John McEleney is a Co-founder and Corporate Strategy Advisor of the cloud-based CAD software company Onshape. Founded in 2012, Onshape was the first company with the stated mission of bringing CAD fully to the cloud, making it more accessible and collaborative for engineers and designers around the world.
McEleney’s vision and professional experience have been instrumental in accelerating the transition of CAD to the Cloud while meeting the rapidly changing demands of AM technology in product development. In 3dpbm’s recent interview, McEleney shared his insights on the current state of the CAD industry, the benefits of cloud-based design, and the future of Onshape with an eye on the role that AI could play in the future development of both CAD and AM.
“I’m a mechanical engineer by training—he begins— and I went to the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York. As I was studying mechanical engineering, I got a summer job between my junior and senior year, in 1983, at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics. That’s where they conducted the same type of research that recently led to a breakthrough in nuclear fusion ignition at LLNL.”
There, as he helped drive the transition from manual drawings to digital design, McEleney also developed a document retrieval system (based on dBase) to help people find a CAD system, organize their data and improve the product design process. “And now, 40 years later, I’m still helping people find a CAD system, organize their data and design. That’s how I got interested in CAD and I loved it,” he jokes.
Away from the desk
McEleney first met Jon Hirschtick while they were both working at ComputerVision. Drawn to Jon’s vision for SolidWorks of “putting 3d solid modeling on every engineer’s desktop”, McEleney soon joined him. Jon was the CEO and after a few years, McEleney took over as CEO. Together, with a great team, they helped grow SolidWorks to over $400 million in yearly revenues.
“[At SolidWorks] we had a wonderful time building an amazing business. But, over the years as we spoke with many customers, it became evident that the ‘heat loss’ due to friction of managing the system and working around the limitations of the system – users were getting more and more frustrated. A major contributor to that frustration was the way in which the system was architected – that was the system was a file-based system.
After the SolidWorks journey, he took a break to spend some time with his family. That’s until Amazon Web Services launched and held its first meetup in Boston. The 2008 Financial crisis caused many companies to re-evaluate almost every aspect of their business, including how they thought about computing. Fascinated by the potential benefits offered by a new platform, he jumped in and ultimately became the CEO of a cloud-based enterprise software company, called CloudSwitch. He was not just a believer; he became an early cloud advocate. The company was acquired by Verizon in 2011.
McEleney explained that the shift away from traditional desktop-based CAD software towards cloud-based solutions is due to key benefits of cloud-based design, such as easier collaboration and accessibility. With cloud-based CAD, designers and engineers can work on a project simultaneously from different locations, without the need to exchange files or worry about version control.
Traditional CAD software requires a PDM or PLM system to make it more functional for an organization, but people still had to work around the system to get things done rapidly. “We wanted to build a cloud-based architecture that would use a database, rather than a file, as its atomic unit. That’s what we’ve done with AWS: one system, one database in the cloud that facilitates communication and collaboration – allowing the branching and merging of different ideas and different versions.
One version to carry them all
One of the most important benefits of this type of cloud structure is the fact that only one version of Onshape exists at any one time. Along with Dassault Systemes, the main competitors to PTC’s Onshape, today are Siemens and Autodesk but there is one major difference: many of their software solutions have multiple versions, each requiring extensive support, whereas Onshape is just one software version that is seamlessly updated.
“Most vendors in the industry end up having to support five or six different versions. If there’s a bug, they must fix it across all platforms. This eats into their R&D resources,” McEleney says. “With Onshape, every three weeks a new version comes out and do you know what customers must do to upgrade to the next version? They simply login.”
Onshape started in 2012. It was purchased by PTC in 2019. The acquisition by PTC marked a major milestone for Onshape. PTC, a leading provider of industrial IoT and CAD software, recognized the potential of Onshape’s cloud-based solution and its focus on collaboration and accessibility. In 2019 PTC had just acquired Thingworx for IIoT management and Vuphoria for industrial AR. They needed to build a cloud infrastructure for both and Onshape had this platform.
“What PTC did, which was brilliant, is they took Onshape’s collaboration sharing and versioning engine and used this as the basis of its new cloud platform called Atlas,” McEleney explains. “Like Atlas, holding up the world, Atlas powers Onshape, Vuforia, ThingWorks. It’s been three years since the acquisition and PTC continues to invest in Onshape and we’ve retained and grown the team. Jon and I are still there.”
Where digital shapes physical
Users are happily embracing Onshape for full product development, from concept through detailed design, however, McEleney also noted that the CAD industry is becoming more democratized, with more people able to access and use CAD software. This is partly due to the growth of 3D printing and the increasing availability of affordable 3D printers. With more people able to create physical prototypes, there is a greater need for accessible and easy-to-use CAD software.
McEleney noted that the company is focused on continuous improvement and innovation, with a goal of making the platform more accessible and easy to use for all types of users. He also noted that Onshape is committed to improving its integrations with other tools, such as project management software, cloud-based visualization, and 3D printing services as well as its recently announced Cloud Native CAM application.
“I am fascinated by Additive Manufacturing and serve on the board of Stratasys Nasdaq: SSYS.” This is also very relevant today at PTC because our vision is centered around: how digital transforms physical..”
During the interview, we also had an opportunity to speak about how digital is transforming digital, as AI already started to play a role in CAD software, with the ability to generate designs based on certain criteria or constraints. “This has the potential to speed up the design process and make it more efficient. In the future, AI could be used to assist designers and engineers in making more informed decisions, or increasingly to predict the outcome of a design before it is built,” McEleney says.
While McEleney expects that generalist AI platforms like Chat GPT will continue to be run by tech giants with the necessary resources, datasets, and training, we’ll also see other domain-specific implementations of AI. “For example—he says—you’re going to see people who are valve manufacturers making the rules for manufacturing hydraulic systems. As Jon Hirstick, my co-founder and friend would say, ‘often there’s not necessarily new visions, but there’s a new reality’. And I think that’s what we’re seeing now, a very interesting, very fascinating new reality.”