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At MakerCon, we will have a number of presenters who will be showing new tools for makers, tools which continue to open the process of making to more people.

Perhaps the most important tool for makers now and in the future is not hardware –  it’s software and it’s a Computer-Aided Design (CAD) tool. At MakerCon, Jon Hirschtick will introduce a “next-generation CAD tool,” called OnShape(onshape.com).  It is a fully web-based, cloud-centric, professional-level CAD tool.   Think of Google Docs for CAD. OnShape is also a Github-like site for high-end collaborative development for makers, engineers and the like.

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Jon Hirschtick knows something about the current generation of CAD tools. He was a founder and CEO of SolidWorks, which started in 1993, and was acquired by Dassault Systems in 2011. He saw an opportunity to develop a new-generation, pro-level CAD package that would run fully with the browser (no software download) and keep everything in the cloud.   He proposed running with this idea at SolidWorks but the management didn’t think it could be done — they also didn’t want it undermining their licensing model.   “Nobody really believed that we could do this in the browser,” said Hirschtick of his skeptics.  He also understand that the same thing was happening with games. “All of our devices have powerful graphics processors because of games,” he said.  “And this new generation of CAD can just go along for the ride.” He also understood that network bandwidth was improving tremendously. So Jon and a few others from SolidWorks left and raised $64M in venture capital and started OnShape, which just launched its beta last month. Hirschtick is founder and chairman of the board of Onshape, located in the Boston area.

What’s particularly newsworthy for makers is that Onshape is free for anyone to use, with full professional functionality. There are monthly plans and enterprise plans but all of its features are available for free accounts. Hirschtick told me that he was really happy to be able to offer such a sophisticated package to a broader audience. “The only obstacle really is one’s ability to learn to use the tool,” he told me.

Jon Profile Photo Cropped No Logo Jan13A free web-based CAD program such as TinkerCad is great for beginners but lacks the capabilities and precision of advanced tools. With Onshape, you can create and edit 3D objects not just on a computer but on a mobile device as well. Jon demonstrated this capability for me, and I have to say that it is pretty amazing to pick up your phone, launch a web browser, login to the site, and then see him editing an object in real-time. I didn’t download an app. And I could edit the object as well — it’s not just a viewer but all the capabilities are there.

It is a fully collaborative environment where a distributed team can edit the same object in real-time and instantly view the changes — think about how you can do that with Google Docs. It has full revision control so that every change is documented. It is very good platform for open, distributed projects.

Onshape is an indication that innovation that could have the most impact on makers will be coming from software. In particular, complex, expensive software tools are becoming more accessible and affordable, just as we have seen with hardware. Plus, these platforms offer a greater ability to share designs, so that more people can learn from work that already exists, and more people can benefit from the expertise of others and contribute more openly.

I look forward to seeing Jon Hirschtick at MakerCon, having him provide his own perspective on CAD tools and how Onshape is a game-changer for makers.