SolidWorks vs. Onshape – A Newbie’s Perspective

Valentine Welch, 9/9/2016

Picture a fresh-faced youth, hot outta the high school oven and into the internship frying pan. She holds her GPA and AP Scores dear to her heart. She’s prepped for whatever the world is going to throw at her.

Wait, no. She wasn’t prepped for CAD software – nothing in AP Comp about that.

Solderer's Third Hand Base

Base of solderer’s third hand, designed in OS

I’m that girl, and thanks to modern technology and online tutorials, I had a couple weeks to prep before ground zero. Over the past couple months, I’ve dabbled in both SolidWorks and Onshape, and I have distinct impressions of both. I was even able to take my first part fully from CAD to production (base of SMT Third Hand shown on right)!

My opinions are in no way comprehensive, and I can only speak for myself as a complete novice. All evidence is anecdotal.

SolidWorks 2014/16

Pros: vast selection of features, almost universally used

Cons: occasionally crashes, features confusing, bad for beginners

SolidWorks seemed the most prevalent CAD system in the industry, so naturally I started learning it first. I bought some tutorials online and spent my free time browsing videos to try and develop some sort of knowledge base.

Gang Lathe Tooling

Gang lathe tooling, modeled in Onshape, transferred to SolidWorks for HSMWorks CAM

The controls seemed fairly straightforward, and the examples provided were robust and exciting. The software struck me with its sheer size and variety of features, most of which intrigued me but were way out of my competency level. The few features that I did try were useful, but occasionally confusing. For example, creating a new plane was incredibly helpful, but it was very difficult for me to determine what to use as reference geometry, and the plane’s direction seemed arbitrary. Even creating a new sketch was occasionally challenging, as the program didn’t make it particularly obvious whether you were still in a sketch or out of it.

That said, other features were clearly well developed and intuitive; enter the mate feature. It was easy to access by setting “M” as the hotkey, and setting parts coincident/parallel to each other proved invaluable. SolidWorks also generally worked well with CAM software for more complex designs, such as the tooling we created for the lathe, pictured right.

While design was hit and miss, I was thoroughly confused by the systems used to categorize and share files. The interactions of parts and assembly were tricky unless you meticulously tracked file names and parent/child relationships. GrabCAD was useful, but occasionally caused issues when multiple people tried to upload versions of the same part.

All these issues could likely be solved with more experience and engineer-like attention to detail, but SolidWorks simply didn’t seem very new-user-friendly.


Pros: intuitive interface, easy-to-use features, impressive cloud capabilities

Cons: requires internet, limited selection of features

Solderer's Third Hand

Solderer’s third hand, modeled in Onshape

After some frustration with SolidWorks, my boss, Bill Schnoebelen, suggested I try out Onshape. The easy-access, no charge nature of the program was an immediate improvement, and I also really enjoyed how accessible and interactive the tutorials were on the website. I felt more comfortable working with the program after just an hour or two thanks to the instruction provided, free of cost. In fact, I was able to transfer the design I had been tweaking in SW over to complete it in Onshape.

The interface also seemed more user friendly and far less cluttered than SW. The sketch feature was easier to access, and using the right key/middle button with/without CTRL to work the view navigation made more sense to me. The system didn’t rely so heavily on parent/child relationships, which actually simplified many operations instead of creating chaos.

The program doesn’t seem to have nearly as many features as SW, but those it does have are easily accessible from the menus and seem more intuitive. I particularly liked the Hole Wizard and Mirror features, but am ambivalent about the Mate feature. Sometimes selecting specific points on each part made a lot of sense, but it made it very difficult if you just wanted to set objects on the same plane in an assembly.

FeatureScript Spotlight

FeatureScript Spotlight

The assemblies themselves were far simpler than SW, utilizing tabs like web browsers so everything is available at your fingertips. This reduced the need to spend so much time creating file names. Finally, the cloud is where OS really shines. Bill could actually see changes I was making on the part in real time, and could show me how to work the program from any computer instead of sending files back and forth and fighting with Skype. In addition, FeatureScript is a new programming language that allows users to code their own features with some really incredible results, such as gear patterns.

In Conclusion

Lathe Machining

Final machined solderer’s third hand tip, modeled in Onshape

Both SolidWorks and Onshape are valuable programs with unique applications. SolidWorks clearly has a monopoly in CAD, and it’s difficult to argue with the robustness of the program and its features. However, it can be clunky and isn’t particularly intuitive, and new versions (as I saw between 2014 and 2016) don’t necessarily seem to be improving the situation. Onshape has the clear benefit of being free of cost for the average user, but this results in some pretty severe limitations on private file counts and feature availability. However, it is cheaper than SolidWorks to purchase more space and the software is in constant development, as is obvious in FeatureScript and continuous updates.

Solderer's third hand in action

Solderer’s third hand in action

Perhaps the most convincing evidence placing Onshape above SolidWorks in my eyes lies in the actual manifestation of a part. While I struggled with SolidWorks, Onshape offered me an intuitive way to get my ideas from my brain to the (web) page, and finally into development. Because of this, I was able to manufacture dozens of the third hands. I’d say an engineer’s first part is symbolic of their career, so hopefully Onshape and I can continue working side by side off into the sunset.

Neither program is perfect, but I feel like Onshape is constantly improving while SolidWorks has become stagnant. If nothing else, Onshape provides a great tool for millennials like myself to jump into the convoluted world of CAD work.

~ Valentine Welch,