How to provide the mechanical design community access to a growing library of products available and connect engineers working on different products together? Various developers for the last few decades asked this question and developed multiple solutions. Yet, the industry brought anything that connects an entire population of mechanical designers and 3D MCAD users with a solid content library and business model.
In the early 2000s, Solidworks introduced 3D Content Central, Check the press release here – Solidworks 3D Content Central slashes design time by helping engineers quickly find and download CAD parts. Here is an interesting passage:
SolidWorks Corporation today unveiled 3D ContentCentralSM, a free online directory of downloadable, three-dimensional computer-aided design (3D CAD) parts from leading component manufacturers that will help engineers reduce design time and bring products to market faster. Users can search 3D ContentCentral to quickly find and download solid models of parts into their designs to check compatibility and ensure the accuracy of their designs. 3D ContentCentral helps participating component manufacturers attract new customers and increase revenue by encouraging thousands of design engineers to “design in” (check compatibility and subsequently purchase) their products.
Fast forward to the 2010s. GrabCAD began as a place engineers can connect for CAD related jobs. It turned out to be a place where engineers uploaded models to show off their skills and also a place where you can find free CAD models. GrabCAD developed applications on top of the platform (eg. Workbench). Initially sold as cloud PDM, it was turned into a free product after the acquisition of GrabCAD by Stratasys. The community today counts approx 6M users and it has about 4.5M CAD models uploaded.
Here is how Hardi Meybaum, GrabCAD CEO describes it.
GrabCAD founder Hardi Meybaum describes his company as “Github for mechanical engineering designs.” It’s a community by mechanical engineers, for mechanical engineers, to create and showcase 3-D computer models, and for up-and-comers to hone their craft and build a design portfolio.
Here is another passage from the article – Stratasys acquires GrabCAD:
“GrabCAD was founded to bring the world’s engineers together and help them collaborate to bring better products to market faster. GrabCAD offers a free 3D CAD library and collaboration tools for engineers, also allows people to work on the same hardware design — whether it’s a medical device or an automotive part — remotely from around the globe. …GrabCAD launched a “Dropbox-like” feature that allows hardware engineers to access and share designs with manufacturers and customers around the world via the website or mobile phone.
And one more fast forward in the 2020s. Physna, a startup developing advanced geometric search algorithms announced Thangs – a free search 3D engine. Here is how services described in SolidSmack’s article.
On the surface, Thangs is a simple 3D search engine interface that includes search by text or model upload. With their launch, they have more than one million 3D models with plans to continuously add more. Each person with an account has a profile. You can choose to follow them and also view models they’ve uploaded and liked. On your own personal profile, you can create folders to organize your model or create a team folder to collaborate on models.
Here is a passage from the press release positioning Thangs as a combination of Google and GitHub for 3D:
Thangs: Google + GitHub for the World of 3D Models. Engineers, industrial designers, and 3D-printing enthusiasts understand the massive challenges of working with 3D data. The most important aspects of their work must be done manually, and the lack of efficient and intuitive tools often makes them far less productive than software developers. For example, there is no Google for the world of 3D models, making the process of finding files a painstaking and time-consuming process. There’s also no GitHub for the world of 3D models, making version control a complex manual chore and collaboration more difficult than it should be.
These three examples bring an interesting set of thoughts and conclusions related to the development of mechanical engineering communities, online 3D libraries, and applications for engineers and manufacturing companies.
1- Traffic is a key (doesn’t matter how)
The main contributor to success is traffic. If you cannot get traffic on the website and pass the threshold, the community won’t work. The audience of mechanical engineers is not as huge as the market for social networks (Facebook) and even the community for software engineering projects (GitHub). Content Central was completely reliant on Solidworks users and it was in pre-social network days. GrabCAD had its own stories about content usage, but it triggered engineers to brag about nice 3D models and everyone flocked to GrabCAD to watch and steal 3D models in legitimate form.
2- Monetization is hard
Once you’ve got traffic, monetization will become the next big deal. Unless the community is owned by a rich parent like Solidworks, running on VC gas or used for the development of 3D printing applications, it will need to have reasonable business models. Until now, running ads didn’t work in the 3D CAD and manufacturing world. CAD libraries either live from the marketing of manufacturing companies placing content or getting their funds elsewhere.
3- You need two persons for a tango
To find the right business model for a community of engineers sharing 3D CAD models is hard. There are complex relationships between engineers creating models, companies owning the data, and online catalog providers holding 3D CAD models as their IP. Marketing was the only model that worked until now. Unless something unlocks how to use advertising or a strong value proposition for engineers or manufacturing companies to subscribe, such a business will have a hard time to live.
For the last 20+ years, the industry lives the dreams of 3D online libraries and community development. While online catalogs such as McMaster, Grainger, and few others are widely popular, they never become a community and library to bring mechanical engineers together. Vendor owned libraries have their pros and cons. GrabCAD was a bright start a decade ago, but had monetization challenges and got acquired. Newcomers like Physna bring tons of promises and interesting technologies, but their business model is not proven yet. A solid business model is a foundation of any successful online community and content solution. New SaaS PLM technologies bring a solid technological foundation for the online community. An underlying data management tool developed by SaaS tools can be used for business applications and leverage the content of libraries and communities. The question of how to crack the code of a successful online 3D business is still open. Just my thoughts…
Disclaimer: I’m co-founder and CEO of OpenBOM developing cloud based bill of materials and inventory management tool for manufacturing companies, hardware startups, and supply chain. My opinion can be unintentionally biased.