In the remote Scottish archipelago of Orkney, a group of 70 islands once frequented by Vikings, much of the landscape looks like the jagged clifftop where Luke Skywalker hid out in Star Wars: Episode VII. Or put another way, it’s not the most ideal spot for high-speed Internet service.
Because it hosts some of the strongest tides and winds in the world, Orkney is also a hotbed of renewable energy research (100% of the region’s electricity is generated from tidal and wind turbines). Among the green companies headquartered on the Mainland here is Scotrenewables, a world leader in the development of floating tidal turbines.
Scotrenewables is currently designing the prototype for its next-generation floating turbine, a major departure from other industry efforts to mount turbines to the ocean floor. “Our approach is to design and build for maintenance,” explains CTO Jonathan Meason. “We can either access the turbine onsite or can disconnect our mooring system and tow the turbine to a harbor facility where you have much more benign conditions. All that work can be done with a small local vessel, which significantly keeps the costs down.”
With his design team evenly split between Orkney and Edinburgh, Scotland – with additional partners in Switzerland and Germany – Meason is also trying a new approach to CAD. Wanting to speed up the design process and improve how his engineers communicate, he recently moved his team to Onshape, a cloud-based professional 3D CAD system that runs in an Internet browser and allows multiple users to simultaneously work together on the same model.
With traditional desktop-installed CAD systems, most design tasks are completed by one engineer at a time and collaboration requires making copies of a file and meticulously keeping track of each other’s changes.
“With our traditional system, all our CAD was located on a server at our office. So when you’re working remotely, you have to synchronize the local copy on your laptop. If somebody else is working on the server copy and you are working on your local copy, changes can get lost. The data management can get quite intensive,” Meason says.
“With Onshape, you avoid these issues,” he adds. “You get a highlight when someone is working on the same document or the same tab, and you can even modify the same part at the same time. It’s taken the worry out of our design. We don’t have to worry so much about the possibility of losing work.”
Because multiple designers can watch each other’s edits and changes as they happen (and see a complete history), some Onshape users have described their experience as similar to using the “CAD version of Google Docs.”
Requiring no downloads, installs or IT support, Onshape also enables new team members or partners to access projects within minutes with no worries about software incompatibility (all users are always on the latest version).
“Even just for sharing geometry, Onshape pays for itself,” Meason says. “Not having to install software is a big thing. We’ve been talking with a couple of large organizations. Sometimes when you share geometry with a potential partner and say, ‘Oh, you need to install this viewer,' they’ll say, ‘No, we can’t do that. We don’t have authorization.’”
Encouraging More Creative Risks
Although Meason expected improved communication between Scotrenewables team members – as updated data is instantly shared versus sending copies – he was surprised by how much of an impact Onshape had on the design process itself. Onshape’s Branching and Merging feature allows contributors to explore multiple variations of a design in the same document. After developing new ideas on separate branches and comparing them side by side, the team can merge the best elements of each design or choose to revert back to an earlier iteration.
“Onshape is great for the conceptual idea stage when you want to create something very visual very quickly,” Meason says. “One guy goes down one branch. Another guy goes down another branch and we wind up with three possibilities we can evaluate. With our old CAD system, we probably would have ended up with three different part files or three completely different assemblies. And the merging would have to be done manually. Pick one as the master, basically, and then put a copy of the other design on your screen and pick the things you want to recreate. So the merging part used to be extremely slow.”
Using Branching and Merging, he maintains, encourages his team to take bolder design risks.
“There’s no harm in trying a few different concepts,” Meason says. “If you decide you don’t like what you’ve done, you can always go back. You haven’t lost the work that you tried earlier – and you might then discover that what you were doing before actually was quite useful.”
CAD Anywhere? In the Middle of Nowhere?
Onshape runs on any computer using a web browser and any phone or tablet using a mobile app (Android or iOS), saving companies money on elaborate hardware. Because the “heavy lifting,” i.e. the intense computations required for CAD, happens on remote servers instead of local machines, data can be quickly shared between team members even when there is a spotty Internet connection.
Meason notes that the Orkney Islands provides the ultimate test of cloud CAD’s viability outside of heavy populated areas.
“When syncing a model in traditional CAD, trying to transfer several hundred megabytes of data could take quite a few hours, but in comparison, the amount of data streamed in Onshape is considerably less,” he says. “I haven’t had anyone on the team tell me so far that they can’t use Onshape because the Internet is too slow today.”