SteelCase Talks Design Virtually

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by: C. Sven Johnson

About a week ago I was lucky enough to get myself logged into Second
Life to attend a question & answer session with representatives
from Steelcase, the office
furniture manufacturer. Unfortunately there won’t be an audio posted
online, so I thought I’d post a couple of things I wrote down at the
conclusion of the meeting and share them here; mostly for the benefit
of any Industrial Designers that might surf through. But don’t quote
me, eh? I went in assuming an audio file would be made available.

here goes:

  • Steelcase uses a variety of 3D tools for product development, including SketchUp.
    They use Rhino, Pro/E, SolidWorks, and whatever else they feel will
    make the design process as comfortable and efficient as possible for
    all parties involved. File conversion and translation doesn’t seem to
    be an issue.
  • They’ve been somewhat aware of other corporate-level efforts in Second Life (e.g. Starwood Hotels, Reebok,
    aso), and have taken a cautious “dipping our toe in the water”
    approach, not wanting to spend a lot of money on something at this
    early stage.
  • I got the sense from at least one Second Life resident that there was some concern Steelcase would rip-off their virtual designs (note comments in the SLNN article
    I recently referenced). Funny how IP becomes important when it’s yours.
    And have to confess it’s amusing to hear the question. If only people
    were aware of the volume of product concepts that are stored away in
    corporate file drawers; the decades of stuff stashed in design group
    closets. Consequently, I had to chuckle at Steelcase being caught a
    little off guard by that question. I also noted that by interacting
    directly with people, they gained some insight. When you’ve been inside
    corporate structures long enough, perspectives shift. Like it or not.
  • Unlike Philips’ approach (which I discussed earlier – and which may be changing), it seems Steelcase is more curious and
    more open. They haven’t got a clue about what’s going on in the virtual
    worlds arena and aren’t afraid to admit it. How refreshing.
  • One Steelcase rep, speaking as an individual, believed Steelcase
    was a follower when it came to all things Internet. The company’s slow
    move to embrace the web was cited. What struck me, however, was that by
    virtue of even attempting to understand Second Life, they’re no longer
    really following anyone. Interesting to see how quickly a company can
    go from lagging to leading.
  • I asked them if they were using a 3D CAD/PLM system and the
    response was that they weren’t completely hooked into one at this
    point. They did mention that they were implementing SAP,
    which as far as I know, hasn’t really gotten their PLM suite up to the
    same level as a UGS or PTC. If anyone can offer more insight on this,
    please comment. I pay very little attention to SAP.
  • I also asked about mass customization opportunities and didn’t
    really get the response I was hoping to receive. They pointed out the
    ability to pick out a variety of options on their website (especially
    fabrics) and claimed that customization was built into their system,
    but I just think of that as picking from available SKU’s.
    I could be wrong and they might actually be connecting customer request
    directly to product, though I suspect they don’t. There doesn’t seem to
    me to be enough variation, unlike for example, Nike iD.
    Though they might, I seriously doubt Nike pre-manufactures every
    possible option available to consumers. They’re more likely to “fab on
    demand”. I should confirm both assumptions.

Okay. That’s pretty much it. For the Industrial Designers out there,
you might want to keep tabs on these sorts of virtual meetings. They
can be a great source of information.

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