Cloud-based computer-aided design (CAD) solutions are not news. For more than two decades, developers have introduced innovations that have revolutionized the sector. Previously, CAD software was primarily used on-premise. That meant that the applications had to be installed locally and ran based on the processing capability of the CAD workstations. Towards the end of the 20th century, some developers introduced web CAD features that enabled users to collaborate more effectively, setting the stage for what later became cloud-based CAD.
The use of cloud CAD offers numerous advantages such as increased speed, heightened innovation velocity, reduced cost, increased security, and productivity, features that on-premise tools cannot replicate. Simply put, online CAD represents a paradigm shift in design and engineering. But to enjoy these benefits and partake in the shifting tide, you have to find a solution that works for your organization. Thus, in this article, we discuss the most commonly used cloud-based software. Also part of the agenda is what the future holds for web CAD. Let’s get started.
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Understanding Cloud-Based CAD
Before delving into what cloud-based CAD is, it is essential to understand the ‘cloud’ as a concept. The cloud is a collection of servers that are accessed over the internet. The term refers to not only the hardware (memory, processor, and storage devices) but also the software (operating system, virtualization software, and networking software) and databases that run on these servers. The hardware, software, and databases are collectively known as cloud computing resources. Usually, cloud providers decide on how to manage, configure, and deliver these resources on demand to provide cloud services such as infrastructure, data storage, database management and development tools, and more.
There are three primary models of cloud computing, namely:
- Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS): In IaaS, a company rents cloud infrastructure elements, including data storage space, virtual machines or dedicated hardware, and networking features. The company is then responsible for configuring and managing these resources to run its applications and systems. The company also deploys, maintains, and supports the applications, with the IaaS provider only maintaining the infrastructure.
- Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS): In PaaS, the provider delivers servers, operating systems, and networking, storage, and development tools that client companies need to build, deploy, run, and manage applications. This model removes the need for companies to configure and manage cloud infrastructure.
- Software-as-a-Service (SaaS): SaaS is a business-to-consumer (B2C) offering that delivers end-user applications to the user. In this model, the user does not have to worry about how the provider configures, runs, maintains, or manages the cloud infrastructure. All they have to do is create or sign in to an account, part with a subscription fee, and use that piece of software. Cloud-based CAD solutions fall into this model of cloud computing.
What is Cloud-Based CAD Software?
Cloud-based computer-aided design (CAD) software is a SaaS solution that enables users to create and save CAD files, design 2D drawings or 3D models, and analyze the models over the internet via a web browser or desktop web client application. In this context, we can classify cloud CAD solutions into two types. The first type covers CAD software installed locally on company servers or employees’ workstations but can access the internet (cloud storage), where the CAD files are stored. The second type includes fully web-based solutions. You can only access these applications via a web browser or an application streaming software.
As more tech-related industries embrace the cloud, CAD software developers are also making the shift. They are transitioning from providing solely on-premise solutions to offering Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), thus catering to client organizations aiming to become cloud-first or even cloud-only.
History of Cloud-Based CAD Software
Early Web CAD Software
The origin of cloud-based CAD solutions traces its formative roots to web-enabled or web CAD software. As the late 20th century approached, in 1996, Dassault Systèmes released CATIA Version 4 Release 1.7. Built into this release was Conferencing Groupware, which enabled teams to collaboratively review, annotate, and revise designs via video conferencing. The company then followed it up with the rollout of CATweb solutions. These online tools let users view and review CAD or computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) drawings and models. It also gives other users access to critical data.
During the period between 1996 and 1999, researchers also explored methods to design mechanical parts for machining via the internet. At that time, they used Cybercut, a web-based system for virtual rapid designing and prototyping. It enabled users to create a 2D or 3D object through their browser and then send it to a CNC machining shop. This helped reduce costs and processing times.
It did not take long thereafter before Autodesk incorporated web-based capabilities into AutoCAD. In July 2000, Autodesk released AutoCAD 2000i, the internet edition of its flagship software. This product’s capabilities included publishing data on the web, hosting online meetings, accessing design information from the worldwide design community, and importing content from manufacturers’ websites into drawings by dragging and dropping.
Early Cloud-Based CAD Software
The aughts passed with little fanfare on the cloud computing front. However, in January 2010, Autodesk moved towards cloud computing, launching a technology preview called Project Butterfly. Project Butterfly would officially launch in September 2010 as AutoCAD WS, a cloud-based solution that enabled users to view, edit, and share designs and DWG files through web browsers. (SolidWorks had in early 2010 hinted at the release of cloud-based CAD solutions but later clarified that it would not be until a few years – 2 to 5 years – later that users would enjoy these products.)
Next, the company launched Autodesk Cloud (or Autodesk 360) in September 2011. Autodesk Cloud was a collection of more than 12 web-based services, products, and capabilities that enabled users to enjoy more computing power and online storage. Autodesk would then tease its Fusion 360 offering, the world’s first comprehensive cloud-based 3D modeling solution, in November 2012. Fusion 360 officially launched as a commercial product in 2013.
Commonly Used Cloud-Based CAD Platforms
Many other developers have since followed in Autodesk’s footsteps, releasing cloud-based CAD solutions in the market today. The common platforms include:
1. Fusion 360
Fusion 360 is a cloud-based 3D modeling software, available as a desktop application for both macOS and Windows, and it can also be accessed via a web browser. However, most of the design work primarily takes place on the desktop software. The browser only provides access to the designed part’s data, such as dimensions and general layout.
The desktop software nonetheless has certain capabilities of a web client application, meaning it can connect to the internet natively. It prompts you to log in to your Autodesk account, which gives you access to Autodesk’s cloud storage. As a result, all the files you save hence are stored off-premise in the cloud. It is this cloud storage capability that makes this software an excellent collaboration tool. The saved CAD and CAM files are accessible globally to authorized persons.
Given that access to Fusion 360 is not strictly restricted to a web browser, you do not need an internet connection every time you intend to design a part or assembly. In fact, the desktop software has a ‘working offline’ mode that allows you to continue working while on the go.
Onshape, launched in 2012 around the time Autodesk introduced Fusion 360, is the first and only SaaS CAD platform designed for the cloud. It provides professional 3D CAD capabilities and has built-in product data management (PDM) and enterprise analytics tools. Thus, Onshape not only enables design professionals to design parts and products on demand and collaborate in real time but also lets them manage product data from anywhere and at any time. You can access the cloud-based platform through any modern web browser from any computer, tablet, or phone.
3. Sketchup for Web
SketchUp for Web is an online CAD modeler that lets you create 2D designs and 3D models via your web browser. It is a streamlined version of the desktop software, with both sharing the same technology. However, while the desktop application stores CAD files locally on your computer, SketchUp for Web saves projects to Trimble Connect. Trimble Connect is a cloud-based collaboration platform and common data environment (CDE).
Anticipating that browsers may freeze or become unresponsive when overloaded, the web-based modeler features an auto-save function. You can therefore work on your project assured that your changes will not get lost into internet oblivion.
4. AutoCAD Web
AutoCAD Web has the core AutoCAD commands that enable construction professionals, engineers, and architects to undertake light editing and basic design using familiar online CAD drawing tools. It boasts a simplified interface and enables users to access and update DWG tools anywhere and anytime. Moreover, it facilitates collaboration. It is also cheaper than AutoCAD. While AutoCAD’s pricing starts at $245.00 for the monthly package and rises to $1,955.00 and $5,865.00 for the one-year and three-year packages, respectively, AutoCAD Web costs $100 annually or $10 monthly.
Unfortunately, this AutoCAD online editor and DWG file viewing tool is not supported by Safari browser. It also has limited capabilities compared to AutoCAD.
5. SolidWorks Free Trial
SolidWorks is primarily an on-premise solution, requiring desktop software installation for regular day-to-day design work. However, if you just want to have a feel of how it works, you can use the cloud-based version during the 30-day free trial. The cloud-based SolidWorks is built on Amazon AppStream 2.0, a secure, reliable, and scalable service that enables users to access powerful virtual machines and stream demanding applications.
By using this service, Dassault Systèmes has converted the SolidWorks desktop software to SaaS without any code refactoring. Another benefit of the cloud-based SolidWorks is that it enables prospective users to start the trial in seconds. Users do not have to download, install, and/or configure anything on their PC. Typically, these three processes can take several hours, depending on the computer’s processing and storage capabilities.
6. Siemens NX
Like SolidWorks, Siemens NX offers its cloud-based solution via Amazon AppStream 2.0. Running Siemens NX on this platform has numerous advantages. First, it can be streamed to any computer, regardless of whether it runs on Windows, macOS, ChromeOS, or Linux. Secondly, you do not need to purchase, manage, maintain, or upgrade workstations – Amazon will do this on your behalf. This implies that the use of AppStream reduces the cost. For instance, using Siemens NX for a business week (according to Amazon’s installation and configuration guide for this software) costs about $45 per business week.
Thirdly, Siemens NX, when used in the cloud, is fast. It allows you to perform demanding pre- and post-visualization work on powerful servers. Fourthly, it fosters collaboration by eliminating the need to download CAD files to individual workstations. Furthermore, there is also an added element of security. Amazon is famed for its security, meaning that by using the cloud-based Siemens NX, you get to enjoy secure infrastructure built for the most security-sensitive companies and organizations. What’s more, AppStream 2.0 streams Siemens NX as encrypted pixels, meaning third parties cannot intercept or view your workspace.
7. PTC Creo
You can access PTC Creo from remote locations via Amazon AppStream 2.0. All you have to do is log in to this platform using a web browser or the AppStream application on Windows. The revolutionary platform that is part of the AWS ecosystem enables design companies to securely stream the Creo application to their design engineers. But the benefits do not end here.
The platform provides a fast and fluid user experience at a lower cost than you would spend buying, running, and managing powerful workstations. It also provides access to a robust infrastructure, allowing designers to render products, manipulate large assemblies, and simulate designs in real time. You can also use the Creo Generative Topology Optimization Extension to accelerate generative design, creating different product iterations faster.
Perhaps most importantly, streaming the software via Amazon AppStream significantly reduces the cost, as the payment model is based on actual usage. You can then upscale or downscale as your needs evolve. Compared to the pricing for the PTC Creo desktop software and the additional cost of any add-ons you may need, using the cloud-based PTC Creo is much cheaper.
FreeCAD is an open-source 3D modeling program. Like SolidWorks, PTC Creo, and Siemens NX, it is streamed via AppStream 2.0. But unlike the other three software programs, which are available on a pay-as-you-go pricing model, FreeCAD is a free online CAD solution. It is one of several sample software that AppStream 2.0 users can try out to evaluate the capabilities of and understand the platform.
Benefits of Cloud-Based CAD
1. Reduced Cost
Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions lower the total ownership cost (TOC), which, by definition, is the cost of buying, installing, running, and maintaining software infrastructure. This infrastructure can include fast computers with extremely high processing capabilities and storage units with large storage capacities. And given the system requirements of some of the more demanding CAD software, you would indeed require powerful CAD workstations for each employee. Yet, such computers are costly.
By utilizing these applications, however, you essentially outsource the task of buying, installing, running, maintaining, and replacing software infrastructure to specialized companies. Hence cloud-based CAD software substantially reduces the cost of operations, as all you have to part with are the subscriptions.
2. Better Security
Most CAD and CAM software developers that offer cloud-based solutions, e.g., Autodesk, Dassault Systèmes, Creo, Siemens, Trimble, and more, build their infrastructure on Amazon Web Services (AWS). AWS has a storied track record of security and is trusted by the highest-sensitivity companies and organizations, from global banks to the US military. Its built-in securities (proprietary or otherwise), coupled with features such as sign-on requirements and multi-factor authentication, block unauthorized access to files.
With rising cases of ransomware crippling entire organizations’ operations for days, if not weeks, outsourcing storage is becoming a no-brainer. Cloud-based CAD software offers this option. These solutions provide better security than on-premise storage options, which can be easily compromised and accessed.
Cloud providers like AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google implement what is known as geographical redundancies. As a widely adopted standard, they host computing resources – storage and cloud computing – in multiple locations, replicating data and processing capabilities in multiple locations. This setup ensures that in the event one data center or region experiences an unexpected failure, clients can still access their data and cloud computing. By building their solutions on infrastructure that has baked-in redundancies, cloud-based CAD systems providers thus ensure reliability. And as a result, these software solutions are readily available on demand anytime and anywhere.
4. Increased Productivity
In cloud-based CAD solutions, CAD files are shared via links instead of being copied via email. At all times, therefore, there is only ever one version of a design that collaborators can access, view, and edit simultaneously based on their assigned permissions. In contrast, when engineers share the files via email, there is often no assurance that the collaborators will open the files, let alone work on the latest version of the file attached to the most recent email. Frequent follow-ups to ensure all parties are on the same page are, ergo, necessary. Unfortunately, they usurp time that would be more productively used in other critical tasks.
At the same time, cloud-based CAD software increases productivity by breaking the boundaries of on-premises work. In fact, studies have shown that remote workers are more productive and efficient than their in-office counterparts. One such study, released in 2020, showed that remote workers were 5% more productive than those reporting to the officer. By 2022, this figure had risen to 9%. Given that cloud-based CAD solutions facilitate remote work, we can infer that it helps increase employee productivity either directly or indirectly.
5. Speed (Cloud-Based CAD Solutions are Fast)
Ordinarily, your personal computer or workstation would be responsible for all calculations. But this creates a bottleneck if the PC cannot process the complex CAD problems fast enough. However, using cloud computing resources solves this problem by speeding up processing. This is because the powerful data center computers compute in no time the complex calculations that go into defining the boundaries of and analyzing 3D models. Cloud-based CAD software is, therefore, extremely fast.
6. Flexible Collaboration
Cloud-based CAD software and architecture break the traditional boundaries that prevent employees from working from anywhere and anytime. Traditionally, when an individual wished to take work home, they would either have to e-mail themselves the file to work on or take home the documents or drawings. The work they would then produce while away would not be updated automatically on the main network unless and until they reported back to the office.
When work required input from colleagues, another bottleneck emerged. They would have to jump through communication hurdles, and, as discussed above, the assurance that all parties would be working on the latest version of the drawing or document would not be somewhat non-existent. To put it simply, the traditional CAD software was inflexible.
Enter cloud-based CAD software. Thanks to its backend infrastructure and architecture, this software allows employees to access any required file from anywhere and at any time, given that they have the necessary authorization. They can take work home and edit the drawing, knowing that the software will automatically update the changes on the central database. This flexibility comes in handy when working as part of large teams.
7. Improved Accessibility
You can access the cloud-based CAD software using any device, provided you have an internet connection. This signifies that your workflow is not rigidly bound to a desktop environment. Instead, you can access CAD files using a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. The related benefit is that you do not have to use extremely powerful devices to run demanding software.
8. Increased Agility and Innovation Velocity
You can access and run multiple cloud-based CAD solutions simultaneously without worrying whether these applications will overwhelm your computer’s memory or processor. The cloud-based software enables you to perform advanced analysis, simulation, and rendering, as well as accelerate generative design. From a design perspective, this means that you can design and analyze nearly anything you can imagine using computers that do not have advanced capabilities. Overall, when combined with flexible collaboration, this leads to faster innovation and accelerates time-to-market.
Challenges of Adopting Cloud-Based CAD
1. Internet Connectivity and Speed
Jon Hirschtick, the founder of Onshape, once said that online CAD solutions should not be your choice “if you have an unreliable internet connection.” If your internet suddenly goes down or is consistently unreliable, you cannot save or access any of your files. This can block the adoption of web CAD solutions.
2. Provider Issues
There is always a possibility that a provider may go out of business. In such cases, you run the risk of losing files. This can dissuade CAD users from subscribing to cloud-based CAD software.
3. Resistance to Change
Organizations or users that are used to a particular way of doing things may not fathom any change. They may resist change or be slow to accept that the changes are necessary. This keeps traditional on-premise CAD solutions alive and can hinder a company from even realizing the benefits of cloud-based solutions.
While cloud providers hold paramount the security of their platform, they are not immune to attacks. Organizations that design sensitive products and parts may avoid using cloud CAD solutions for fear that unauthorized persons may access or view their data.
Future of Cloud-Based CAD
Organizations and companies are embracing digital transformation to deliver customer and employee success from anywhere and at any time. With the goal of increasing innovation velocity, agility and mobility, and collaboration among team members, the mentality is slowly but surely shifting, leading to the adoption of cloud-related technologies. This is evident in the increasing IT spending.
Forecasts indicate that cloud-related technologies will account for 37% of digital transformation IT spending in 2026, up from 27% in 2021. This comes as remote work becomes more prevalent. And as this happens, the undeniable role of the cloud in making remote work a possibility remains clear even in the CAD and CAM markets.
The future remains bright for cloud-based CAD: a 2022 report projected that advances in cloud-based workflow within the CAD segment will continue well into the future. Accordingly, we expect more and more software developers to add web-based or cloud-based capabilities to their on-premise solutions – similar to Fusion 360’s approach – or release strictly web-based versions of existing software – like SketchUp for Web. Already, some have begun; a case in point: Siemens Digital Industries with Solid Edge.
Last year, Siemens announced Solid Edge Xcelerator-as-a-Service (XaaS), a new license option that is part of the updated Solid Edge 2023 package. The license holders will get access to Solid Edge’s standard product development features as well as cloud-based project management and data management tools, collaboration features, and the ability to access the platform via mobile devices.
But even in the future, internet connectivity will still significantly hamper the adoption of cloud-based CAD. Improvements in this space, of course, portend good tidings for online CAD solutions.
Developers in the CAD and CAM spaces are increasingly adopting the cloud computing concept of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). As a result, more and more cloud-CAD solutions are coming online. These include Fusion 360, Onshape, SketchUp for Web, Siemens NX, Solid Edge XaaS, FreeCAD, PTC Creo, and AutoCAD Web. And as organizations embrace digital transformation, the uptake of these solutions is set to pick up. For users already using cloud CAD software, the advantages are more than a handful: better security, collaboration, speed, innovation velocity, and accessibility, just to mention a few. These benefits are set to attract more users, with the future looking particularly bright for online CAD. But one hindrance that will continue hindering adoption is unreliable internet.