Getting Physical

It’s been quite a while since I wrote about Computer Aided Design or machining, and a lot has happened in the five years since I talked about how to run SolidWorks on Linux or the state of CAD on Linux. The main shift has occurred just in the past few years with the advent of new cloud-based CAD systems that provide extremely high quality software at low prices.

One of the newest players on the scene is OnShape, based out of Cambridge, MA. Their founding team includes a bunch of engineers who helped to create SolidWorks in the first place, so you know that they’ve got some serious mental horsepower backing their product. OnShape is an excellent piece of software with full parametric design capabilities, an innovative mating and constraing system, and true cross-platform capabilities. This last piece is by far their strongest selling point, because between their web UI and native apps for phones and tablets you’re never far away from your design (and it runs great on Linux, too). It’s also very affordable - makers and hobbyists who don’t need to keep their designs private can use OnShape for free1.

OnShape is still in the early stages however, and this means that they’re lacking some features that their competitors have. For my purposes the two main weak spots are in simulation and CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing) capabilities. They’ve announced some partnerships with third party developers to fill these gaps, but it’s not clear what their timeline is. In the meantime, AutoDesk’s Fusion360 provides both of these capabilities in a very high quality package. It’s more expensive than OnShape ($40/mo) and requires installing a client application on your machine (no Linux support, unfortunately), but if you’re doing more advanced designs and require machining support, it may be well worth your money2.

These new CAD systems are heading in an exciting direction. I expect that the rest of the industry won’t be far behind on moving in on the multiplatform paradigm, and I hope that we’ll start seeing industrial-grade tools start to become more available and affordable for individual designers. Having these capabilities opens up a whole new world of invention!

  1. The original offering was more generous with 10 private design documents for each user, but it’s still pretty amazing that they’re willing to let folks use their system for free.

  2. I recently got access to a Tormach PCNC 770 milling machine and I’m excited to give it a spin, so I’ll be paying for at least a month’s worth of Fusion360 just for the CAM package.

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