upFront.eZine Issue #855  > The Business of CAD > April 21, 2015

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Exclusive interview:

All About Xenon, Graebert's DWG-based CloudCAD

by Ralph Grabowski with Robert Graebert

The browser-based mechanical CAD software Onshape has three pillars: parts, assemblies, and drawings. When it was launched last month, it lacked the drawings component in which 2D layouts are produced from the 3D models. Now, they do.

During its pre-launch marketing, Onshape indicated they had partnered with a company to provide the drawings component. Last week, the surprise supplier named was Graebert of Germany, better known for its AutoCAD workalike called ARES and supplier to Dassault Systemes of its DraftSight DWG editor (among other OEM versions).

Before going further, let me explain the four products I am going to be talking about in this article:

Onshape = browser-based 3D MCAD software written by Onshape
ARES = desktop 2D/3D CAD written by Graebert
Xenon = browser-based 2D/3D CAD software written by Graebert
Onshape Drawings = 2D annotation module based on Xenon

Graebert code names its software projects after the noble gases, like "Radon" for their Android CAD app now released as ARES Touch. "Xenon" is the code name for Graebert's new cloud-based CAD software. Xenon will eventually have all of the tools found in desktop ARES, but OEM customers get to decide which tools to expose.

In Onshape, the idea is to have Xenon provide the tools necessary for a mechanical engineer to come up with drawings suitable for manufacturing. Many of the tools involve annotating 2D views, but there also are commands for touching up drawings. (See figure 1.) In addition, Onshape opens DWG and DXF files for viewing and modest editing.

Figure 1: Onshape Drawings showing its user interface

The variant of Xenon used by Onshape does things differently from stock Xenon, such as the way objects are selected, the colors used for grips, and the lack of a command line. To select an object in Onshape Drawings, you just pass the cursor over it; there is no need to pick the object.

Onshape Drawings is automatically multi-user, so that two people can, for instance, dimension the same drawing at the same time -- great for staff working to a tight deadline! The initial version of Onshape Drawings, however, has limited collaboration, but eventually the module will share data management, sharing, merging, and versioning with Onshape.

The Drawings module (actually, it's just another tab) works in Onshape as you expect:

1. Right-click a 3D part, and then choose Create Drawing
2. Choose a drawing template from a dialog box; optionally, enable standard views (currently ANSI, ISO, DIM, and JIS standards are available, but templates can be customized by users)
3. Click the Drawing tab
4. Start placing views (front, top, isometric, etc), and then from these base views add section and scaled detail views
5. Add dimensions and tolerances, which snap to features in parts
6. Right-click views to change properties, toggle hidden lines, and so on
7. Can create additional sheets for layouts of other parts
8. Export as DWG to AutoCAD or ARES for further editing; can also save as a PDF file

The drawings and dimensions are linked to the model, and so update when changes are made.



I interviewed chief technology officer Robert Graebert last week via Skype. See figure 2.

Figure 2: Interviewing Graebert's cto Robert Graebert via Skype

Q: How does Xenon work in the background?

Our Xenon code is hosted by Onshape, they manage it and they run it as they see fit. They deploy it.

Q: Did Onshape approach you, or did you approach them?

We knew that we wanted to bring our CAD technology first to mobile, next to the Web. We scouted out who was developing CAD for browsers. From this we discovered that Onshape as an interesting first candidate, and that they were looking for something like we were offering.

We have been working on Xenon for three years, more recently with Onshape. For us, this is exciting but also brings a lot of responsibility to deliver, now that we have a partner. This is the first Xenon partnership we are talking about.

Q: Is there a technology exchange going on with OnShape, like you have with Dassault Systemes and its ARES-based DraftSight?

We call it "shared development," a system that we use for all of our groups inside the Graebert development team. There is shared learning going on about how best to bring this about. For instance, our screens are now rendered with WebGL (initially they were not), which allows Xenon to do things in the Web browser like zoom and pan, make selections and highlights locally -- without involving the server.

Q: Will Xenon be available through partnerships only, or will you also sell it like ARES?

The focus is on partnerships.

Q: If you plan to have all of the capabilities of ARES in Xenon, would this extend to things like constraints?

Nothing against constraints technology-wise, but to be clear we won't necessarily bring all of desktop ARES into Xenon, but make all of its functionality available. All our code runs on desktop Linux, so that it's easy to run on Linux servers. If a partner wants constraints, then good; if there are no request, then it makes no sense for us to implement them.

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Q: You've indicated elsewhere that printing is tough from a browser. Is this a problem that you need to solve, or that Onshape has to solve (as the host application), or for WebGL to solve (as the enabling technology)?

Printing is not fully hashed for Web browsers; printing an HPGL file is a nightmare from a browser: margins, colors, all the CAD things we are used to. Even Google Docs is funky when it comes to printing. Most browser-based apps make PDFs, and then print them.

Q: It's like the early days of AutoCAD, when Autodesk had to provide the drivers, because printer drivers provided for DOS and by Microsoft were not suited to CAD.

Windows drivers still aren't.

Q: Why print using PDF files specifically?

PDF on its own has great value in showing drawing content. Acrobat and many other PDF readers have excellent printing support.

The problem with the browser is that you cannot predict what it will print. So, we generate the PDF file from our drawing database on the server to bypass the browser's built-in print function.

It is still early days on this, and we have many more ways to share drawings today, than just printing them [such as through email, social media, Dropbox, and mobile viewers].

Q: Does Onshape use its own APIs to access Xenon, or are Graebert's APIs used?

Onshape first uses its APIs to make calls to the Xenon environment to start it up, and to indicate what DWG content should be displayed. Once the drawing is displayed, there is a back and forth, such as Xenon querying Onshape for model data.

For instance, when the user places dimensions, Xenon registers them with Onshape. Xenon also uses the Onshape API for data management of the tree.

Users have control over when to update the drawing content amid more than one working with the model; there are calls that indicate to users when a refresh is available. [An amber dot appears on the Refresh button.] This back and forth is a glimpse of how other partner apps are going to work inside of Onshape.

Q: Are you more advanced than Autodesk when it comes to Web-based CAD?

I think so. AutoCAD WS was the first version from Autodesk, and it was Flash-based. It has since been replaced by AutoCAD 360, which is being developed more on mobile but not so much for the browser. I think this is a wasted opportunity for Autodesk to not more aggressively develop AutoCAD for the cloud. Besides them and us, we don't see any other parties in this area.

Q: Autodesk seems to be putting most of their effort into Fusion.

That is perhaps where they feel most under attack. Who knows: maybe they already have a full Web-version of AutoCAD under wrap, and are just waiting for the right moment to reveal it. I like to think we were responsible for their AutoCAD OEM program.

AutoCAD 360 is not our benchmark; ARES desktop is the target. The ambition for browser-based CAD is that you should not feel limited just because you are working in a browser. You should feel that you are not missing anything from the desktop version.

Instead, when you go back to the desktop version, you should feel like there are things missing. For example, if Xenon crashes in the browser, I just press F5 (Refresh) to get back all the drawings and drawing tabs from where I was.

Q: Will the Drawings module be in Onshape's iOS and Android apps?


Q: The Open Design Alliance has been working on cloud-based rendering. Are you working with the ODA on this drafting program?

We have a strong partnership with the ODA. We evaluated working with them, but there was a question of timing, and so we went on a different path to get Xenon done rapidly. Xenon does not use the ODA cloud project.

Q: What are some of your future plans for Xenon and Onshape Drawings?

It all depends on what partners want. An obvious next feature for Onshape Drawings is shading of viewports. Some partners want viewing, some want editing; Onshape wants mainly annotation from us.


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Mr Graebert then went on to show me his next software project, code-named Fluorine. It makes use of Xenon, and so illustrates how Graebert is creating sets of building blocks for mixing and matching tools needed to create custom CAD environments.

Onshape Drawings comes at no extra cost for Onshape users, and is included in the free version of Onshape. Both are available only in English right now, but other languages will be added and so will appear in Drawings as well.

The first version of Onshape Drawings will be a minimal version, but then new features will appear with every new rollout of Onshape, every few weeks. There is no launch date yet, but Onshape Drawings will enter private beta soon, switch to public beta over the summer, with the goal of being released in Q3.



What Ralph Grabowski Thinks
Following its launch last month, Onshape was criticized (by me and others) for not providing the full MCAD experience, such as conceptual modeling, finite element analysis, and 2D drawing layouts. The criticism needed muting, for Onshape had just launched. Nevertheless, adoption would remain low while the extended MCAD workspace remains unavailable; free users don't count.

And so Onshape the company is using this announcement about Xenon to press home how smoothly third-party apps will integrate with Onshape the software. Add-on programs simply open in another tab, and then present an interface that looks like Onshape's. APIs take care of transporting data between the core Onshape program and the various add-ons.

(I presume that by the time Onshape Drawings ships this fall, more add-ons will be announced or even be available. Onshape plans an online app store, and some apps will not be free.)

For two decades, Graebert has held a near-invisible status in the CAD industry. I figure most readers will never have heard of the old FelixCAD software and maybe not even of the current ARES (tho' not for a lack of trying on my behalf!). Indeed, I know of some CAD editors who refuse to cover DWG workalikes, such as ARES and BricsCAD, because "2D editors" are old history; for them, 3D is the only light bright enough to lure their moth-like attention.

Things are changing. The DraftSight deal with Dassault Systemes (and other OEMs) has turned Graebert into the world's largest DWG software vendor (after Autodesk), this year boasting seven million users. (Other DWG workalikes boast of the mere hundreds of thousands.)

Graebert has two strengths it can leverage these days: writing compact code that runs on portable devices (and now Web browsers), and OEMing software to lots of third parties (where, unfortunately, its software tends to run anonymously). These factors mean that when an opportunity like Onshape comes along, Graebert has the technology and the history of delivering mature software to OEMs.

Onshape Drawings is a proof-of-concept for Graebert's marketing, allowing it to entice other CAD vendors looking for a server-based CAD component. Whereas there are desktop-OEM-CAD-systems-a-plenty (think ITC or Autodesk), Graebert is in the unique position today as being the only supplier of a cloud-based OEM CAD component.


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And One More Thing...

We have browserCAD, mobileCAD, and now droneCAD. IMSI/Design says it's working on "the first ever automated aerial reporting app for UAV [unmanned aerial vehicles." By setting waypoints before takeoff, the software then pilots the drone via GPS, while back on earth users employ their iPads running TurboSite Drone to record photos or video taken by the drone's camera. The software company is working with 3D Robotics' DroneKit SDK, and plans to ship the software this summer at prices ranging from free (two waypoints) to $999. http://www.TurboApps.com

(Last week, I reported that NIBS would last week release version 3 of its national BIM standard. Reader John Brunt alerted me that NIBS since has apologized that the rollout is delayed.)

Even More News

Read me nearly every day on WorldCAD Access as I blog about the CAD industry, and give you tips on using hardware and software. You can also keep up with the blog through an RSS feed and with email alerts. These are the articles that appeared during the last week:

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Letters to the Editor

Re: Yet Another Modeler (or Two)

It seems weird to me that such a fundamental part of engineering software would be considered an add-on. But that's how it's felt with most of the CAD software I've used. Solidworks is the first one where it felt like someone who had actually done drafting was involved in the software. With Solidworks, the transition from model to drawing is extremely good.

I guess Pro/E was good there, too, but when I learned it, I was so overwhelmed by the overall general feeling of awkwardness and complexity that I didn't really notice how easy the drawing end was. I did come to a full understanding of why Pro/E guys seemed arrogant. By gosh, when I could finally fight my way to modeling a little flat plate with a hole in it, I felt like I was smarter than most of the world, too.

On the drawing thing, I had a discussion with a potential customer a year ago who had "designed" a fairly complex piece of machinery in SketchUp. I'm pretty sure that they actually just built the prototype the usual way: by sketching on the floor with soapstone, followed by someone creating a model from the physical prototype with a tape measure and SketchUp. I spent quite a few hours researching ways to do anything useful with the resulting model, but decided that there was almost nothing salvageable. Every part would have to be re-modeled from scratch.

Nothing came of that customer. Or, I should say nothing has yet -- I've had stuff like that pop back up and turn into a project 7 or 8 years later. I did find examples of some nice-looking drawings that were done in SketchUp, but never found out how they were created.

- Jess Davis, president
Davis Precision Design, Inc.


Vladimir translated the editorial, and it has been published at http://isicad.ru/ru/articles.php?article_num=17655 under the title "R.Grabowski and V.Zakharov: Renga could replace SketchUp and actually it is fully BIM-compatible."

- David Levin




Re: Notable Quotable:

Unfortunately, making a purchase doesn't stop the cookie stalking.

- R.K. McSwain

The editor replies: Or worse.... I get ad-stalked by my bank with ads urging me to join them, even though I've been with them for 20 years. So my service fees pay for ads targeting already-customers.


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