GrabCAD and Autodesk Team Up on Product Design in the Cloud

The world of computer-aided design, known as CAD, can seem esoteric. Until you realize almost every gadget or device you use, from your car to your phone, starts out as a draft in someone’s computer.

Increasingly those designs are moving to the Internet, where they can be shared and worked on more efficiently by teams in different parts of the world. And that’s why some bicoastal tech news today is pretty interesting: Autodesk, the CAD giant based in San Rafael, CA, has formed a strategic partnership with GrabCAD, a startup in Cambridge, MA, to integrate their software products aimed at designers and engineers.

The deal doesn’t involve any equity investment; it’s a marketing and product partnership between the companies, and it originated from a business relationship forged between Autodesk CEO Carl Bass and GrabCAD CEO Hardi Meybaum.

“It’s not always easy for big companies and small companies to work together,” says Rob Stevens, GrabCAD’s vice president of sales and marketing. “But we’ve found it to be very easy.”

GrabCAD would say that, naturally. But in this case, a partnership with a big company like Autodesk (NASDAQ: ADSK), which has more than 100 million customers, gives the startup an immediate leg up on distributing its products—a key challenge for any young company.

Earlier this year, GrabCAD rolled out its new Workbench software, which is meant to help hardware designers collaborate with their peers and manufacturing partners in one secure place—without requiring everyone to have CAD software, use Dropbox, or e-mail around screenshots and comments.

Meanwhile, Autodesk is trying to become more nimble and reach a new generation of designers who have grown up on the Web. “We’re preparing for the next 30 years, and GrabCAD is an important partnership to us,” says Richard Blatcher, Autodesk’s senior global industry marketing manager.

Earlier this week, Autodesk released a cloud-based 3-D CAD software product called Fusion 360. The idea now is that GrabCAD’s Workbench can be combined with the new Fusion tools (and AutoCAD 360, aimed at Web and mobile users) so engineers can do authoring and editing of 2-D and 3-D designs, all in the cloud, through GrabCAD’s new app platform.

The companies say this is a significant development, because although the CAD industry has been talking about cloud-based collaborative software for years, there’s not much on the market yet. (Their competitors, such as San Francisco-based, might beg to differ.)

As GrabCAD’s Stevens puts it, “Most major software spaces have been touched by this move to cloud infrastructure. CAD has been touched less. There’s been a lot of talk, but not much has happened until this release of tools.”

“Anyone can get access to all the software they need that day,” Blatcher adds. “It’s here and it’s now. It’s not a promise.”

GrabCAD started out in Estonia and went through the TechStars Boston accelerator program in 2011. The company built up an online community of designers and mechanical engineers (now over 700,000 strong) around a library of CAD files. Over the past year and a half, it has focused on collaborative software for design firms—and that is where it has found a real market.

The bigger themes here, as we continue to watch the evolution of hardware design, are a closing of the gap between engineers and consumers; more efficient tools and services for designers and manufacturers to work together; and a move towards more open design platforms (though how that will play out among the competing CAD vendors remains to be seen).

Big challenges remain, of course. The CAD industry is very different from consumer tech, Stevens says. “You can’t go in a garage and code for a couple weeks. These are really complicated tools, used by highly skilled and highly paid people, 10 hours a day.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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