Team Collaboration for Product Design and Manufacturing Efficiency

Theo Richardson is a designer and entrepreneur based in Brooklyn. He is best known as a founding partner and Director of Development at Rich Brilliant Willing - RBW. Jon Hirschtick, a technology pioneer and entrepreneur, is passionate about empowering innovators so they can design products that positively impact society and the planet. He understands the challenges engineers face as they build products for the modern era, as well as the design platforms required to accelerate product innovation in today’s connected world.


Feb 16, 2021

Team collaboration is essential for product designers to create beautiful objects while working within the technical and financial constraints of manufacturing. We speak with an award-winning designer and a manufacturing veteran to learn about the product design process and digital transformation in manufacturing.

Theo Richardson is a designer and entrepreneur based in Brooklyn. He is best known as a founding partner and Director of Development at Rich Brilliant Willing - RBW. Rich Brilliant Willing designs and manufactures LED fixtures for workplace and hospitality environments “We believe in the power of light to create atmosphere.” RBW is emerging as the preferred choice in lighting for architects, designers and lighting experts in the US. His accolades with RBW include four-time National Design Award Nominee via The Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt and was named among Forbes: 30 under 30 for Art & Design.

Jon Hirschtick, a technology pioneer and entrepreneur, and is now the president of PTC’s Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) division, PTC Onshape. In 2012, Hirschtick launched Onshape -- the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) product development platform. It’s the only product development platform that’s architected for the cloud, enables engineers to design products on-demand, and lets them collaborate in real time -- without being tethered to a machine or device. Onshape was acquired in 2019 by PTC for $470 million. Previously, Hirschtick created SOLIDWORKS, the first desktop 3D CAD (computer-aided design) solution that made 3D design technology accessible to the masses. SOLIDWORKS was acquired by Dassault Systèmes in 1997 for $310 million.


This transcript was lightly edited.

Introduction: Integrating great product design and the manufacturing process

Michael Krigsman: How can product designers create beautiful objects within the constraints of manufacturing and efficiency? We're speaking with Theo Richardson of RBW—they're a design company that's tightly coupled to manufacturing—and Jon Hirschtick, Founder of Onshape and the head of the SaaS business at PTC.

Jon, it's great to see you again. Tell us about Onshape, what you're doing, and also tell us about your background.

Jon Hirschtick: Thanks, Michael. Great to be back. Onshape is the world's first and only full SaaS (software as a service) platform for product design. We combine CAD and data management and collaboration tools with all sorts of other tools for the product developers of the world.

Basically, manufactured products today are built twice. They're built once in the computer to make sure they're right. Then they're built in the physical world. We're kind of the Google Docs of CAD, if you will.

I've worked in the field of CAD and related software for product development for almost 40 years – my whole career. Previously, I'd been Founder and long-time CEO at SolidWorks. I was a founder and CEO at Onshape until we were acquired by PTC a year ago. Now I'm the head of the (software as a service) SaaS business unit at PTC.

Michael Krigsman: Theo Richardson, it's great to see you today. Tell us about your work and tell us where you're focused right now.

Theo Richardson: At RBW, we believe there's a reason why people say, "Brighten your day." That's because light has a profound influence in shaping the way we feel.

At RBW, we design, manufacture, sell, and distribute LED lighting products for primarily architects, interior designers, but also homeowners as well. What we have been focusing on is, certainly for the entirety of our business, design, but also we see ourselves as designing the business and we are focused right now on Industry 4.0 and the integration of our core platforms: ERP, CAD, and the shop floor.

Michael Krigsman: Tell us about your business model.

Theo Richardson: Our business model is B2B driven, primarily, and we sell decorative light fixtures to often technology workplaces, hospitality environments, and residential interiors. We work through a sales rep network. We work through, directly through our website. We also sell through an online retailer,

I want to make everyone aware that we are always looking for creative and talented team members to join us. If the idea of Industry 4.0 design and manufacturing excites you, please visit and our careers page.

Mass customization and the product development life cycle

Michael Krigsman: One of the things that I hope we discuss today is the mass customization approach that you've taken. Do you want to tell us about that quickly?

Theo Richardson: Our customer is focused on creating a unique environment. That might mean the perfect fixture that provides the right quality of light, but also something that matches their interior.

These are designers that are incredibly focused on the visual aesthetic and the visual experience that the environment creates. They might be working for a brand and the brand wants something very specific or particular.

We offer a high level of customization, specifically of finishes, but also product forms. We are a small team, roughly about 50 people right now. We offer 77,000 catalog SKUs, and we see a future where we will be offering 7 million. We do this on a 10-day production lead time.

Michael Krigsman: How do you do that? That's extraordinary.

Theo Richardson: We are working to integrate our ERP website CAD platform and shopfloor so that the customer can configure and order a product that pings the engineering documentation. It hits the ERP platform and communicates to the shop floor. The shop floor can then access engineering documentation, basically building a bill of materials and instructions for assembly on the fly.

Michael Krigsman: You're proudly made in the U.S.A.

Theo Richardson: Yes, we are building products out of Industry City, Brooklyn. We're in a 10,000 square foot space here and this is the headquarters for our team. We have a showroom in Soho at 50 Greene Street.

Michael Krigsman: Jon, let's talk about this tension that sometimes exists between design and manufacturing constraints. Can you summarize that issue for us? What tends to happen in reality, down on the ground?

Jon Hirschtick: From where I sit with the customers I see, you have a lot of tension between design and manufacturing because, generally, designers like to think of things that sometimes can't be made or can't be made practically. They can't be made at cost. They can't be made at volume. They can't be made with the reliability that's needed. Quality is a big issue.

Consistency is sometimes an issue. It can be made, but the units will come out varying too much. They're all good individually, but they're not the same.

All kinds of problems come in. A lot of times, design and manufacturing knowledge is too separated and the communication paths are too separated. You get communication happening too poorly and too late. Then by the time you hit some collision, you have to compromise in some way that's just not ideal for anyone.

That's kind of a quick, high-level view of the kinds of issues I see coming up over and over again as I deal with the product developers of the world.

Michael Krigsman: Theo, you must bump into this all the time (or at least see this) given the nature of your business, which brings design and manufacturing so close together.

Theo Richardson: Yeah, I definitely second those thoughts about access and collaboration. One of the biggest costs, I think, for many companies is the idea of the time to market.

We think often in terms (maybe in the past) of sequential phases. What if you could run those concurrently? What if you could have various teams that work at the same time on different parts of the problem but aware of each other's work?

In terms of running a small team that's trying to tackle a big problem—a large-scale combination and the challenges that that presents—we think it's really important to be able to have visibility across our enterprise for different team members to see what each other are working on.

Team collaboration and the product engineering design process

Michael Krigsman: Given the importance of that, Theo, how do you establish that kind of collaborative and strong communication environment?

Theo Richardson: Yeah. Jon, you mentioned Google Docs. We've been on Google Docs pretty much since the inception of our business just about 12 years ago now.

This is the first time that we've seen a product that really is something similar to that collaborative way of working. I'm in the first paragraph, somebody else is in the third paragraph, real-time, live, editing collaboratively.

Michael Krigsman: Jon, I see you smiling. It must be great to hear a customer talking about your brainchild.

Jon Hirschtick: Yeah, it is. It's very rewarding to hear that, Michael. It's always very rewarding when I see people using our products. Anyway, I think all engineers and product developers get a special thrill out of people using their products, especially if they use them and like them, and especially if they use them and like them for the reasons that we aspire our products to be liked.

I like to think, in some ways, these digital collaboration tools bring us back to a world where maybe a company was around a table with a physical object in front of them and that kind of collaboration is now possible, even if we're distributed in multiple locations with team members who just met the day before (digitally) and never even seen each other face-to-face. They can work that way and that's what I think about when I hear Theo talking.

Michael Krigsman: Theo, all of this does not change the need to be very clear about the constraints of manufacturing as you're trying to design the most beautiful product possible and balancing cost, time, materials, manufacturing capabilities. How do you manage these conflicting goals? Are they even conflicting goals?

Theo Richardson: I think, at times, they are conflicting goals, but I think also of design as being the elegant solution and elegant response to the constraints. The constraints are what create the design.

The second thing I would point to is how to address those – the constraints. The designer may not always be aware of the constraints.

Figuring out who on the team will be responsible for advising on how to navigate the constraints is really critical. Then basically providing them with the context of the design, what you were trying to achieve, and getting their feedback as early as possible. Again, it just points to clear, open, transparent channels of communication that exist since the inception of the product, ideally.

Michael Krigsman: Essentially, you've got the designer who has a vision, has certain product goals in mind. You have the manufacturing expertise, and those folks understand the constraints. It's communication between these two groups (or these two folks) that allows the designer to achieve the optimal result.

Theo Richardson: Correct. That's where I think these future platforms, these tools that allow for greater collaboration, greater transparency, sharing, are really helping drive faster time to market and they're helping drive a more integral approach to the end result as well.

Jon Hirschtick: What I was really impressed with, with RBW—talking with Theo more about the business—was how much of a manufacturing company you are. I just didn't know.

If you look at your products—and I think people should because they're really, really cool—it's really fascinating to me, too, because that wouldn't be as obvious. Obviously, they have to be made, but one doesn't think as much about that if you just come to the website.

Design innovation and mass customization

Michael Krigsman: I totally agree. As I was looking at the RBW website and then layer on the mass customization that you're doing, I think it raises the question of how. How do you do this? I know you've alluded to this earlier but tell us how you accomplish these goals.

Theo Richardson: As far as achieving this fantastic offering, this very large offering of customization, we are trying to automate (as much as possible) the creation of bills of materials built on the fly. It really relies on data structures, which are built with the intent to be integrated. That the architecture is set up in such a way that it will match with relatively little required in the way of translation, and that there is a source of truth within the framework that might be one platform for a part of the business. I think it's really rethinking what do we need in the core platforms of an enterprise and how do we achieve really efficient and lean integration of the platforms.

Michael Krigsman: Theo, did you develop this system through a master plan? Did you do it organically? How did it come about?

Theo Richardson: It's organically come about. It's very much still something that we are working on. But the master plan or the framework that we have conceived of, it's in a process of validation now and we're pleased to report that we have achieved a high level of integration and connectedness between our shop floor and ERP. We have begun the connection and have successfully implemented some connection between our CAD platform and our ERP.

We're really also viewing the connectedness of our platforms as a way to also shape our, essentially, work culture so that we can create a feedback loop. We are manufacturing. We are assembling stuff just around the corner from where I'm sitting.

Culture change and the change management process

Michael Krigsman: You have integrated tools, processes. You're talking about feedback loops into your culture. Does all of this place constraints that make design more difficult?

Theo Richardson: Early on in the design process, we're also thinking about the metadata of each model, of each object. We're beginning to conceive of how that will be communicated through our inventory, essentially.

This three-dimensional model of this object, this digital representation of a part will essentially become the record in ERP, which is going to dictate inventory and at least be the kernel for the ERP metadata. We're kind of thinking of it as models in different platforms which, when tied together, augment the information.

An example is, put a fastener in CAD and what you're typically expecting to see is a part number, probably a description, and an image with threads. You'd be able to capture the height, length, width of a model as well.

Perhaps, in an ERP, what you're looking at is probably a part number, a description, where you're buying it from, how many you have on hand, but you might not have an image or some of the surrounding metadata.

What we're really looking at now is how those two things can be synced and merged and how that information can be bidirectional, ideally, between your various platforms. It's not a terribly new concept, but maybe not something that's very widely implemented. Probably, certainly not very often in a cloud-based environment.

Michael Krigsman: Jon, this breaking down of silos, of conceiving (at the beginning) all of the various parts and the information flows is at the heart of digital transformation. How is this different from—again, as we spoke earlier—historically, the way engineering and design manufacturing operated?

Jon Hirschtick: With digital transformation, I'll also offer the term digital thread, another term people are talking about. In the old world, it was paper-based documents. You had the same processes and problems, you just solved them with paper-based documents and a lot more on-site communication.

Today, I think the things that you look for in digital transformation is the digital system — is the system of record— and it creates a master, rich model. Then you have a digital thread is what I think Theo was talking about where everything is connected in a sensible way.

The other thing that I know is on Theo's mind is access, that that thread is accessible by all actors in the process. It's not siloed in saying, "Well, only the people who know how to use that tool can see it." Subject to the business policies of the company, obviously, you make it available to everyone in real-time.

It's a digital thread that connects all the humans to, if that makes sense. I think those would capture the key ideas – to my mind.

Michael Krigsman: What about the cultural dimensions of being able to work in an environment that has processes that assume the sharing of information in basically real-time?

Theo Richardson: Sure. In some real-world examples, I think that information—which has the intent to be shared but is not—is really only as good as the level of visibility that you can provide to it. For us, that means potentially our customer success team might field some (never happens) issue with a product. Missed a piece of hardware, for example. Why not provide this team with the training and then also the visibility into the documents to help correctly identify the issue?

Given a framework with the intent to share, then how do you actually go about sharing it? What tools can you use that enable that real-time access to the latest and greatest version of your data?

Michael Krigsman: You've built processes that assume the availability and immediate sharing of information. It sounds like it's core to your operations.

Theo Richardson: Absolutely. That's a huge part of what we're trying to do is empower our individuals to be leaders on our team. The information access is a fundamental component of that.

Advice for product designers and manufacturing engineers

Michael Krigsman: As we finish up, let me ask you both to share advice. First, Theo, give us advice for designers who are listening to this who say, "Yeah, this sounds great. I want to do that too." What should they do?

Theo Richardson: We found an entrepreneurial avenue for us to continue to explore design but, alongside that, we kind of had to question the boundary of what design was for us. We looked beyond not only design, but also begin to bleed that practice over into very operational considerations.

My advice to designers, I think, in this era of digital transformation is also to question where does design practice end and where does design practice need to begin to integrate with other operational aspects of a business.

Michael Krigsman: What advice do you have for manufacturers on working successfully with designers like you?

Theo Richardson: Budget time to explore new methods of working because I think that our industry won't advance without people operating from the same page. Allowing your organization to find time to experiment, to explore new ways of working is going to help us all achieve Industry 4.0.

Michael Krigsman: Jon, you're going to get the last word. What advice do you have for manufacturers who want to do well in this world of communication and tight coupling between design and manufacturing?

Jon Hirschtick: Well, right back to the agility. If you're a manufacturer—if you're not tightly coupled with design, whether you're doing the design or it's your customers doing the design—if you're not tightly coupled and you're not agile, you're not going to be in the pole position going forward. The power of that joint agility of design and manufacturing connection is a force that all manufacturers will either have to join that kind of thinking or get beaten by that kind of thinking in the future.

Michael Krigsman: Okay. Lots of words of innovation and inspiration and great advice. Theo Richardson and Jon Hirschtick, thank you so much for taking time to speak with us today.

Jon Hirschtick: Thank you, Michael.

Theo Richardson: Michael, Jon, thank you so much.

Published Date: Feb 16, 2021

Author: Michael Krigsman

Episode ID: 691