Today we are introducing our vision for Design Data Management 2.0 and announcing new features related to this theme, including Release Management & Approval Workflow and Simultaneous Bill of Materials. These new capabilities, along with the Parametric Modeling 2.0 innovations we announced in January, are extending our position as the leader in modern CAD technology, giving Onshape customers unmatched power to do their best work without the hassles of old CAD and PDM systems. Here’s the backstory.

Treating Design Gridlock

For years we have been hearing from users  about the pain and hassle of old CAD and PDM systems. Prospects often come to us suffering from a malady we call “design gridlock.” Customers with design gridlock often can be overheard saying things like: 

  • “Are you sure you have the right file?”

  • “The part is checked out, so I’m dead in the water.”

  • “We were both working on different versions of the same file. What now?”

  • “This old, obsolete version keeps rearing up and biting us.”

  • “Hold off on that for now. We’re cutting a revision next week and it gets confusing.”

  • “We’ve terminated XYZ Corp as a fabricator. Get all our files back from them.”

  • “Did you see my email with feedback on those changes?”

  • “The BOM doesn’t match what I’m seeing in the assembly.”

Some engineers have told us that significant portions of their daily work time is consumed with design gridlock chaos and nonsense like searching for files, comparing files, copying files, sending/receiving files, waiting on files, fixing blown up assemblies, and so on. That’s on a good day when the PDM server isn’t down and they can get access to a floating license. This is time spent by the most valuable design engineers that could have gone into innovation, instead of IT. Untreated design gridlock is chronic: it diverts precious engineering energy into useless overhead day after day, year after year. So what’s the cure?

Teams suffering from chronic design gridlock often experiment with folk remedies like Dropbox enhanced with memorized ad hoc procedures and conventions (e.g. “remember to save the latest file here and name it...”). They quickly discover that this approach fails to scale as their team grows and as their projects become more numerous and complex. They also rediscover the frailty of human memory. Folk remedies do not cure design gridlock. They just briefly postpone the inevitable slide into chronic inefficiency.

Teams with thicker wallets – often $100K+ thicker – sometimes turn to costly therapies like old-school PDM systems that claim to comprehensively cure design gridlock. But they don’t. They just mask the symptoms. Unmanaged copies of files are littered below the surface of every PDM-shop: on workstation hard drives, on USB sticks, in emails, and across multiple vaults across globally distributed networks. Managing copies of files is a problem, and PDM systems are just high-volume copy machines.

Another thing that the PDM practitioners fail to mention is that old PDM has nasty side effects that hinder your team’s productivity and creativity. In their attempt to impose order on design gridlock chaos, PDM introduces rigid processes that suck the life out of creative teams and slow innovation to a crawl. I’m talking about the serialized check out / locking / check in madness, vault synchronization errors, VPN connectivity errors, and other side effects users have suffered for so long. 

I’ve literally heard engineers say, “Oh yeah, we’re not using PDM on this project because we need to go fast.” Think about that for a minute. PDM = slow with illusory control. No PDM = faster but chaotic. Which do you choose? The right answer is neither.

Root Cause of Design Gridlock: Files

One of the key insights we had when we started Onshape was that the root cause of design gridlock is files. Storing design data in files is an old, obsolete idea. Files are often hard to find and search for because they are stored across many places. Files are hard to control because they can be copied, and every copy is a source of new copies. Files are hard to keep synchronized between many locations, creating confusion about versions. Files that reference each other are inherently brittle because file paths are always changing (I’m looking at you, old CAD assemblies).

What’s Different About Design Data Management 2.0? 

Back when we built SOLIDWORKS 25 years ago, we didn’t know any better than to store data in files all over the place. Mea culpa. But we know now. So we created a radically different approach that marks a new era in the way engineers manage design data. What’s different about Design Data Management 2.0? Here are the foundational principles that make it so special:

  • A Database, Not Files: We store design data in a cloud-hosted database that presents data to users as virtual documents that show all design history. We log all actions by all users at the feature level and allow you to go back to any previous state of your model - forever.  It is always clear what is the latest version, who has access to it, and who did what.  And by the way, you never lose work and you very seldom crash.

  • Secure Cloud Workspace, Not Scattered Copies: We store design data in a secure cloud workspace accessible by authorized users from anywhere where humans normally work. Administrators can prevent users from making local copies or exporting sensitive data. When a user no longer needs access, administrators can revoke access without worrying that there are copies floating around.

  • Parallel, Not Serial: Our unique database architecture allows engineers to explore multiple design directions in separate branches and then merge desirable changes back in to the main branch. This allows engineers the freedom to explore design directions in parallel instead of forcing formal handoffs and waiting. The result is faster, better innovation.

  • Instant Collaboration, Not Meetings: We provide robust tools for sharing designs with other engineers or stakeholders, offering and receiving comments on designs, and comparing and accepting changes – all in a single cloud workspace without having to make copies. This allows teams and extended groups of stakeholders to stay in sync, instantly see what each other are doing, work together, and keep work flowing without the friction, confusion, and time-sucking meetings that plague old CAD collaboration techniques that rely on endless copying and exchanging files.

  • Design and Data In One Place, Not Many: We put the data management experience right in the design experience instead of forcing the user to switch between their modeling tool and their PDM system. This theme of deep integration and putting the right interface in front of the the user at the right time is something our UX team has championed since day one, and our production customers seem to love it

  • Zero IT: We set out to deliver a system that would never require dedicated IT, installation of servers, or installation and upgrading of desktop software. For those of you have been forced to master these tasks, you are getting your life back.

We’ve built our entire design data management strategy around these foundational principles. They are the reason that customers love our built-in tools we’ve already shipped for search, versioning, modeling history, branch/merge/compare, and our sharing and commenting tools, 

This is the design data management experience thousands of companies get to enjoy in production with Onshape every day. Now we are taking it to a whole new level.

Introducing Release Management & Approval Workflow

Today we are announcing our new Release Management & Approval Workflow capabilities. Old CAD’s approach to creating releases relies on the error prone process of locating, validating, organizing, and archiving hundreds (if not thousands) of individual design files. Even with a formal PDM system in place, creating a release can take days and bring engineering work to a standstill. 

Like everything else in Onshape, creating a release candidate and approving a release does not block anyone from continuing their work – no waiting for check in and check out. We allow users to create a proposed release for any combination of parts, assemblies, configurations, and other assets as a single release. The whole process takes minutes instead of hours, and allows engineers to go back and reference all the contents of any release at any time. Users can instantly access the full contents of each approved release with no need to stop work and download updates from a PDM vault. 

Once a release is defined, our built-in release approval workflow offers a simple task view that allows designated approvers to explore release contents in context and approve or reject without interfering with their other current activity. The built-in Onshape notification system instantly notifies all users when a new release is created. This keeps everyone on the same page without blocking progress.

Our release management is fully integrated into the modeling environment, unlike PDM systems, which are completely different, complex systems. Users can tell while modeling which parts and assemblies are released and what the latest release is; no weird naming file naming conventions and calls to the PDM administrator required.

Check out the demo of our new Release Management & Approval Workflow capabilities below.

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Introducing Simultaneous Bill of Materials

CAD systems have had bill of materials (BOMs) functionality for decades, but strangely enough, the approach has often been a bit of a hack on drawings. I’ve heard engineers using old CAD say that they had to create an unnecessary drawing just to generate the BOM. I’ve also heard many engineers complain that their BOMs get out of sync with their assemblies, usually related to failed old CAD data management processes. Looking at this situation with fresh eyes, we knew we could do better. 

Our new Simultaneous Bill of Materials builds upon the existing Design Data Management 2.0 foundation to revolutionize part information tracking and sharing. Now in Onshape your BOM is created and updated automatically while the assembly is designed. In fact, it is not just kept in sync, it is also a simultaneous way to edit the assembly, just like the sheet metal table in Simultaneous Sheet Metal and the configuration tables in Simultaneous Configurations. Your Onshape BOM is never out of sync with the assembly it reflects.

Additionally, now our users can dynamically decide to view the assembly in a hierarchical table view or as a flattened parts list with part counts.  They can dynamically decide which component properties to display, and they can be edited right there. 

For customers with more advanced multi-discipline BOM needs, we now provide a dedicated BOM API that allows customers and partners to build custom apps that harness Onshape BOM data. 

Check out the demo of our new Simultaneous Bill of Materials capabilities below.

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Learn From The Past, But Don’t Live In It 

I’ve been building CAD systems all my life and I’ve learned a lot. But I don’t live in the past. Too many CAD vendors are still living in the past, and as a result, too many engineering teams are also stuck there. Although the limitations of old CAD modeling approaches and old data management systems have been painfully clear for a long time, many teams have come to accept that there was alternative. But not everyone.

There’s a new breed of modern design teams with modern ideas who demand modern engineering technology. These teams want to jump ahead of their competition, and they know that old technology won’t get them there. These are the professionals who are embracing Parametric Modeling 2.0 and Design Data Management 2.0. They are starting to recover the time previously lost to old, obsolete CAD technology platforms. And they are seeing incredible business results, right now. Modern teams. Modern CAD. Finally.

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