Accelerate: Focusing on people in product design

Deputy Group Editor, Laura Griffiths reports on two days at Steelcase for Autodesk’s Accelerate event.

Sat in the dangerously comfy auditorium of office envy facilitator and prime example, Steelcase, the impact of user-focused product design is hard to ignore. My coffee is sitting on it, my jet lagged back is resting on it – perfectly engineered workplace furniture.

Steve Miller, Chief Information Officer at Steelcase addressed the crowd of Autodesk users and partners at this year’s Accelerate event, hosted at Steelcase in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his view on what it takes to maintain the relevance of a business which started out by introducing the world’s first fire-proof waste basket in 1912 and is now behind the décor of some of most agile office spaces around the globe.

First piece of advice? There is “no ribbon cutting” according to Miller, you have to change every day in order to stay competitive and Steelcase has injected much of that thinking into its products. As I type, I’m sat on a sofa that wouldn’t look out of place in my lounge or in TCT’s board room with a table that swings around to function as both a laptop work space and a place to perch my coffee (Note: I finished this article sat on yet more pink and turquoise Steelcase furniture in the lounge at Grand Rapids Gerald R Ford Airport).

Keeping the end-user at the core of product design is crucial and other companies like Crown Equipment, a manufacturer of forklift products which also took to the Accelerate stage, is taking that a step further. Empathy, according to Director of Industrial Design, Paul Magee, is a key component for successful product design. For Crown, understanding the experiences of end-users who may be driving forklifts for eight hours at a time, enables better solutions and makes it easier to communicate change.

The company has also found this to be true when introducing new technologies into its own design process, namely in the case of generative design, a seemingly complex tool that churns out alien shapes based on set constraints and desires, and Autodesk’s “big bet”.

For that reason, Autodesk’s VP and General Manager for Fusion 360, Stephen Hooper explained how design-to-manufacturing tech needs to be rationalised to make sense for businesses today, which he referred to as “making it real”. With Fusion 360, the recently announced extensions for the platform allow users to add on tools such as generative design as and when needed. 

Furthermore, Autodesk maintains these technologies are not here to “replace” but rather “augment” the human being in the design process.

“Now with the advent of things like 3-axis and 2.5-axis milling, you’re starting to see the application in the mainstream and it’s pretty difficult to pick out the difference between a computer-generated design and a human generated design,” Hooper told TCT. “You want to make it a collaborative process between the human and the algorithm. Most humans don’t want to just specify a problem and then have a solution handed to them, they actually want to co-author with the computer.”

Examples of generative could be seen in Autodesk’s collaboration with Volkswagen on the reimagining of a 1962 classic microbus complete with organic wheel structure, seat support, side mirror mounts, and steering wheel. These super lightweight orange pieces were not produced directly with AM, as a first glance by suggest, but rather with 3D printed moulds and casting by Aristo Cast. In fact, Paul Leonard, the company’s Chief Engineer and VP, insisted “investment casting is the original AM.”

It’s another example of making it real, taking an entirely new process and merging it with familiar techniques. Another was Reebok whose Senior Engineer for Performance Engineering, Beth Wilcox explained how the sportswear giant uses data-driven design and hinted at a generative project with Autodesk. You won’t find generative trainers at retail any time soon but for certain instances, such as the reengineering of a classic lifter shoe, it could have substantial benefits in reducing weight and material use. Then there’s also companies like Lightning Motorcycles, whose generatively designed motorcycle swing arm featured on the cover of TCT last year showing how the software can be used to consolidate and lightweight parts. Whilst the project offered an interesting solution to the problem, it was heartening to hear how the company still relies on traditional clay modelling techniques alongside advanced technologies to being its ideas to life. You’ve got to keep in mind customer objections and what they expect from a product, a challenge all the more tough for a company focusing on electric motorcycles and aiming to bring on board new riders. 

It’s a gradual process, and to avoid a complete culture shock and make it real, it’s important to focus on not just the tech, but the people at the centre of design to manufacturing.

Hooper added: “You need to help users make that leap.”

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