Wednesday Sep 4, 2013 by Dennis Keohane - Staff Writer, VentureFizz
Almost every conversation I have with local startup folks ends with some version of the same question. Either "What is the next monster Boston company?" or "Who is doing something innovative or impressive that I might not know about yet?".
Recently, there has been one company that keeps getting mentioned, over and over again, by local innovators and entrepreneurs I have talked to: GrabCAD.
The Computer-Aided Design site, based out of Davis Square, is generating buzz not only for their expansive, open community of CAD enthusiasts and designers, but also, more recently, for its Workbench platform that allows for collaboration on stealthy, private projects that need to be outside of the public GrabCAD space.
Building a Community of Designers and Engineers
The company was founded by Hardi Meybaum, who, while working as an engineer in Estonia, ran into some design problems that were shockingly difficult to solve in the current free-flowing information age. So Meybaum did what anyone with the entrepreneurial spirit would do, he created a website to fill the CAD information sharing gap. The site, now GrabCAD, has over 800,000 members who share, comment on, and borrow various CAD designs from the ever-growing GrabCAD library.
As the company's Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Rob Stevens said, "The biggest challenge that Hardi ran into, that I think we at GrabCad have addressed pretty well, is the idea of reinventing the wheel."
To explain the entire concept, Stevens literally used the wheel as an example for the type problem that GrabCAD now solves.
"If you are a designer and are designing a new bicycle," he said, "you probably don’t make wheels, you make the bicycle frame. But when you show your bicycle frame to a potential buyer, you need to put wheels on it so that they can figure out what it is."
"So, if you are using 3D CAD and have designed this elegant bike frame," Stevens continued, "you then would have to spend hours and days designing wheels just so the bike makes sense. Not that you are going to make wheels or sell wheels, [you just need them in the design] so that you can show the bike in a manner that makes sense."
With GrabCAD, Meybaum, and fellow co-founder Indrek Narusk, built a way to solve this CAD conundrum by building an open, crowdsourced library of 3D CAD models that engineers or designers could easily download and then upload to their own design and use.
As Stevens said, "So if you need bicycle wheels, you go to GrabCAD, search bicycle wheels, and up pop hundreds of different models of wheels. You 'grab' the one you need, add it to your own design, and then you have a fully functioning model."
In my many discussions with tech startup people, no one has come close to explaining such an intricate technology as Stevens does with his bicycle analogy. It is easy to understand why GrabCAD is so important and why it is one of the startups that a lot of people in the startup world seem to have their eyes on.
What about Intellectual Property? Misuse? Piracy?
The best component of GrabCAD is that these issues are almost non-existent in the tight-knit community that is the 800K strong world of GrabCAD. As Stevens explained, GrabCAD has some serious restrictions that everyone involved seems more than happy to abide by. User's designs are not for sale. The projects in the vast library are only for non-commercial use. "You can’t sell a bicycle wheel that someone else has designed," said Stevens. "If you do want to produce/manufacture something, you can connect with the designer in the community and try to work together."
GrabCAD Grows and Expands
Recently, GrabCAD found that the open-network library wasn't working for some designers and engineers. They wanted all the benefits of GrabCAD, however, their projects they were working on were of a nature that adding them to a wide-open, public network just was not an option.
So, about a month ago, the company officially launched a new collaboration platform, Workbench.
Workbench, which is a paid, premium offering from GrabCAD, allows users to create secure collaboration sites for projects. As Stevens explained, users wanted the benefit of GrabCAD, but in a private setting.
Workbench allows teams to privately collaborate on a CAD model through the cloud. As Stevens said, the new product "helps with all parts of the supply chain."
"There are groups of people in the world for whom [Workbench] is a life-saver," he added. "There are design firms or engineering outsourcing firms who have lots of clients that don’t have CAD, so [before Workbench] there was no easy way for them to show their clients what they were working on."
All Workbench users need to do now is drag a design model into a browser window on Workbench, and all the project partners have access to it immediately. Additionally, those using the new product have all the capabilities of the public GrabCAD platform, but allows collaborators to now privately make comments and suggestions in the browser.
Stevens stated that Workbench allows designers and engineers to "iterate much faster" and that the new tool has "revolutionized how [engineers/designers] do their job."
While Workbench is a game-changer (particularly for companies creating projects locally while manufacturing them in say, China) GrabCAD's other recently launched product may have a greater impact on GrabCAD's success in the design/engineering sector.
Toolbox, which the company has not promoted as widely as Workbench, allows third-party designers to build apps that integrate with the Workbench platform. Looking down the road, the potential exists Toolbox/Workbench to be the foundation for an entire cloud-based design/engineering ecosystem. At some point, the entire creative process, from kernal idea to design to production could be run through GrabCAD.
Being the one-stop shop or ubiquitous tool for the industry is GrabCAD's ultimate goal, as Steven's said.
For one, the potential to be the cog of the entire product supply chain of the future is not just a lofty goal, but, as should be obvious, a potentially lucrative aspiration as well.
Putting all the possibilities for GrabCAD's future success aside, there is something pretty unbelievable happening on GrabCAD right now. If you want to know where our most creative and imaginative designers, engineers, and thinkers are taking product development, take some time and scroll through the design library. You will be awed.
For one, GrabCAD has a string of running "challenges" being run on the site that are usually sponsored by a company that has a problem they can't figure out.
GE recently engaged GrabCAD's users to design a better engine bracket. A recent perusal of the site's blog revealed challenges to create a humanoid robot, a crowd-sourced tractor, and the trailer for a futuristic race car.
I asked Stevens what the wildest project GrabCAD users were currently working on, and, without hesitation he said, "There is a project right now-just a bunch of 'hobbyists'-who are designing a moon colony, a shared public project designing what a moon colony might look like."
Seriously, a moon colony and an entertainment-purposed humanoid robot.
And that is just what the ever-expanding GrabCAD universe is up to now. Who knows where the world of GrabCAD will be taking us next.