The Key to Effective Product Design: CAD Collaboration for Mechanical Engineers

Want to improve the way your engineering team communicates and collaborates? Find out how to create a successful design review process that helps you catch preventable mistakes and get to market faster.

In a new product development cycle, the most critical phase is often termed "Product Design," "Concept Development," or something similar. In this phase, the engineers and designers convert the concept the marketing and development team imagined into a manufacturable [prototype] design. It serves as the first round of screening to ensure the product will deliver the design intent and essential features.

As a result, the team iterates on the mechanical design to align with stakeholders and stage-gate approvers. Product development is won or lost by engineering and marketing working together while aligning with leadership. Excessive design iterations delay the project, while insufficient design rigor risks quality or performance metric achievement.

The most common tool for engineering design collaboration has been either a 2D drawing (or blueprint historically) or a 3D CAD model. However, rapid technological advancements have enabled 3D CAD to provide substantially increased functionality and collaboration opportunity than its 2D counterpart. Intro: an overview of mechanical engineering product development and design considerations. CAD's place in product development, use, and the design and review processes have changed over the years.

Improving CAD collaboration of even the best CAD software can accelerate the speed of design – and product development. This approach delivers better ideation, improved team communication, and an overall more efficient process than the throw-it-over-the-wall series approach used for generations.

What is collaborative CAD?

Making CAD files available for team members to share is critical when making design decisions, but collaboration takes it a step further. For example, to select a supplier, review a drawing, or run a value analysis/value engineering (VA/VE) workshop, engineers also need to discuss and track issues – as a team. So there's a big difference between file sharing and collaboration.

Just as commercial teams use contracts to align with customers on the rules of a business agreement, technical teams use CAD files (and their respective detailed-design drawings) as the technical contract from which the development team creates a commercially-manufactured product.

Team members, internal experts, and stakeholders must comprehend and "discuss" a feature. This conversation happens during in-person marathon design meetings or in an asynchronous, virtual fashion. Virtual design reviews have become more popular with the rise of remote work and international project teams. As a result, engineers must identify the best way to share CAD and collaborate virtually to leverage virtual reviews' logistical and timeline benefits.

Desktop vs. cloud-based CAD

Virtual CAD collaboration software enrolls team members worldwide without needing to align the schedules of busy design function leads. To adopt this style for product design, the team can select either a desktop or a cloud-based approach. Each has advantages and drawbacks for collaborative CAD:

  • Function and accessibility - desktop CAD offers far more functionality than cloud-based, though cloud-based does not require a dedicated local system. It only needs internet access.
  • Control and limitations - cloud storage does not permit user control over the data, an advantage of local CAD. In addition, cloud storage is dependent on (and limited by) the internet speed and security of the host's network. 5G will help with speed limitations immensely.
  • Flexibility, scale, and security - the cloud allows nearly-infinite flexibility due to massive data storage capacity. The provider manages updates and incorporates the newest technology, scaling with your processing needs for on-demand CAD storage and safeguarding against catastrophic data loss from natural disasters or damage to the local machine. In addition, you only "rent" time on the cloud servers without outlaying the capital to build a local system.

Where do PDM and PLM fit in?

Product design management (PDM) and product lifecycle management (PLM) are two essential components of effective CAD collaboration. PLM incorporates PDM software, marketing intake, product development, manufacturing, supply chain materials, and CRM data. For the PLM system to communicate with CAD files, system designers introduce PDM. Its primary role is to translate detailed CAD data into a form the PLM system can use. Along with housing and translating CAD, PDM also contains peripheral support data (spreadsheets, drawings, spreadsheets, etc.).

PDM and PLM are as important for collaborative CAD design as the 3D model. Designers can not conduct CAD in a vacuum; they need access to feedback and supporting documents from engineering and manufacturing to optimize the design. Integrating the two components works well with cloud-based CAD due to the ease of updating software remotely.

In addition, several advantages of cloud-based integration overlap with those of cloud-based CAD. These include avoiding capital and maintenance expenditures and relying on the host to handle scaling, upgrades, security, and team member access. Realizing these benefits improves operational efficiency by minimizing waste and reducing capital expenditure.

Optimal file type to share CAD

Sharing CAD is not always straightforward. For example, you might want to share CAD with a supplier, but your company uses a different CAD system than your supplier. This type of mismatch creates the need for a neutral file type, which either system can open. There are various approaches for sharing CAD files of multiple formats, software examples, guidance on when to use 2D vs. 3D files, and what happens when you export CAD to a PDF or TIFF file.

3D model and part files

Detailed applications should use the file type optimized for them, such as PRT for Pro-E vs. SLDPRT for Solidworks. For example, machine applications often use DXF files, while CAE uses ASM to incorporate intricate design details required for analysis.

The most compatible file type for sharing is STEP. It incorporates 3D geometry and works with nearly every CAD or CAE software program. In addition, the file sizes are manageable relative to their native counterparts and do not require long transmission times.

2D drawing files

Translating CAD drawing files for the manufacturer is vital for accurate part production. However, when you are ready to pull the drawing files and share them, there are a few things to consider:

  • Does the drawing file need to be fully searchable?
  • Is file size a limitation?
  • Is the quantity of drawing files in an assembly large enough to warrant grouping them with software?

PDFs allow fully searchable text but take up more space with the added information, though more secure formats like TIFF files exist.

Software for CAD collaboration

CAD software offerings differ due to their intended use in file type, performance, collaboration environment, and pricing. As a result, file software is better than others for a given product type or engineering team size.

GrabCAD Workbench | CAD Collaboration for Engineers & Designers

What is GrabCAD Workbench?

Best for hobbyist and student teams who need to collaborate on designs

Workbench aids in CAD design and streamlines workflow. In addition, it offers a viewer for non-CAD users and added markup and communication tools in a desktop app to help teams work together. Finally, the software lets you work inside CAD systems, set up common parts libraries, and house searchable data like custom properties.

Workbench is similar to Dropbox, FTP sites, and other cloud-based servers. In addition, the free version of the tool does not limit data storage or the number of projects and users.

How does GrabCAD work?

Workbench stores projects in folders that synchronize with the computer's hard drive. This approach allows the design to make and save a single change on the hard drive, and Workbench flows the update through to the collaborative version.

Can you edit files with GrabCAD?

Editing CAD files is straightforward. The user opens the desired project and clicks' Edit model' to modify the 3D file. It is also possible to edit downloaded GrabCAD files, though the CAD file type is critical to make sure a change to an assembly alters the individual component as well.

GrabCAD Workbench vs. SolidWorks

Workbench, scheduled for sunsetting on Jan. 1, 2023, allows team members to view the design in real time, including live changes the designer makes. It also outputs a BOM in one step. Generally, SolidWorks is more user-friendly and easy to learn through a logical GUI. SolidWorks also incorporates FEA and mold analyses into the software, greatly simplifying the conversion to computer-aided engineering evaluation.

SolidWorks is less advantaged than Workbench for collaboration, so many users integrate the GrabCAD software with SolidWorks to leverage the benefits of both platforms.

GrabCAD Workbench vs. SolidWorks PDM

SolidWorks designed PDM Standard for smaller or single-site working teams and is an entry-grade platform. PDM provides the security and productivity of SolidWorks in a simple, easy-to-learn solution. It is also version-controlled but lacks the collaboration strength of Workbench.


Best for companies looking for or replacing the entire CAD system

Onshape Free Plan | Onshape

Onshape is a cloud-based collaborative CAD tool for engineering and design teams. It offers similar advantages to GrabCAD Workbench and adds analytics and reporting. When comparing its collaboration software to Solidworks, Onshape provides the following benefits:

  • Improved collaboration with multiple users
  • Does not require a high-powered system
  • Integrates with the web browser
  • Native revision tracking

The tool does require an internet connection and has limited analysis tools and functionality vs. Solidworks, but it operates like G-suite and enables faster access to parts and assemblies.

Is OnShape as good as SolidWorks?

Like most comparisons of capable tools, determining which is better depends on the application. SolidWorks is the better modeling software and has integrated analyses, while OnShape expedites part and assembly creation and has a more intuitive menu and toolbar. They have comparable extrude, sketch, and plane tools,

Can OnShape open SolidWorks files?

Fortunately, Onshape is compatible with SolidWorks (and many other file types). The primary requirement is to save the SolidWorks file as a parasolid (.x_t), STEP (.stp), SolidWorks (.sldprt), Solid Edge (.par, .psm), or STL (.stl).


Best for enterprises that are building complex products

CoLab takes the advantages of the above platforms and applies them to large-scale enterprise collaboration. It is a web-based collaboration tool that lets your team share CAD, provide feedback with full mechanical context, and capture the critical design data that your other systems don’t—giving you a design review and collaboration process that’s standardized, simplified, and twice-as-fast.

The collaborative CAD tool offers native integrations with most CAD and PLM providers while providing all of the efficiency advantages CAD-PLM integration offers, including revision control, metadata, and change tracking.


Best as a simpler version of AutoCAD

How good is BricsCAD? It is another easy-to-use platform comparable to AutoCAD and interfaces nicely with [.DRW] files for 2D CAD. In addition, BricsCAD uses parametric blocks that the users can independently control, an advantage over AutoCAD. Commercially, Bricsys, maker of BricsCAD, offers "Perpetual" subscriptions: a one-time spend to own the software entirely instead of renewing annually.

Fusion 360

Best for small businesses that are not building complex products

What is Fusion 360 mainly used for?

Fusion 360 is Autodesk's collaborative CAD tool that combines mechanical design with CAM, CAE, and PCB capability, similar to Solidworks. It lives in the space between GrabCAD and Onshape and is ideal for small businesses that do not need Onshape's full capability.

Is AutoCAD or Fusion 360 better?

Fusion 360 excels at 3D modeling, while AutoCAD delivers comprehensive engineering drafting and editing tools. So the application dictates which platform works better (AutoCAD for 2D and Fusion 360 for 3D and analysis).

OnShape vs. Fusion 360

Both of these platforms are cloud-based. They have comparable usability/UI, modeling, and materials/parts libraries, but Fusion 360 offers slightly better engineering analysis, offline, and in-app capabilities. Fusion is about 25% of the price of OnShape, as well.

Pricing and qualitative ROI

Most providers publish standard pricing on their websites. They range from free (OnShape) to above $2,500 for enhanced controls and complete product development versions. When pricing CAD options, looking at the total cost of licensing, user training, support, and return from the more complex features is essential.

Is OnShape free forever?

OnShape's free version remains that way, though data is stored in the public domain.

How much does an OnShape account cost?

Onshape has a free option, with pricing ranging from a $1,500/user/year Standard seat that includes simple collaboration and data management to $2,500/user/year for enhanced release and data management controls. In addition, they offer elaborate custom enterprise solutions that can add IP tracking, role-based access control, and support for multiple workforces. Pricing on custom solutions requires engaging them for a quotation.

OnShape free vs. Professional

OnShape's free version offers a low barrier to entry, though data remains public. It provides the same CAD functionality and data management benefits as Professional, with the primary differences being the ability to maintain, deliver, and secure documents and OnShape's release management workflow.

OnShape vs. SolidWorks cost?

While Onshape displays pricing publicly, SolidWorks prices its packages through a distribution network to account for the many diverse ways users employ the software. SolidWorks distributor pricing generally falls in the sub-$3,000 range, similar to higher-end competitive versions.


Sharing the different CAD file types is critical when making design decisions, but collaboration doesn't stop there. Engineers must also discuss and track issues to select a supplier, review a drawing, or run a cost-down workshop. So there's a big difference between file sharing and collaboration when choosing the best software for mechanical engineers on your team.

Collaboration on CAD design is essential to successful product development. Two primary approaches, desktop, and cloud-based, each offer advantages in delivering a collaborative experience. Cloud-based strategies offer flexibility, accessibility, and scale, while desktop-based solutions provide better control and full functionality irrespective of internet speed.

Either approach to collaboration should include a vehicle for native PLM-CAD (or PLM-PDM) integrations to support the entire end-to-end product development team, delivering speed and efficiency improvement to the product while enabling the team to collaborate effectively.