In the CAD world, Jon Hirschtick, chairman of the board at Onshape, hardly needs an introduction. One of the original founders of SOLIDWORKS, he led a team that came out of nowhere in the 1990s and taught a lesson in performance, ease of use and value to reigning market leaders, notably PTC and Autodesk. Dassault bought SOLIDWORKS in 1997 for $318M. But Jon was not done. He left Dassault and reunited many of the original SOLIDWORKS team to create Onshape, raised over $60M, hired sixty people and is again ready to take on the CAD powers — which now includes his old company. On the eve of the much anticipated public unveiling of Onshape, Jon was kind enough to make time for TenLinks.
Do you really need to work? You were having a pretty good life after you sold SOLIDWORKS and left Dassault Systemes.
I was having a pretty good life [laughs]. But I like the CAD business, and I like creating new things. I saw an opportunity that was being shaped by the needs and challenges that modern designers had trying to use traditional CAD in the context of modern distributed design work. These days teams are fragmented and global and changing all the time. I thought that cloud, web and mobile technologies would be exciting technologies to work with. If you build airplanes and someone hands you a carbon fiber part, you say “Wow!” If you are making software and someone hands you cloud-web-mobile you say “Wow! This could solve a lot of problems.” I felt an obligation. Someone had to try! The time was right. It looked like it would be fun. It looked like it would be important.
How long were you at SOLIDWORKS and Dassault Systemes?
I started SOLIDWORKS in 1993 and left Dassault in 2011, so 18 years.
I felt like I wanted to create something new again. I can't say I wanted to build exactly what we are building here at Onshape, but I wanted to build something new. As great a company as SOLIDWORKS had become, it wasn't really an environment — like most big companies — where I could build something new with a clean sheet, the way we had built SOLIDWORKS. I felt the best environment for me would be a small new operation. And I wanted to learn new things, too.
SOLIDWORKS is a pretty well-liked and successful popular product. Are you in the strange position of going up against your own success?
It’s a little awkward. But we’re not just setting up our lemonade stand next to SOLIDWORKS. We are offering a new story based on the trends in the world and the waves of change. We didn’t create these waves of change, we’re just surfing them. We didn't create cloud-web-mobile. We didn't create the problems people are having with file-based CAD. SOLIDWORKS is a great product. They have a great product and they have been rewarded with tremendous business success. I'm proud of that. SOLIDWORKS is not going away. It will be around for a long time. We offer an alternative for the future. We are coming to market with something different that we think needs to be offered. Some users are going to say, “Wow, this is better for me!” and others are going to say, “I’m going to stay with what I have” and some users are going to say, “I'll put both tools in my toolbox and use them both.”
My obligation is to do good things for users. Users are highest in the hierarchy if who I serve. Yeah, SOLIDWORKS may be in among the competitors, but this kind of competition is ultimately good for all users.
Our success will be based on our ability to get in the market and solve enough problems for enough users.
Who is the target user for Onshape?
I see three scenarios. The first is people who need CAD and don't have it. This could be someone who has just graduated or someone starting a new business. They need professional CAD but are asking if they have to buy a high-end computer and $5,000 worth of software. Wouldn’t they like to take the iMac they have at home and start using Onshape? I think for a lot of those people, Onshape is going to be the choice. We already have paying customers who fit this scenario and I expect many more. Another scenario is where they already have CAD and they are collaborating with other people using traditional CAD (could be SOLIDWORKS or another brand) for product A but they have a new product, product B. They will try Onshape because they can collaborate. They can have document management built in. They can use the free version very easily. There’s no hassle. The third scenario is when someone has traditional CAD but they have parts of the project that they can use Onshape for. We have one customer doing a very complex product with traditional CAD but they are using Onshape for the packaging. We’re going to see those three scenarios.
So it seems Onshape will be comfortable in existing with other CAD programs. It can read native MCAD file formats and translate if needed?
Yup. And I would say most of our users do that. It's the rare user who doesn't start with something imported as part of what they are doing.
Onshape will not recognize features or history, correct? Imported parts will be dumb solids?
Yes, and for that we have built in some very powerful direct editing tools. From the beginning we’ve tried to create an artful blend of parametric and direct modeling. It can be subtle. There's really only four direct editing commands, but boy, can you do stuff with them! You have to be fairly skilled with Onshape. You may not be able to use them on your first day. But if you watch the videos, or visit the forums, you will be stunned what they can do.
Onshape is an online application. What happens when a user is not connected? Is Onshape even functional offline?
No. We've built Onshape for online. We don't do offline. There are basically two concerns about connections. One is you don't have a good connection. If so, there is a simple answer: you need to stick with traditional CAD. We’re not trying to help people who don’t have a good Internet connection. The second concern is people who have good Internet connection and are worried about availability. That answer is really easy: we will actually be the most available system. Compared to traditional CAD, we are going to be way more available. If you were to evaluate the percentage of time a CAD system is available to the user, we are going to win that by a landslide. CAD availability is disrupted all the time. Hard drives crash. Electricity goes out. The OS needs reconfiguring. You need to install a service pack. One traditional CAD user couldn’t show me what he was working on because he was reinstalling Windows and asked me to come back in three hours. It’s possible your Internet will go down. Your computer could hang. With Onshape, you can move to different computer. You can use your friend’s computer, or your spouse’s.
Onshape can actually increase availability. We had one user use Onshape on an airplane. His flight had Internet [which is getting more common] but he was most impressed by being able to do CAD on a MacBook Air — not possible with his traditional CAD.
Is there a threshold speed for Onshape’s Internet connection?
We don't recommend an airplane’s Internet connection. That's not going to be the best experience. We run well on cable, fiber or even 4G mobile internet service. Airplanes, dial-ups and DSL are hardly optimum. You can do it. If you are over the Pacific heading to China where they are ready to cut metal and you realize a fillet radius needs to change, you might not be concerned that it takes a few more seconds to open your model. But if you are able to do email and web browsing on a standard connection, you should be fine using Onshape. That’s what we have designed it for.
The big problem with web-based CAD has been latency. How did you guys handle that?
The world hasn’t seen a full cloud CAD system before. So far, there have been semi-cloud systems, which are traditional installed software plus online file storage and various schemes to try to use the cloud. They’re not bad but it reminds me of the early attempts at electric vehicles. They are a little weird. We built from the beginning our systems to a completely different design. We built it from the beginning that it would be full-cloud like Google Maps or Gmail. So we can offer an overall performance experience that is comparable to desktop CAD. Certain kinds of activity we don’t perform as well. Certain kinds of activity we perform better. It depends on what you are doing. It’s not an apple to apples comparison. Many of our users are startled how fast the experience is. Unless you don’t have a high end workstation and are using some old computer, then we are definitely faster [laughs].
Were you thinking of Autodesk Fusion 360 when you said "semi-cloud?"
Not in particular. Autodesk, and other CAD companies, have semi-cloud solutions. SOLIDWORKS users are using Dropbox. They are not bad things but they are different than what we’ve done. I’ll let your readers draw their own conclusions. Many users are better off with those solutions than without them. We just that we have something different, and, I think, better.
Judging by the examples provided of models created, Onshape seems to do a fairly good job with prismatic shapes common to machine parts. How about surfacing and organic shapes?
We support surfaces. I had just carved a part into pieces using surfaces for a customer. Onshape can extrude up to a surface. You can make swept surfaces. But at this moment, we are not the best system to choose for generating organic shapes. Customers who need organic shapes can use Rhino, which is super for organic shapes. We had one user who did part of their job in CATIA that couldn’t be done in Onshape. Organic shapes are something we don't currently address, but remember, we are still in beta. I would say in the future we expect to add more kinds of tools people would need for organic shapes.
I see all the major browsers supported but not Internet Explorer. Why?
It's a graphics issue. But honestly, I haven’t heard a lot of protest from users. We will support IE, but once again, we are still in beta. That is an issue we will fix and are getting closer and closer.
Onshape is free. Is this too good to be true?
Yeah, we’re pretty excited about Onshape for free. This is the first time there has been a true, good, free CAD strategy in this market. This is not a promotion. You don’t have to have a student ID, be in the military, and have it free for only 90 days . . . this is a real deal! It’s the whole product, too. We’re borrowing from leaders in other fields, like GitHub and Dropbox. You can use Onshape for free forever. You get all the CAD features, version control, everything. The only limit is the number of private, or non-shared, documents that are active at one time. With the beta, we set the limit to five. That number may change, but the idea is that you have a limited amount of private documents. Having more than five private, active documents requires the Pro plan.
Private documents are designs that I don’t want to share or make public? How will this work?
Yes, those are designs that no one else can see. You can create a thousand designs of your own for free and you are willing to share them with the rest of our community. If you are willing to contribute intellectual property to the community, you never pay us a nickel.
Onshape introduced the concept of active private documents, which are limited to five with this beta version. That is the number of documents that are “turned on” right now. If you want to use the sixth one, you have to turn off one of the first five. You don’t lose it. It doesn’t get deleted. You don’t lose access to it. You have to manage what you have active at one time, like a library card. It is our scheme that lets Onshape be really useful for not only students and makers, who are the obvious audience, but also for professionals who would use it lightly.
Here’s an example. I send an Onshape part to a machine shop. If this machine shop works on one document a month that I send them, they don’t have to pay anything for Onshape. Now, let’s say the machine shop has 20 customers and each sends them a document a month. Now they ought to pay.
We also wanted to make it so that you can turn off the Pro account and turn it back on. A customer may have two or three slow months and shouldn’t have to pay. When things pick up, they can turn the Pro plan back on and everything will be exactly how they left it. Even if you are on the free plan, you have all your documents . . . you just cannot edit a lot of them at once.
So Onshape is either free, or pay-as-you-go, pay-as-you-need?
If you will be a heavy user with documents you want to keep private — which is the core market for CAD — pay us as you go and as you use Onshape. If you are an occasional user, a student, a maker, the guy in marketing who needs to look at a model, you don’t pay anything. And if I am a paying Onshape user, I can share my model with you. You won’t have to give your credit card number, sign up for a seven-day trial, or any of that nonsense. It will be free and simple for you.
Can I use Onshape freely as a viewer for Onshape files and files from other MCAD applications?
Is the $100/month the top tier of pricing?
We have an Enterprise plan.
It doesn’t have any more modeling features than our Free or Pro plans, but there are capabilities that will appeal to large firms. If you have a large deployment of Onshape, Enterprise gives you tools to manage and monitor it as a group. For example, you can see a map of where your data is being accessed in the world on a map. You can get a report across a group of employees as to who has exported data and to what format, or if they have exported the files outside the company. Enterprise also provides a better service level.
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