Ondsel: making solid modeling tools accessible for everyone

Published: Jan 23, 2023
By: Open Core Ventures

Ondsel is changing how engineers collaborate on solid model design. Built on top of FreeCAD, a well-respected open source parametric 3D modeler, Ondsel enables users to collaborate, share, and publish designs to the web. From the beginning, FreeCAD was built to separate the user interface from the core application. It is in this separation that Ondsel sees an opportunity, especially for cloud deployment and collaboration. 

“You put all this effort into making your designs parametric and flexible, but they’re still useless to other people unless they have FreeCAD and know how to use it,” said Brad Collette, long-time FreeCAD contributor and CTO of Ondsel. “I want to let designers publish designs to a website where end-users can customize aspects of them and then download exactly what they need to 3D print them, cut them on a CNC, or use them in some other application.”

A former Dell software developer, Brad joined the maker movement and started building CNC machines 15 years ago. “I would spend a lot of time in CAD making a model of what I wanted to build. Something simple like a cribbage board. Then I’d have to hand-code gcode to drill 700 holes,” said Brad.

CAM technology exists to automate code generation but there wasn’t any CAM software in the open source world, so Brad started contributing to open source projects. When he contributed to a FreeCAD workbench that does tool pathing for CNC machines, he caught the attention of other developers on the project. As it became more popular, he was drawn into project leadership.

“If you wanted to pay for CAM, it was ferociously expensive, and without CAM, the models aren’t very useful for CNC,” said Brad. “I started contributing to a little open source project and making some friends, and then, eventually, I got connected to the FreeCAD project. There was no CAM capability there either. So we started from scratch, and it just kept going.”

FreeCAD has always put a high priority on open standards and interoperability but collaboration with models outside of the FreeCAD application—or any CAD application—is still difficult. Many people are publicly publishing 3D printable versions of their designs. But unless you publish the original project file, customizing it is difficult even if the model was designed to be customized. Even with the original project file in hand, you still need to know how to use the software and most CAD applications have a steep learning curve.  

“As you’re designing, you start collaborating more and more, and as the product gets more complex, those collaboration issues get more painful,” said Brad. “You either spend a lot of time importing and exporting models and dealing with compatibility issues or take pictures of your screen to make your point.”

With support and investment from OCV, Brad can now focus on solving deep issues and building collaborative features that only a full-time development team can tackle. FreeCAD is a great application but building CAD is hard and some problems require more than part-time programmers and hobbyists.  With investment from OCV, Ondsel will be able to put full-time developer resources toward solving the problems that have kept FreeCAD from being adopted by commercial users.

The applications of Ondsel

Most of FreeCAD’s user base has historically been makers and hobbyists. Ondsel wants to make FreeCAD more attractive to professional designers, engineers, and commercial users. 

“Our initial customer set is the small firms with an end-user customizable product. They want to use their 3D designs on their website so their customers can interact, customize, and explore the product,” said Brad. 

Much of FreeCAD’s functionality can be made accessible through web-based tools. A model deployed on the cloud could be linked to a website, where customers can customize it and download exactly what they need, all while protecting the designer’s intellectual property. It’s feasible without many deep changes to FreeCAD’s current source code. 

There have been other attempts to expand FreeCAD’s user base to include small businesses, enterprises, and independent users. So far, those applications have focused on the architectural space and other niche areas.  

Ondsel sees applications across industries, from initial design through fabrication, and wants to build more general solutions. In the near term its focus, and where there’s most benefit, is on developments that depend on human interaction with the models.

Keeping FreeCAD open

Over the last two years, FreeCAD had a massive influx of users. Anger and frustration, primarily at AutoCAD’s license amendments around Fusion, drove this surge. They’d been giving away Fusion for a long time and then severely curtailed features to push users into paid tiers, creating  vendor lock-in. 

Ensuring Ondsel remains open and portable is a high priority for Brad. As an open core company, Ondsel will contribute most of its code to the FreeCAD project. As an OCV public benefit company (OPBC), Ondsel is legally committed to clauses of the OPBC, which include promises like not moving previously open source code to the proprietary code base, making the majority of code open source, and not delaying security fixes to the open source code base. 

Eliminating vendor lock-in is especially important to Brad. As part of Ondsel’s incorporation process, he worked to include two clauses that were added to the OPBC charter– they don’t own your data, and they won’t include anything in the API that makes it difficult to migrate away from their tools. 

“While working with Brad to launch Ondsel, we incorporated two additional elements in the OPBC charter,” said Betty Ma, COO at OCV. “These elements are intended to promote open standards, interoperability, and permit data portability. The OPBC is a novel application of corporate governance to safeguard open-source projects. It will continue to evolve as we gain more insights from operating OPBCs to fine tune the balance between open-source protection and corporate longevity.” 

Building an open source ecosystem around FreeCAD is central to Ondsel’s future. Being a public benefit company fits naturally with its mission to make access to solid modeling tools accessible. “We believe that open source design tools improve access to the design and manufacturing process,” said Brad. “It lets small companies and individuals participate in the process. It spurs innovation, and it improves efficiency.”

The social component of FreeCAD is core to its business model and product development.

“It’s central to us because the more people that are using the open source design tools, the more opportunity there is for those kinds of network effects, the collaboration part, the stuff that the standalone tool doesn’t do well– is exactly the stuff that we want to do,” said Brad. “So having a really solid, open source ecosystem around FreeCAD is critical to our future, and we think we can provide the part that the open-source community struggles to build.”

For Ondsel, its first goal is to untangle the UI challenges and bring full-time development talent to the complicated engineering issues. “FreeCAD is a fantastic project,” said Brad. “We want to be a good player and a positive addition to this ecosystem. And we want to complement the core project with features, tools, and  professionalism.”

What the future may bring is still largely unknown, but we know that virtual and augmented reality will make our digital designs more critical. Being able to share them and use them more efficiently is key, and Ondsel wants to be part of that.