As a mechanical engineering major at MIT, I’ve used SolidWorks, AutoCAD, Rhino and Onshape for my classes, but only Onshape was able to deliver a free vacation.

Let me explain.

Under MIT’s popular Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), undergraduates work closely with faculty on various research projects. I’ve been working with Dr. Hermano Krebs at the MIT Newman Laboratory for Biomechanics and Human Rehabilitation. We’re researching galvanic vestibular stimulation, the process in which we send small electrical signals to a nerve behind the ear. These signals can control people’s balance and have the potential to rehabilitate people with balance disorders.

Besides constructing circuits and conducting experiments (we’ve actually seen some subjects tilting to the direction of the current!), my main task has been to create a headset that securely holds the electrodes used to pass electrical signals to specific positions on the head.

Balancing Act – A 3D-printed prototype of an experimental headset for galvanic vestibular stimulation research at MIT. (Courtesy of Aya Suzuki)

I knew I had to prototype the headset with a 3D-printed CAD model if I wanted to physically test it on different head sizes, but I had a problem. My 128GB MacBook Air I had since high school barely had enough storage left to download a single CAD file – let alone a whole CAD program! I had previously spent hours at the MIT computer labs doing my CAD assignments, and I wasn’t looking forward to spending any more time there.

Last fall, my research supervisor suggested that I submit a paper to the International Conference on Biomedical Robotics and Biomechatronics (BioRob 2016) in Singapore. I walked out of the lab overjoyed that day. This was a conference where I’d get to listen to some of the brightest scientists in the world and see their latest work. As a special bonus, Singapore is my childhood home. I lived there until I was 12 years old and have only visited once since. I was extremely looking forward to this homecoming/vacation/career opportunity, but knew it would involve lots of hard work and preparation at the computer labs, where unfortunately there are only four computers and students are always fighting for them.

Believe it or not, more luck struck. I coincidentally stumbled upon Onshape, and I can say this without exaggeration: Onshape made my life easier.

Not only did I save precious storage space on my Mac, but I was also able to work on the headset from my room, the library, in the hallway between classes – literally anywhere! When I went to the makerspace to 3D-print my prototypes, I didn’t have to fight for the few computers that had SolidWorks. I went straight to the computer next to the 3D printers, logged into Onshape, exported the model as a STL file, and loaded it onto one of the printers, all within 15 minutes.


Meanwhile, everyone else who wanted to use the 3D printers had to pull out their USBs or open up Dropbox. Some realized they had saved the wrong model and reluctantly searched their laptops for the right one. Again, Onshape stood out as a true time-saver.

Besides its full-cloud capabilities, I also took advantage of Onshape’s built-in version control. I made a version of my model before every design review with my research supervisor, mainly because I thought it would help if we ever wanted to revert to a previous design. But I also found it invaluable to see the project’s milestones and compare designs to evaluate why I made changes and whether my design was actually improving.

Without being able to work on my CAD models anywhere, I sincerely doubt that I would have made my paper submission deadline on time.

After my 22-hour flight (!) to Singapore, my colleague Tomohiro Maeda and I presented our papers at a poster session and listened to several keynote speakers. We were both extremely proud just to be there. Presentations ranged from exoskeletons and prosthetics to high-precision surgical robots. I was inspired and deeply humbled by their research.

The conference lasted for only two and a half days, so I had plenty of time to enjoy my bonus Singapore vacation. I had a mini-reunion with my primary school friends, visited my childhood neighborhood, went to the ArtScience Museum, enjoyed taking many photos of the city, and indulged in lots of fantastic Singaporean food. It felt wonderful finally returning home – I could even feel my American accent slowly slipping away. Despite the humidity and the overcrowded streets, I felt very much at ease.

My comfort with designing in Onshape led to an internship there. This summer, I’ve been creating online educational content specifically for people brand new to CAD. It doesn’t matter if you’re an engineering major or not. With the Onshape College Curriculum, college professors can easily teach 12-week Onshape courses to anyone. Even if you’re not an instructor, you can still register, read the lesson plans, and teach yourself CAD!

To my fellow college students, I say this: Onshape may not score you a free vacation, but it will definitely change the way you work for the better. Moreover, you’ll never have to fight for a school computer again.

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