Engineering Software Finally Starts Moving to the Cloud

Onshape targets the $8.7 billion CAD business with new collaboration tools.
Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

At Onshape, Fridays are for show and tell. Engineers at the computer-aided design (CAD) startup gather in the break room at its offices in Cambridge, Mass., to show off improvements in their cloud software to a chorus of oohs and aahs. On a recent Friday, one of the features presented, Sheet Metal, allowed an engineer to show, side-by-side, how changes to a metal sheet would affect the shape of the finished product.

But Onshape’s biggest idea remains its core premise: CAD software that runs in the cloud, enabling engineers to collaborate in real time. The entrenched $8.7 billion CAD software business, which looks much the same as it did a decade ago, remains dominated by software that long predates Google Docs—it’s installed on individual PCs, with files that can’t be viewed or worked on by multiple users at the same time. Onshape Chief Executive Officer Jon Hirschtick says it’s past time for that to change. He has a taste for the dramatic. “I believe the work we’re doing can improve the way every manufactured product on earth is designed,” he says, because he expects competitors to follow his lead.

Hirschtick co-founded Onshape, as Belmont Technology, in 2012 with colleagues who’d also helped him start SolidWorks, the leader in the conventional CAD software industry, two decades earlier. “Most major innovations happen with a platform shift,” says Onshape co-founder John McEleney, another former SolidWorks CEO. “This really required a clean sheet of paper.” Besides letting users work in the same file, Onshape works on mobile devices and has a built-in chat window and an internal app store for customization.

In its two years online, Onshape’s software has won converts including packaging machine company FEMC, audio equipment maker Bose, and Coca-Cola, where engineer Neil Deshpande says it saved his team 6 to 10 weeks of work on designs for restaurant soda fountains in 2016. At $100 a month per login, it’s also cheaper than rival products. A SolidWorks license, for example, costs at least $3,995 upfront, plus $1,295 for a year’s worth of upgrades. Onshape pushes its upgrades to users automatically at no charge.

The company has raised $169 million from investors including Andreessen Horowitz. (Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg Businessweek, has invested in Andreessen.) Marc Halpern, an analyst for researcher Gartner, says Onshape’s biggest challenge may be proving to the conventional-software faithful that it’s an easy switch and has the features they need. “There is some concern about the maturity of Onshape’s functionality,” he says. Unlike SolidWorks and other rivals, Onshape can’t yet create mirror images of assembled components or work with welded structures on its own.

Still, Onshape should be able to match those features soon, given the rate it’s upgraded (every three weeks) and its pedigree, Halpern says. Hirschtick says he’s working on matching competitors’ offerings and adding unique features, such as analytics for tracking the design changes made by each engineer. “When they see that,” he says, “a lot of our competitors are gonna go, ‘Holy s---.’ ”

The bottom line: Onshape is betting its mobile-friendly cloud CAD software can peel customers away from less flexible desktop standards.

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