GrabCAD Is Building Community in 3-DOctober 15, 2012
by Sarah Mitroff
You’ve engineered a mockup for a stunning two-seater. The body is sleek, the wheels look ready to pounce, and the headlights are straight out of sci-fi fan fiction. Problem is, the computer-aided design file is essentially stuck on your hard drive. There’s no easy way to get that design in front of fellow engineers for a little applause, or a car company that might want to turn it into reality. A fast-growing alternative is to upload the file to CAD community GrabCAD. The three-year-old company announced Monday that it has raised $8 million in series B funding from Charles River Ventures and Yammer CEO David Sacks, bringing the company’s total funding to just over $14 million.
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.
Those registered on the site can upload their own CAD files and download others’ publicly shared files for their own collections. Companies and individuals can also pay to host their designs privately, like Dropbox for 3-D renderings. So say you have a smartphone design you want to share privately with a manufacturer or retailer, you’d fire up GrabCAD and send an invite. With a built-in 3-D viewer, available on Chrome and Firefox, 3-D CAD files render even without pricey design software local on computers. Charging for the ability to share files privately is where GrabCAD thinks it can make its money.
Another source are hosted challenges. A company puts out the call to all mechanical engineers for a new product or thoughts on how to fix a design flaw in an existing gizmo. Companies pay GrabCAD to host a challenge on the site and members can submit their designs to win prizes and money. The cash and added supply of T-shirts are gravy, but most important, says Meybaum, is that mechanical engineers get to work on projects that are a complete departure from their day jobs.
The idea for GrabCAD came from Meybaum’s frustration with the closed-off nature of the mechanical engineering industry. “Everyone in the industry is isolated,” he says. “Engineers are working on their own and not sharing content.”
The problem, he says, is that engineers create CAD files with offline desktop software and haven’t traditionally shared what they’ve made. Meybaum thinks that attitude is shifting. “The old way of thinking was that ‘products are my own and I don’t want to share them.’ But we’ve found that people want that to change because there are so many benefits in sharing and collaborating.” Those benefits include getting help fixing a mechanical problem, getting suggestions on how to improve a design, and learning tips from more experienced engineers when you’re just trying to get your start.
GrabCAD’s growing community and its focus on collaboration have been the biggest draws for investors. “GrabCAD is a repository of CAD files similar to GitHub, and a collaboration environment similar to Yammer, where design professionals collaborate on new product innovation,” say Charles River Ventures partner Izhar Armony. “We believe that the CAD community is craving for open, service-based collaboration solutions, and has been held back for many years by propriety, closed solutions offered by a small number of incumbents vendors.” Meybaum says that Yammer’s David Sacks was eager to invest because he saw a lot of similarities between how GrabCAD is building a community in the mechanical engineering industry and how Sacks built communities for enterprise workers with his Twitter for business.
Ultimately, Meybaum believes that GrabCAD isn’t just for mechanical engineers and designers. As 3-D printing becomes more widespread, general consumers and DIYers will flock to the site because “all 3-D printers need CAD content to print.” He hopes GrabCAD will become the largest public library of those files.
Since its founding in 2009, GradCAD has grown to a community of more than 280,000 engineers, about 10 percent of the world’s mechanical engineers. Those aren’t Facebook numbers, but then again, if all goes according to plan, GrabCAD stands a good chance of becoming the place to hang out for the slide-rule set.