Hobby CAD shootout: Onshape

Published on 2023-09-11 | Last modified on 2023-09-16
I explore Onshape for hobbyist use. Onshape is an incredible application that is both powerful and intuitive. The free tier gives you everything, provided you are ok with the non-commercial and non-private constraints however performance gets really sketchy with complex designs and the pricing is steep.

Hello, I am a generic nobody armed with a caliper and a 3D printer!

One of the most common dilemmas I and others like me face is finding the perfect software to make our designs. Everyone seems to default to Fusion 360 these days, but I personally have stuck with Onshape for the last 5+ years and had a blast. But what is the best tool and what is the most sustainable one?

In this series of posts I will try to explore every CAD software I can get my hands on and run them through their paces from the point of view of a inexpert hobbyist rather than some CSWE.

This first article covers Onshape as it is the tool I’m most familiar and experienced with.

Onshape

I know this is the first software I look at but Onshape is an outlier in the CAD world, being a web-app you use through your browser instead of an installable native application. This in itself has pros and cons worth considering, though one of the biggest advantages is clearly OS choice: no other proprietary CAD tool that I know of runs on Linux.1

I have seen Onshape chug with more complex parts and especially when dealing with assemblies. I’m tentatively blaming it on being a web app though WebGL performance is pretty competitive these days, so who knows.

The most intuitive UI

Onshape is probably the CAD package with the most intuitive UI I’ve seen. I have no professional or educational background when it comes to CAD, so I had to learn everything from scratch for this. I tried Fusion 360 first because my 3D printing friend suggested it to me and was completely lost in its intricate workings and Onshape just felt natural in contrast.

I don’t have much insight on the onboarding experience since it’s been too long for me to remember if I used any of their learning materials or if I just played around in the UI.

As Onshape was created by ex-Solidworks engineers (including the legendary Jon Hirschtick) its UI does seem to try to look like Solidworks (but not much, in the same way that FreeCAD looks like CATIA).

Dark Mode

There is no officially supported dark mode, but being a browser app you can use browser extensions to inject custom CSS. Dark Reader works fine but there are many weird gotchas like material colors and the shading being inverted (shadows are bright and reflections are dark, etc.)

DaviDokuro made a userscript that adds enough CSS to have a proper Dark mode (DaviDokuro/Unofficial-Onshape-Dark-Theme). I modified it somewhat to fix some stuff, so also check out my version.

This is what it looks like:

Onshape UI with the unofficial dark theme

Onshape UI with the unofficial dark theme

Onshape UI with the unofficial dark theme

Even thought it doesn’t look great and sexy I have been using it and will use it for the examples shown below, so apologies if you’re a light mode fan but at least you won’t get flashbanged.

The problem with “free” CAD software

Onshape, Fusion 360 and other proprietary CAD softwares could be considered freeware/free to use software, but they are not “FOSS”. The current Internet climate is one of ever-increasing enshittification. Both Onshape and Fusion 360 have gotten worse over the past few years, from Fusion 360 removing local simulations to force people to pay “cloud tokens” and generally restricting features in the personal use license to Onshape tightening their “non-commercial” definition to cut out content creators.

While they are still perfectly functional tools today the outlook is bleak and I would not want to rely on them.

Of course, the option of paying for your CAD software is always there, however…

Unsettling pricing

Onshape’s pricing is very high. I would generally not care that much for something priced at professionals but Onshape is by far the most restrictive when it comes to what you can actually do with your free-tier outputs. You’re not allowed to have private documents or profit from any use of the software, even if it’s unrelated to the actual parts (e.g. educational videos).

The cheapest tier that allows you to commercialize your designs is $1,500/year (per user). This is prohibitively expensive for anyone who might want to just get their hobby project off the floor.

There are programs for creators and startups but I couldn’t find accounts from people who are enrolled and their contact us form is a privacy nightmare (with a broad selection of topics) without a direct email to reach out.

Knowing that going from hobby to small creator would inflate my costs by this much is quite distressing and I know that if I ever wanted to consider making commercial creations I would first have to give up the comfort of Onshape. I don’t see how they think this is ok but maybe the small creators market just isn’t worth it for them.

The trials

I will try to explore as much as possible what I can achieve with these tools within my capabilities and needs. I am aware that I cannot use every feature but I hope that my “trials” will give a decent impression of what someone like me could get out of these tools.

My trials will be as follows:

Test drive: TooTallToby-11-01

The test drive features this part from TooTallToby’s practice playlist.

I’m not a speedmodeller but I could get this done easily, check my video here for the workflow:

Keep in mind that there are a lot of tools that I didn’t exploit properly (like the Trim tool) and generally I’m not a power user of CAD software (only know a handful of shortcuts) but I don’t think I have ever struggled enough to have to Google something when making a part.

Real world part: SATA SSD enclosure

I like taking SATA SSDs out of their housing and giving them a smaller one. You see, most cheap SATA SSDs nowadays only take a small part of the SATA 2.5" enclosure:

BX500 outside of its plastic enclosure

BX500 outside of its plastic enclosure

BX500 outside of its plastic enclosure

I like using these as powered up pendrives to bring around, so I usually try to come up with a less space wasting, more quirky enclosure… let’s make one!

I won’t bore you with another video, here’s what I came up with:

The enclosure project in Onshape

The enclosure project in Onshape

The enclosure project in Onshape

This model tests some of my most common gotchas in CAD software: Heavy sketch reuse and cross referencing and dealing with multiple parts. Onshape makes it incredibly easy and painless and I only realized how tricky this tend to be when doing it in other tools.

Thanks to the ability to export in .STEP, we can observe that the model has very smooth fillets in PrusaSlicer:

The enclosure project in PrusaSlicer

The enclosure project in PrusaSlicer

The enclosure project in PrusaSlicer

Making drawings

There is a built-in drawing workspace and you can just right-click into making a drawing for a part with some handy presets. As far as I can see there is no auto-dimension feature, so you’ll have to put every dimension by hand (just click around, it’s easy). Adding other angles and sections is very easy, though I wish there was some way for Onshape to tell me if I forgot a dimension somewhere.

Graphically speaking it seems to let you shuffle things around pretty well, I’m very glad I don’t do this for a job because I assume something like this will get me fired instantly (note: this drawing has been altered to not be a flashbang, normal drawings are black on white).

Drawing with altered colors of an enclosure

Drawing with altered colors of an enclosure

Drawing with altered colors of an enclosure

Export options

Onshape supports a vast amount of export options for parts. For my purposes I’ve used STL, 3MF and STEP and have been happy with the output of all three.

Parts can also be exported in Parasolid, JT and a bunch other more CAD-y files. I only tried importing them in other packages and they seem fine at a glance, but never actually used them.

This helps alleviate the lock-in problem of the software, since many others lock down the export options for their free version.

Assemblies

I love assemblies in Onshape even though I use them in a very basic way, basically modeling my components and having an assembly where I screw everything together to make sure everything lines up and I haven’t missed anything egregious.

The most complex use of assemblies is actually from my very first use of Onshape back in 2017 when I was planning a mini combat robot (which sadly never went anywhere). I modeled all the off the shelf parts and even set rotation hinges:

Sheet metal

I’ll preface this by saying that I don’t know the first thing about sheet metal design! However I’m very interested in learning to do sheet metal parts and Onshape makes it very easy to work with them. The flow is a bit weird and even though sheet metal parts share the same workspace as normal parts, most of the tools will outright not work or work partially on sheet metal (e.g. extrusion can only be negative).

As an exercise to myself, I built the TooTallToby-23-02-04 practice model using the sheet metal tools and save for some technicalities on how flanges work, had an easy time:

Sheet metal part designed in Onshape, with a flat view for the cutting and all the necessary bends

Sheet metal part designed in Onshape, with a flat view for the cutting and all the necessary bends

Sheet metal part designed in Onshape, with a flat view for the cutting and all the necessary bends

You might notice the table looks weird, that’s because the dark theme CSS does not take them into account. I might revisit that later (or feel free to make patches yourself!)

I exported both DXF and STEP files and sent them to a laser cutting+bending service for a quote and their UI seems to understand them just fine, though I haven’t ordered anything yet so I don’t know if some operator will start throwing WTFs at me.

Order form for the sheet metal part

Order form for the sheet metal part

Order form for the sheet metal part

Conclusion: A great tool for hobbyist and professionals

Onshape sets a high bar for everyone else to reach. If you just need to learn CAD to design some pieces to print and mend whatever broke in your house, I don’t think you can find anything more intuitive to learn while still allowing you to go into other avenues of manufacturing if your interests ever grow outside 3D printed gizmos.

If you work in a large company or can afford the paid tier, it’s probably also pretty good there. I haven’t touched any of Onshape’s own selling points like real-time collaboration or the many integrations via plugins since they really don’t fit my scenario at all, but they might interest you.

If you’re looking for something to start your maker career selling projects on tindie though, I think save making an inquiry for their startup plan you’ll best be looking elsewhere.

Next up I’ll explore some of the FOSS options that come with no strings attached, as long as you don’t mind a considerable amount of compromises.

Next up:


  1. It seems Fusion 360 now has a browser version that makes it work fully online and would apply, but it only works with commercial and education licenses and I have neither. ↩︎