Steelcase Talks Design Virtually


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. So 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 – reLink – 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.

    6 thoughts on “Steelcase Talks Design Virtually

    1. Cool, though I always thought it’d be Ikea to take SL by storm, first. Talk about mass customization opportunities there… If you ever get the time, check out the pax planning tool on the ikea website.

      Basically, a virtual building tool for your own walkin closet – this is the future already here.

      Personally though, I’m waiting for a robotics manufacturing company to finally recognize SL or something like it.

      Imagine being able to virtually create your own manufacturing line via Robot lego components in SL. That seems more likely to me than RapRep..

    2. Nice one. You know sketch up is used by almost everyone! Even the schools are encouraging students to it. It almost seems like the software that will lead us into the fabbing age.

    3. @ironperth – I saw Ikea’s tool, but like you I expected Ikea to make a push into a place like Second Life, so it didn’t do much for me.

      Good point about there not being a dedicated robotics company like iRobot inside a virtual world. Oddly enough, considering I follow the robotics industry to some degree, their absence hasn’t gotten my attention. Thanks for pointing it out.

      @DT -I really wasn’t aware SketchUp was getting that much support in schools. Interesting. Architectural students? ID people? Both?

    4. Pingback: Using SL as a design platform

    5. Thanks for the post, glad to see these kinds of conversations happening. I’m hearing them in enough places to think that user centered design is emerging as a future promise of virtual worlds. It’s good to know there are companies thinking along the same lines.

      @csven: Google held a campus build competition that put SketchUp squarely on the map for a lot of architecture and design faculty, and I was excited to see our University of Cincinnati students in the finalists pool: Link

    6. I remember the competition. Just didn’t think it’d made such an impact. But thanks for reminding me of it. Guess I need to keep better tabs on SketchUp’s infiltration of the 3D market.

    Comments are closed.