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A Discussion About OnShape As a Tool For Makers, Artists and Educators
OnShape has been generating a fair amount of buzz lately, though the word I’ve been hearing is simply that it exists. So in order to learn more about it I recently spent a week working with OnShape to perform a detailed assessment for myself.
Though I really wanted OnShape to meet my needs, instead I found the tool to be quirky, slow to the point of unusable, lacking a number of minimally basic features, and presenting a very dated UX (User Experience) inherited from antiquity (i.e. Autocad and Solidworks).
Let me fill in some rather techie details about my evaluation on which the above conclusions are derived.
• I've experienced the OnShape team to be helpful, knowledgable and friendly.
• Taken together, the help system, the video tutorials, the community forums and the support staff are all fantastic.
• I liked the versioning features of the app. I found them to be well-thought out, easy to use, and complete enough to address all my requirements.
• Though I didn’t use the collaboration features during my evaluation, I did read through the documentation to the point that I was left with the impression that they were, again, well-thought out, easy to use, and complete.
• Flatly: OnShape is using the wrong geometry kernel to address the current and long-term needs to makers, artists, educators and even the mechanical engineers that are the products primary target. Those who know a bit about CAD may scoff at this statement. It’s based on the fact that OnShape’s geometry engine won’t allow it to easily accept and manipulate scanned volumes, imported meshes (like STL and OBJ files), nor scale to meet the real-world requirements of users today, and certainly not those that are coming. OnShape was founded by the same team that founded Solidworks, a well-respected commercial engineering 3D solid modeling tool. I believe that the choice of a BREP graphics engine will ultimately relegate the app to forever remain a niche product — even if the niche is large enough to survive. All I’m saying that their product didn’t meet my requirements as an educator, maker and artist.
• OnShape is billed as a professional grade mechanical engineer tool. Yet it couldn’t handle the same real-world design that I’d brought over from Tinkercad -- a tool seemingly designed for kids.
• The UX calls upon users to interact far too often with dialog boxes rather than direct manipulation controls.
• Though parametric capabilities have recently been added to OnShape -- the feature I was most interested in exploring in OnShape -- I experienced the UX for these capabilities to be quirky and rudimentary.
• The system appears to not include basic data management of parametric values beyond individual single-value variables. Support for multi-value variables is missing, as is the ability to import data values, create spreadsheet-like data libraries, or the ability to create data value reference lookups.
• The system lacks refactoring support to address even basic use cases — such as renaming a variable.
• Requiring that all 3D solids and surfaces be derived from 2D sketches, while still common in many traditional MCAD systems that evolved from 2D ancestors, creates a huge drag on user productivity and results in a level of complexity that would likely limit OnShape's use to high school and college level engineer students. That a “new” “out of the box” application like OnShape would bring that UX forward is a significant statement about the mindset of the founders. I get the thinking that resulted in that UX being chosen given all the other, lower-level decisions that have been made. But it results in a massive loss of productivity.
• I found system availability of the application to be flawless during my week of use. Yet during my evaluation a number of real-world boolean operations (sort of like a Tinkercad group operation) ate up so many CPU cycles on the server that the graphics engine eventually gave up without notice after I’d wasted 15 minutes waiting for the operation to complete. I fear that OnShape will ultimately face many of the same challenges that other calorie-rich, latency-intolerant applications have struggled to overcome. I would love to see whether the OnShape team is able to create a service that keeps their users productive under heavy user loads.
• The current system lacks a grouping feature. The union boolean doesn’t support unification of spatially disjoint part bodies.
I would really appreciate a response from OnShape architects to the points I’ve raised above.