The State of Play in Mobile CAD

Mobile CAD is one of the buzziest trends to affect the CAD landscape in some time. CAD has traditionally been viewed as an activity that happens at a desk, with a blocky, powerful workstation driving every instance of feature creation. However, in the last few years, hardware and laptop architectures have reached the point where a workstation-worthy laptop can be had for a reasonable price.


Your Laptop is Your Desktop; Your Office is Wherever

CAD work doesn't need to look like this anymore thanks to advances in hardware and the cloud. (Image Courtesy of Wikipedia)
CAD work doesn’t need to look like this anymore thanks to advances in hardware and the cloud. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Today’s laptops are more affordable and powerful than ever. If you go to any of the top hardware companies—whether it be Dell, HP, BOXX, you name it—you’ll be able to find a mobile workstation that includes an i7 or Xeon processor, 32 GB or 64 GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD and an NVIDIA Quadro GPU in the ballpark of $2,400–$5,000+.

The most interesting thing about modern mobile workstations is that their price points have started to intersect with their desktop counterparts. While it true that desktop workstations are capable of being loaded with more powerful hardware, mobile workstations can more than hold their own when it comes to CAD. Simulation, though, might be another matter.

So, what’s the biggest reason for switching to a mobile workstation? Well, given their form factor and relatively lighter weight, mobile CAD workstations allow designers to be, well, more mobile. Instead of bringing a client into an office for a project review, a design team can meet the client and do on-site design reviews that may lead to deeper product development insight.


Calling Down the Cloud

While powerful laptops are one way to take your CAD workflow on the road, the cloud also offers another option for CAD techs on the go. Whether you opt to use Amazon Web Services, Frame or any other cloud computing service, the option to lighten your laptop load is becoming increasingly more compelling.

The cloud can be a powerful asset for designers on the go. (Image Courtesy of Jisc)
The cloud can be a powerful asset for designers on the go. (Image courtesy of Jisc.)

Sure, some may argue that cloud- or browser-based CAD tools don’t offer the features that a full-blown Windows-based CAD application can provide—and they’re right. However, cloud-based CAD doesn’t have to be a hobbled CAD operation. In fact, with today’s cloud solutions, virtual machines (VMs) can be spun up at any time and full Windows-based CAD applications can be used just as they would from a workstation or bulky CAD-centric laptop.

But what does that kind of power cost? Not surprisingly, very little. With the proliferation of GPUs and the continually falling prices of computing power, VMs can be called up for pennies an hour. Let’s take a look at two examples.

First we’ll start with (Frame).

According to Frame, its top-tier “Plus” plan has a monthly fee of $27.99/month. With that money, you get 1,000 credits, your own cloud computer, access to worldwide data centers, a 1-GB symmetric connection to ensure latency issues aren’t holding your work hostage and the option to buy additional credits at $0.015 each.

Frame VM configuration come in four basic packages: the Air (both 4-GB and 8-GB configurations) and Pro (16-GB and 64-GB configurations). For most designers, the 8-GB model should suffice for most modeling work and a switch to a 16-GB VM can be made when simulation or rendering is needed. In a heavy simulation setting, a 64-GB machine can be called down to crunch large animation renderings or multi-physics simulations.

“With Frame, I can get rid of my boat anchor of a laptop and literally take a weight off my shoulders,” said Milt Venetos, founder of Wyatt Enterprises, in a quote given to Frame. “Now I can use SOLIDWORKS anywhere, even at the beach.”

While Frame is a popular start-up option for cloud-based CAD internet, leviathan Amazon also offers a solution of streaming Windows-based application from its servers. Called AppStream, the Amazon app takes full advantage of the enormous resources at the company’s disposal.

“For example, if one user streams a session for 45 minutes and 30 seconds and another user streams a session for 120 minutes and 20 seconds, the total amount billed will be for 165 minutes and 50 seconds, which is equivalent to 2.764 hours.” Says Amazon. “If the application was streamed from US-East, then at $0.830/hr, these two sessions will incur a charge of $2.29.”

But the long and the short of this mobile CAD alternative is that with the ability to leverage VMs that are as powerful as a workstation, why would anyone bother carrying around a bulky machine? Why not use a netbook (roughly $500) or a Macbook (around $1,299) or even a tablet? They’re much easier to carry around and for the most part, they’re cheaper than their “mobile-workstation” cousins.


The Future of Mobile CAD and VR

Will VR be a part of mobile CAD's future? (Image Courtesy of Microsoft)
Will VR be a part of mobile CAD’s future? (Image courtesy of Microsoft.)

So mobility, power and the ability to expand your computational resources are driving today’s vision of mobile CAD, but what’s in store for CAD in the future?

Well, the one aspect of 3D modeling that’s always been a drag has been the fact that CAD happens on a 2D screen. Sure, CAD is more than functional in 2D, but being able to design in a virtual environment, or at least one that’s augmented, could lead to a whole new language for doing CAD work.

Image yourself creating complex surfaces today. The process is tedious and often times requires multiple sketches and 3D profiles that have to be just right or they won’t make. Now, imagine tossing that workflow to the wayside and replacing it with a gesture-based control system that would allow surfaces to be made with the wave of hand.

For augmented- and virtual-reality (AR/VR) CAD interfaces to be possible, mobile devices are going to have to get a bit more robust. Today, VR-ready laptops aren’t flying off the shelves, but they are being touted by manufacturers. If the history of hardware development continues at its current pace, however, hardware such as mobile workstations might soon be replaced by devices like the Microsoft Hololens as the primary tool for product designers.


The Potential Pitfalls of Mobile CAD

One of the biggest and most obvious pitfalls that comes with mobile CAD is the need to re-learn how to interact with a piece of software. For those who are stuck to a mouse, the learning curve for using a pencil and touchscreen might be a bit steep. There is, of course, the option to get a wireless mouse, but how well do those things work in those barely comfortable seats in the airport lounge? Awkward and uncomfortable doesn’t begin to describe the UI sensation.

Beyond adapting to new tools, mobile CAD users will have to be very careful of falling down the slippery slope of overworking.

Back in the day, once you left the office, the workstation stayed behind and your free time became your own. Now that CAD can be run from your tablet or laptop, your projects can follow you whenever and wherever you are. I do understand that some projects are enrapturing and others just have to get done on a tight deadline, but in most cases, work should be left at work. Taking time away from CAD can spur on more ideas, make it possible to find better design solutions and more importantly, enjoy a life outside of your machine.

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