CAD Emerges from the Stone Age to Finally Join the Mobile Era

Peter Levine

Posted September 24, 2015

Ever since my first job as an x86 assembly language graphics programmer, I have had a fondness for CAD (computer-aided design) software. In the mid-1980s, I worked at a computer graphics company writing algorithms to power the then-current graphics card add-ons that powered PCs and workstations; my code allowed PCs to perform high-speed graphics for software packages like CAD. At the time, I remember going on my first business trip and visiting a company in Sausalito called AutoDesk, with the purpose of integrating AutoCAD into our graphics sub-system.

That was in 1985, and that generation of CAD players has not fundamentally changed.

Almost a decade later, in 1993, SolidWorks was founded by MIT graduate Jon Hirschtick. And that was the last time anything exciting happened in CAD. It’s as if the industry has been frozen in time. Yet products from Autodesk and SolidWorks still represent the majority of CAD systems used today.

The $12T manufacturing and design market — which is 100% dependent on CAD — is stuck: The industry continues to use software that was designed for a standalone PC running MS-DOS. It’s kind of shocking, actually, given the profound changes in computing as the world has moved on to the internet, cloud, and mobile. Imagine the productivity gains if CAD software embraced concepts like document sharing, collaboration, cloud storage, and being mobile-native.

I’ve continued to be surprised that no new CAD company has been created, and I have been keeping an eye out since I arrived at a16z nearly five years ago.

Then along came Onshape, a new CAD company that has completely re-designed CAD from the ground up, taking advantage of the most modern cloud and mobile architectures. By optimizing local smartphone resources with the cloud backend, Onshape allows CAD to be done entirely through one’s mobile device or web browser — in real-time and with the friendly, easy, convenient user experience a mobile-native customer base expects today.

A change made to a design on one device is immediately rendered to another device working on the same design. This means designers can finally edit and share their CAD designs across computers and devices with other designers in remote locations working on the same design. And just as with code managed on GitHub, designs can be branched so different members of a design team can make their own changes, which can then be merged back together — all while maintaining version control.

In short, it’s CAD for the way we design, manufacture, and work today: distributed, remote, collaborative, and rapidly iterative.

So what took so long? In my conversations with longtime industry vendors and Onshape Founders Jon Hirschtick (yes, that one) and John McEleney, there was a belief that CAD could not be run from the cloud on mobile devices. This was true until recently, as new processors and memory have effectively turned our cell phones into tiny supercomputers.

But the changes to mobile and cloud are only part of the story. The real reason Onshape is now possible is the killer founding team, which knows a thing or two about CAD. This is the team that originally created and grew SolidWorks; one customer described them to us as the “Steve Jobs + Bono of CAD”. Not only does that experience enable the Onshape team to build a new CAD system that bridges then and now — essentially time-traveling through the idea maze — but they’ve done it in a rare way that sheds the legacy of the old while innovating the new. Some innovations can only come from startups; there’s a difference between adding a new capability onto your core, legacy product line vs. starting from scratch and making it the central focus.

Onshape’s product demo was one of the best we’ve seen, and points to one of the last unmet needs in computing. So it is an honor to join the Onshape board. I look forward to seeing the transformation of the CAD industry, which will bring new efficiencies and productivity to manufacturing and design organizations — as well as independent designers — around the world.

Software, finally, truly eats CAD.