GrabCAD, Sunglass, and TinkerCAD are leading a CAD industry pivot

WebGL and HTLM5 opened the door to using 3D CAD models in a browser; these start-ups are now delivering a browser-based challenge to the established order.

Until recently, if you wanted to create and interact with a three-dimensional model of a physical object, you had to either buy or download a CAD product. From the free and popular SketchUp to the famous—and famously expensive—Catia, an entire industry has grown along with the computer revolution to deliver 3D modeling and viewing ability to engineers, architects, product designers and enthusiasts. The simplest of these programs run on a consumer-class PC; the brawniest requires the best workstations on the market.

Sunglass is a web-based site for 3D collaboration and interoperability. (Source: Sunglass)

Several young CAD companies, one which won’t be out of private beta until next week, are delivering a significant challenge to the established order in 3D CAD. They are delivering 3D CAD tools without delivering a software product to the desktop or tablet; instead they deliver a browser-based experience, no supporting download required. To use a hot Silicon Valley buzzword, an industry pivot is happening right under our noses.

“Pivot” as a business term was popularized recently in the book “The Lean Startup” by Eric Reis. It refers to changing a fundamental aspect of the business model by making a drastic change in strategy without changing the vision. Reis noted that many of the successful startups in recent years went through such a change before finding their success.

The 3D CAD industry’s vision is for 3D to become ubiquitous. In recent years Dassault Systèmes has made the most noise about “3D for all,” and the overall goal is shared by all players. Today’s start-ups in 3D CAD have the same vision of  3D becoming commonplace, but the strategy they follow has made a sharp pivot away from delivering a software product. The new kids on the block are skipping the deliverable and putting the experience of using and working in 3D inside the browser.

WebGL and HTML5 are the two ingredients of the secret sauce making this pivot possible. HTML5 is the current generation Web programming language; WebGL is an application programming interface (API) for rendering interactive 3D graphics and requires HTML5. The current versions of most browsers—with the notable exception of Microsoft Internet Explorer—support both HTML5 and WebGL. Both are open source, standards-based, and guarded by consortiums.

The key players

Here, in no particular order, are some of the Young Turks leading the browser-based CAD revolution:

GrabCAD: Until this week the online engineering community GrabCAD would not have made the list. But the Estonian start-up with significant venture capital funding has just added a browser-based 3D viewer to its list of community features. Members can upload an STL (stereolithographic) file (something all 3D CAD programs can generate) which can then be viewed, rotated and pinned (for adding notes); the website is also converting existing models to add an STL version. GrabCAD provides a home for mechanical engineers to share models, build portfolios, and seek projects or employment. It has more than 200,000 members and over 40,000 CAD models. They recently passed the 4 million download mark.

An engine model created by GrabCAD member Dirk Nagel. (Source: GrabCAD)

Sunglass is a new browser-based collaboration tool for 3D design; it is scheduled to end a private beta and go public next week. Sunglass made a big splash last week at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, when the founders (two recent MIT graduates) announced their intentions to disrupt “the $10 billion computer-aided design industry, a sector long ruled by antiquated and expensive software suites that restrict collective innovation.” CAD industry elders might be included to mutter “good luck with that,” but these guys are backing up the hubris with some interesting technology. The long-term goal is web-based design, but at launch Sunglass is targeting a very specific pair of pain points, collaboration and interoperability.

Sunglass is one part interactive 3D viewer and mark-up tool, one part social design space, and one part interoperability option. One or several users can share an existing 3D design model; Sunglass supports 45 3D CAD formats. Once on the Sunglass “stage” a model (part or assembly) can be reviewed in real time by one user or several, or participants can leave markups and comments when it is convenient, or render a view. “We don’t want to enter the market as one more modeling tool,” CEO and co-founder Kaustuv DeBiswas told GraphicSpeak. “We are a collaboration platform where many can work.” Adds co-founder Nitin Rao, “We are Google Docs for 3D.”

Sunglass co-founder Nitin Rao at TechCrunch Disrupt NYC 2012. (Source: TechCrunch)

TinkerCAD:  Kai Bachman bought a 3D printer in 2002 but got frustrated when he tried various 3D CAD programs to drive it. They were either too hard to use and required frequent use to stay sharp, or they were too simplistic to create the realistic solid models Bachman envisioned. In 2010 he pitched the idea for a Web-based 3D modeler and gathered $1 million in venture capital. The target market is Makers, the new enthusiast/hobbyist market snapping up inexpensive 3D printers.

TinkerCAD is working closely with the 3D printing vendors, to make sure their product is both easy to use and suitable for creating designs that easily print out. “We are very different from traditional CAD packages,” Bachman told GraphicSpeak. “What works for them won’t work for us. We must teach our users about how to design in 3D; most have no formal design background.” When a new user visits TinkerCAD for the first time, they are invited to work through a series of short interactive tutorials that teach such basic concepts as moving an object in 3D space and creating an object from using primitives.

TinkerCAD provides browser-based elemental 3D modeling tools and tutorials. (Source: TinkerCAD)

Of the three, right now only TinkerCAD can be used to create models from scratch. Sunglass says creating new models is part of the long-term plan, while GrabCAD is remaining coy; as the only one of the three that has working relationships with existing 3D CAD vendors, it will probably add downstream features for working with models before adding creative tools.

A history lesson

The key companies in the 3D CAD pivot are targeting distinct audiences, with varying overlap to the markets owned by existing players. It would be easy for an Autodesk or a PTC to argue these new players are not a threat—but to say so misses the point. A new platform is coming of age; if there is anything to be learned from the history of the computer revolution, it is that when a new platform is established all technologies on older platforms become endangered species.



About the Author:

Randall S. Newton is the former Managing Editor of GraphicSpeak. He has been writing about engineering and design technologies for more than 25 years.

11 Comments on "GrabCAD, Sunglass, and TinkerCAD are leading a CAD industry pivot"

Trackback | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Kai Backman says:

    This is Kai from Tinkercad, great writeup on the space!

    There is a second CAD revolution taking place on the server side. To make editing possible Tinkercad has a large cloud based component, each of the editing operations is executed on hundreds of processor cores in real time. In fact, even if the Tinkercad browser app is a relatively complex component, 2/3 of the codebase is actual on the server side. There is a Google Tech Talk detailing an old version of the technology on YouTube:

    I find it appropriate that Google Docs is mentioned in this context. Before working on Tinkercad I spent five years at Google working several of them on the Docs team. Tinkercad, Sunglass and GrabCAD are really the Web 2.0 equivalents in the CAD space.

  2. John Cashman says:

    OK, lets see – 3 startups with some browser based cute technologies are going to upset the world order in CAD. Randall, where do you buy your kool aid from? Nonsense, couched in good prose and pristine grammar, is still NONSENSE.

    • Kai Backman says:

      You need to see past the browser, that’s just a distribution channel. Tinkercad runs a bespoke geometry kernel that distributes calculations over hundreds of processor cores in a medium sized cluster. This is a generation ahead of what Parasolid or ACIS can offer today. And the kernel has been designed to scale to thousands of cores. Yes, given it’s only a year old there are much less features, but there is a fundamental shift in technology happening. Imagine our technology applied to something like simulation.

      If you are really interested take a look at the tech talk linked above. It’s from a kernel three generations ago but is still mostly applicable.

  3. Meanwhile, add To3D to the list, an open beta 3D mechanical modeler:

    • Hi there, this is ThomasH from Autodesk.
      Completely support what Randy and Kay are saying. HTML5 and WebGL are enabling entirely new ways to create and deliver 3D experiences. But it is not just for startups; large and established companies like Autodesk are leveraging this state of the art technology for a fast development of online 3D apps, connecting closely and responding quickly to the users. On today, our users are sharing their 3D models, tumble them in 3D, sculpt them, use them to make 2D laser cut objects online, create 3D models from images with Catch, or just use the 3D models with our fabrication service for 3D printing.

  4. Thomas,
    I didn’t mean to dis Autodesk, you guys are clearly a leader in this emerging area. But we’ve given the products you mention plenty of coverage; this article was a way to highlight the newcomers. Of all the mainstream, established CAD companies Autodesk is clearly the leader in bringing WebGL/HTML5/cloud to market.

  5. John Cashman says:

    Kai, I have looked at Tinkercad and the other sites mentioned here. Lets not confuse HTML5 and WebGL for what they are – good technologies to be used to improve user experiences and for delivering new modes of operations for CAD designers. As Thomas points out, it is another tool for established companies like Autodesk to use. And use they will.

    I was mostly questioning Randall’s sweeping statements like ‘challenging established order’! Really? Are you serious, Randall? Do you really think these companies are going to challenge established order with a mere product employing newer technology? Or are these companies merely positioning themselves as good technology acquisition targets and you are unwittingly helping their cause?


  6. John, When I started in the CAD business “real” CAD only ran on UNIX variants; those “toys” on microcomputers were no threat. Cloud computing — and when we talk of HTML5 and WebGL we are really talking of cloud — is a new platform with significant advantages. Adapt or die doesn’t happen in a quarter or a year, but the process is as alive today as it was in 1982.

  7. ralphg says:

    Many of the PC-based startups from the 1980s are no longer with us. A few might survive this decade by being bought out, most will flame out and die.

  8. Paul says:

    I think streamed applications are more likely to be the big disruptor in professional 3D. webGL display is nice, but the browser is never going to provide a viable application platform. Centralised data, compute and rendering with streamed client connections are far more interesting imo. Latency is still a pain, but hybrid applications seem to be dealing with it well.

    Obviously we’re biased as we got out of the ‘3D in the browser’ business. Mass distribution of computation and virtualised GPGPU etc are very interesting spaces.

    Note – this isn’t to say there’s no value in browsers for display, interaction and collaboration. I’m just of the opinion that they won’t replace content creation applications.

  9. One more worth adding to the list: Sketchfab. We did a separate article on them recently:

Post a Comment