idea

Also, for those of us on the right hand side of the Atlantic, there’s an additional benefit that finally, after years of being told that the cost of ‘doing business’ was higher as a justification for over charging us, we’re also beginning to see parity of pricing in these systems as well, across international borders.

A bright future?

My final thoughts are these. We currently have three cloud-based 3D design products for the mainstream on the market. We have Onshape, the SolidWorks V6-based cloud tools from DS and Autodesk Fusion.

At present, these three tools differ in how they work, how they’re priced and what you can achieve with each because they’re all at different stages of development and maturity.

They aren’t for everyone at the moment. Many companies are adverse to cloud data storage.

That also, I’m convinced, will change. I believe that we need a generational shift at the top of the tree at the IT level for the cloud to take off in engineering and design. But for those that do adopt this way of working, there’s a lot to gain, both technically and organisationally.

Comments on this article:

Nice points Al. I love what Autodesk and Onshape are doing to the pricing structure of professional CAD tools. Its about time. Dassault will have to get off their stance of trying to protect Catia like prices in their next gen tools... and or stop calling them SolidWorks. They would be wise to come to that conclusion sooner rather than later. I wonder if they have it in them. Also, spot on about people eventually coming around to CAD and engineering tools in the cloud. I hear all the arguments against from the older crowd. Things will trend this way because of the pure and simple reduced cost and greatly increased efficiency of working this way. It might take the retirement of some decision makers in a lot of organizations for that to happen in full force. In the mean time, the less fearful ones will be able to reap large gains in flexibility and efficiency and will out produce those clinging to desktop file based systems that create way too many copies of the design to manage the data. The forward thinking engineers are merging with the makers to produce the next generation of things at a blistering pace. Exciting times to be on the creative end and have the ability to utilize massive compute capabilities. Its going to be a fun ride.

Posted by Pete Yodis on Wednesday 08 2015 at 05:25 AM

Nicely written article Al. Agree with all your points! Mark

Posted by Mark on Thursday 09 2015 at 03:56 AM

Thanks Al, yes the times they are a'changin', for the better we all hope. It will be interesting to see how fast Onshape can add functionality to become a more capable replacement for existing systems. Their pricing model will certainly help more people try before they buy, and if they can keep to that pricing as they get to be more fully functional, things will get really interesting. Cheers! Stan Przybylinski VP of Research CIMdata, Inc.

Posted by Stan Przybylinski on Thursday 09 2015 at 07:47 AM

But Only cloud future is no future at all!! Imagine the same subscription and renting ONLY future in all your life! You have only bills to pay, but no property at all and when you are in trouble all the stuff is gone! You wont buy things anymore, but you have the "choice" to rent...!

Posted by dedmin on Thursday 09 2015 at 07:37 PM

Al, if OnShape (or any web app) is available offline, then the computational power I didn't buy with my new cloud-oriented workstation comes from where?

Posted by Alex Bausk on Friday 10 2015 at 08:04 AM

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