JON HIRSCHTICK
Founder and Chairman of the Board
Onshape
Cambridge, MA
www.onshape.com

Over the past four decades, I’ve watched CAD grow to become a vital part of the way virtually all products are designed and manufactured. In 1981, when I was a student at MIT’s CAD research lab, there were probably only thousands of CAD users in the world. Now there are millions.

John Hirschtick
John Hirschtick

It’s understandable why CAD began as a tool for the elite few. Back then, one seat of CAD cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — you ordered the computer, the software, the monitor, the table, and even the chair all from the CAD company. It was sold as a “turnkey system.” The notion that you’d buy software and run it on an independent computer was considered wacky.

At the same time, engineers were paid a fraction of what they are paid today. You had one super expensive computer surrounded by a lot of “cheap” engineers. Now, it’s the exact opposite: each highly paid engineer can easily be surrounded by many relatively cheap computers — laptops, desktops, tablets, and their phones.

Then two very significant things happened in the 1990s. First, CAD technology evolved from simple “wireframe” and 2D drafting, to 3D solid modeling. Equally important, the computing platform migrated from mainframes and proprietary terminals (the CAD companies made the hardware), to UNIX workstations and Windows PCs.

Moving to desktop personal computers was truly transformational: it was the democratization of CAD, making the tool accessible to millions of engineers whose companies previously could not afford the technology. With 3D professional CAD, every company could make design improvements faster, and dramatically speed up their production cycle.

Having been personally involved in some of these changes, it’s been gratifying to see 3D solid modeling go from a curiosity in a lab, to eclipsing 2D and becoming the way products are routinely designed. But the story isn’t over.

The computing platform is evolving yet again. Cloud, Web, and mobile technologies are making CAD available on any computer, tablet, and phone. Running CAD in a Web browser means engineers can work on any Mac or Windows PC, or even on inexpensive Chromebooks, lowering the financial barrier for entrepreneurs and startups to turn their ideas into successful products.

With cloud-based CAD, design tools are also finally adapting to the way people really work today. Many products are no longer designed and manufactured under one roof. Design teams are often distributed in offices around the world. For the first time, multiple engineers can simultaneously work on the same CAD model. With mobile CAD fully running on phones and tablets, design teams no longer are chained to their offices; work can happen whenever and wherever inspiration strikes.

Engineers aren’t so “cheap” anymore. Increasing their productivity is vital for a company to survive and thrive. As CAD technology continues to rapidly evolve with the times, I’m thrilled to still have a front-row seat.

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