GrabCAD Workbench cracks the door on open engineering

Tying together CAD content and related communications into one secure package, Workbench seeks to use the power of cloud computing to enable new forms of collaborative engineering already embraced by software engineers.

For the past two years GrabCAD has been open for business as a free portal anyone could use to post and share engineering models. The company has made no secret that it had more in mind, but kept tight-lipped about the specifics. This week the engineering community website introduces a new site for mechanical and product design collaboration. The goal of GrabCAD Workbench, currently in limited beta, is to simplify the process of sharing CAD models with both CAD users and non-users. But Workbench is not only about viewing models; it also offers the ability to gather and track all comments and communications regarding the CAD content with the model.

GrabCAD Workbench is a new collaboration site for mechanical engineering and product development. (Source: GrabCAD)
GrabCAD Workbench is a new collaboration site for mechanical engineering and product development. (Source: GrabCAD)

In today’s mechanical engineering and product design workflows, there are no good ways to turn a one-at-a-time workflow into a collaborative endeavor. What to share revision 6 with a decision-maker who doesn’t use CAD software? You can create a JPG, send an eDrawing or PDF, or use some other approach that creates a new virtual (or real) paper trail. With Workbench, the designer loads up the file or folder and then invites participants. Any comments, mark-ups, etc. are created and stored in Workbench. The designer who initiated the sharing now has all comments in one place, where everyone involved can see them. Updates based on input can be linked to the Workbench site.

GrabCAD sees supply chain partners as users of Workbench, where expertise varies and participants are disperse. The goal is to offer an environment where product development moves from one person at a desk for eight weeks who then distributed a lowest-common-denominator file for design review to a common review site in Workbench where feedback can come from all directions sooner.

At first GrabCAD Workbench will be free, but the number of models one can upload will be limited. For a fee yet to be determined, Workbench users will be able to upload more files. GrabCAD marketing VP Rob Stevens says the company will announce in mid-May the exact pricing structure.

The initial market is small businesses; “The Fords of the world need this, but we aren’t targeting them. We are for the single engineer who wastes a half hour preparing a model to be shared.”  Stevens notes that in other fields the adoption of cloud applications have all started with small business and solo entrepreneurs and then moved up to larger businesses: “The big guys are heavily invested in their existing infrastructure.”

Our take

In previous coverage, we have referred to GrabCAD as a GitHub for product development; GitHub being a leading collaborative website for software engineers. But Stevens says the analogy goes beyond the idea of a web-based site for document sharing. “In the software world, workflow has changed drastically,” notes Stevens. “There is reuse, collaboration, open access, and bringing in knowledge from many places; there is a new product development velocity” in software engineering, one they call Open Engineering. By comparison, product design and mechanical engineering workflow has not undergone a similar transformation. “We want to provide a platform for this to happen in engineering and product development,” says Stevens. “Hardware is poised for a similar revolution.”

Bringing Open Engineering to hardware development will be challenging. The empowerment software engineers have gained has largely been related to open source software, where code can be freely exchanged. There is way too much sense of ownership, both legal and emotional, in the development of physical products, for open engineering to work in exactly the same way. But GrabCAD believes there are plenty of designers and engineers out there who want to move product development in the Open Engineering direction, and who have been waiting for a tool to match.