What is Cloud-Based Product Design?

As the world becomes increasingly connected through the cloud, product development tools must adapt to make life easier for designers. But what is cloud-based product development? How does it work? And how can you take advantage of its benefits? Industry pioneer Jon Hirschtick, shares everything you need to know.


Oct 21, 2021

As the world becomes increasingly connected through the cloud, product development tools must adapt to make life easier and more efficient for designers. But what is cloud-based product development? How does it work? And how can I take advantage of its benefits in my organization?

To learn more about cloud-based product design and development, we speak with industry pioneer Jon Hirschtick, who explains how to manage the product and engineering design process in the cloud.

We discussed these topics:

Jon Hirschtick, co-founder of Onshape and president of PTC’s Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) division. 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.


Jon Hirschtick: Agility is the new strategic asset of a product development organization. That's what the world is demanding no matter which industry you're in today.

About PTC Onshape and cloud-based design

Michael Krigsman: We're discussing cloud-based design with Jon Hirschtick, Executive Vice President of PTC and the Co-Founder of Onshape. Jon, tell us about Onshape and your areas of focus. What are you working on? What do you care about right now?

Jon Hirschtick: Onshape is the only SaaS product development platform that is architected for the cloud. Our customers use Onshape to model the products of the future (manufactured products, all sorts of them). I spend my time working on making our product better, reaching new customers, improving the service that we offer people (not only the product itself).

Michael Krigsman: Who are your customers; what types of companies, industries; and what are the roles, positions, or the job titles of the people that actually use Onshape?

Jon Hirschtick: Our customers are people who are designing products of all sorts: medical devices, toys, vehicles, you name it. They are titles like mechanical engineer, product development engineer, manager of engineering, VP of engineering, in some cases CTO, and in some cases CEO. It's really anyone who could be involved in designing and developing products of the future.

Michael Krigsman: When you talk about the design of products, elaborate on that. Give us a little bit on what kinds of activities your customers are performing with Onshape.

Jon Hirschtick: Any product that's manufactured today is essentially built twice. First, it's built in the computer to get the design right. Then it's built in the real world. Whether that's the chair you're sitting in or the machine that ground your coffee, chances are it was built in 3D in a computer first.

When someone is designing something, they're thinking about what is the shape of the product; how the pieces fit together; how they function; if they move, how do they move; how do they relate to each other. Really, product development is full of a million different variables, which is what makes it such a challenging and interesting part of our world.

Michael Krigsman: Really, it's a product development platform. Would that be an accurate way to describe Onshape?

Jon Hirschtick: Yes, it really is. Onshape is truly a product development platform. It does so much more than just CAD (which is typically the geometric modeling), but also data management, collaboration, analytics, control of access – all sorts of additional capabilities in our platform.

Cloud-based design and innovation

Michael Krigsman: How does being a product development platform help empower innovators? How do you help innovators do their job better?

Jon Hirschtick: Compared to all the tools, and particularly the earlier version of computing tools, Onshape lets engineers first of all access the tools much more easily without excessive costs and all kinds of wasted time setting up systems and installing things, networks, file servers, and things like that. We get rid of that part. Then we also let people work faster because you're a little freer to explore different ideas, which is what design is all about.

Also, we let people collaborate in amazing new ways. We can invite people into a project and not worry about them having to go through this big installation and setup of tools. But they jump right in on their Web browser, even their tablet or phone, and can join in the design activity. Can see it or, with proper access rights, edit it and keep track of all those edits.

What you want in design is you want a very fast iterating, creative process where there's almost this bubbling of ideas through a group of people. Onshape gives you a way to do that.

Michael Krigsman: Jon, bridge a gap for me. You've just described efficiency of design, efficiency of the process, but creativity and innovation don't necessarily arise from efficiency.

Jon Hirschtick: No, they don't. Creativity and innovation arise from people thinking about the needs of the product that they're building; the needs of the ultimate user of the product they're designing; and intersecting that with ideas about potentially how to make that product better for that user. It's a trial and error process, very creative, very iterative.

Cloud-based product engineering and team collaboration

Michael Krigsman: Jon, you mentioned cloud. Cloud has come to take on so many meanings. What does full cloud mean to you?

Jon Hirschtick: Well, full cloud means to me that you fully embrace the potential of a cloud-based system to deliver the full set of benefits possible. What we do is we use cloud to rethink the whole system.

It's kind of like the difference between using a battery in a car and saying, "Well, I've got an electric car because I have a battery that starts it." Well, I suppose you could consider that an electric car. Or say, "We're rethinking the whole car to be all-electric," and that's kind of what we do with the cloud here at Onshape.

But again, no one should really care how it's built. What they should care about is what are the benefits. Only a full cloud solution can provide the benefits that we provide.

Michael Krigsman: You rethink the way designers work together, that entire end-to-end process. Is that the key here?

Jon Hirschtick: Yes, we rethink. We've kind of looked at the problems our customers, product developers have. We visit them, and we understand their problems. We say, "How could we use the cloud to fundamentally solve it?

I'll give you an example. Customers would complain to me about how hard and time-consuming it was for them to install CAD software and other software that would go into a product development suite or platform. Given that problem, hearing it from the customer, one approach would be to say, "Well, we could simply install the software from the cloud and that would be a little faster. Maybe that's 20% faster, and there you go."

Our approach was to say, "How could we eliminate installation?" if you've used a tool like Gmail, you don't install it. You speed up the installation by 100%. You eliminate it completely.

Michael Krigsman: Jon, when you were developing Onshape, was rethinking this design process explicitly part of your planning?

Jon Hirschtick: We were rethinking the product design process, but really what we were trying to do was make the product development toolset match the product design process that we felt our customers wanted to do, the way they would do it naturally if they didn't have to use tools. We're trying to free them to enable them to work in the way that they already want to do, but the old tools would force them into these weird workflows. We're enabling a new way for product developers to work with a new generation product development toolset.

Engineering culture change and the future of work

Michael Krigsman: Jon, so often you use the term "collaboration." Why is that so important to this cloud-based way of working?

Jon Hirschtick: Because it's important to our customers because design is typically a team sport. People work together in teams in developing new products, not just the team of the product developers themselves where there might be anywhere from 2 to 20 people, 50 people, 100 people involved in a new product design, but it's also the extended team of people who are stakeholders in that design. It could be people who work in manufacturing, executive management, marketing people, service people, customers, vendors. It's very common you'll have vendors involved in product development.

You end up with this huge group of stakeholders who all deserve to see product development data in a product development platform. They all deserve to participate in that process. With Onshape, they can.

Michael Krigsman: As you talk with your customers, especially the folks that have been around for a while, do they adapt easily to this new way of working?

Jon Hirschtick: Yes, I think our customers mostly do adapt very well to our new way of working with Onshape. Many of them will look at Onshape and say, "Ah! Of course, this is how it always should have been." They realize that the way they used to work was wrong.

Certainly, you get people who are further along in their careers who just don't want to change. I was around in this industry when people were working on paper, and they would say, "Well, we don't want to stop drawing on paper. We want to keep doing that. We don't want to use a computer."

For the most part, I think people embrace it pretty well. Once they're exposed to the benefits and really the natural way of working that we offer, most of them feel they could never go back.

But your earlier career people, cloud is the natural way to work. You see that when you're a parent. They're used to doing more work on tablets and mobile devices. They're used to tools like Gmail, Slack, and Google Docs that they're using in school, and Microsoft Teams that are really very collaborative, cloud-based. Even tools like Zoom encourage collaboration and don't encourage older file-based workflows.

Michael Krigsman: Jon, what is it about cloud-based platforms that drive collaboration?

Jon Hirschtick: I think, with a cloud-based platform, it drives collaboration for a couple of reasons. One, Michael, is you can use the platform.

In order for someone to collaborate with the platform, they have to be able to use it. We've dramatically lowered the bar to get a new user in to use it because you're not worried about what hardware they have, installing things, or whatnot. The first thing is access is the minimum buy-in for collaboration.

The second thing is we put all the data in a database in one central location, so everyone can look at the same data in real-time, even as it changes. This is an enormous aid for collaboration. You get the feeling it's as if a team that's globally distributed around the world, they can work as if they're sitting around a table together looking at a 3D object.

Finally, it also promotes collaboration because it makes you fearless when it comes to change because, in a full cloud platform like ours, you can always go back to any previous state. You're not saving or auto-saving, overriding earlier things.

You can always say, "Wait a minute. Let's go back to the way that was ten minutes (or ten hours or ten days) ago." You can always go back to that state. You can see exactly where you were and say, "Let's back up a little." So, it makes you fearless about changes in a good system.

Cloud computing, business efficiency, and team performance

Michael Krigsman: How does the cloud drive business efficiencies? I've spoken with your customers and they care a lot about that as well.

Jon Hirschtick: The first is cost savings. Everyone wants to save money and time. When you're not worried about the costs of the computer and when you can use just about any computer, that's a cost-savings when you're not spending time installing and maintaining servers for file storage, backing them up.

Securing them, these days, is a huge issue. How much energy are companies spending securing their systems against things like ransomware and so forth? That costs money and time.

People waste a lot of time with the old systems figuring out versions, copying files, and so forth. Then they waste time communicating, waiting for people to send them information. All of those things, the costs, people's time spent in labor, people's time spent waiting for each other, all of those are efficiencies that add up in a big way.

Michael Krigsman: Also, the security aspect, if you don't keep your software up-to-date and fully patched, you're at risk.

Jon Hirschtick: Yes, absolutely. The operating system needs to be patched. The application software needs to be patched.

Honestly, it's very hard for the average business, the average product development business to keep up with state-of-the-art information security the way we can. As a larger organization, we can invest more in it than all but the very most sophisticated customers out there.

Michael Krigsman: I think now the market understands more, generally, the truth of what you just said that except for the largest companies, the very largest companies in the world, there's no way they can have the level of safety and security that you have in your data center.

Jon Hirschtick: I think most firms' data protection strategies are very, very low security. It involves personnel. A lot of personnel have access. Now, the number one security risk is typically inside of personnel having access, uncontrolled access – laptops.

A customer will talk to me. I'll say, "You put your design data on laptops, yet they go home with your employee at night." Even a well-meaning employee visits one wrong website and that's it. The data has been compromised. There are so many ways that the security levels in most companies are really fairly low. Unfortunately, it's being exploited through ransomware and other attacks.

Michael Krigsman: Jon, let's shift gears and talk about the future of design. What can designers and innovators do to improve both design outcomes as well as business efficiencies?

Jon Hirschtick: Be agile. Agility is the new strategic asset of a product development organization. COVID has certainly taught us that.

If business is good, you had a huge spike in demand for your products, you maybe had to rethink your supply chains. You need to be agile. Think about how you can move quickly, how you can iterate quickly.

I wish I could say it's just a toolset. It's not. You can get our platform; that doesn't make you an agile organization. You need to think about how you work in your processes, your people, your mentality, how you can compress your time cycles, try more ideas faster, make shorter-term adjustments to your plans. That's what the world is demanding, I think, no matter which industry you're in today.

Remote work and product design in the cloud

Michael Krigsman: We're in a world where hybrid work is becoming the norm, work from anywhere, work from home. What are the implications for product designers?

Jon Hirschtick: For product designers, working from home presents special challenges because a lot of product designers have to work with hardware. They have to see prototypes. They have to feel them. They have to fit things together. We can give them better and better computer tools to work with, but that's a challenge for people.

That being said, the better your computer tools are, the less physical mockups you have to do. So, the premium when you're dealing with a hybrid work environment, the premium has gone up for having great processes and great tools to support them.

We think a lot of our customers feel that a hybrid work environment matches perfectly with a full cloud product development platform. In fact, it so obviously matches up, it almost doesn't even need to be discussed. It's so obvious why you'd want to have a full cloud platform for hybrid work situations.

Michael Krigsman: What are your customers telling you when it comes to their work environments and working in the cloud, and the things that they're having to do to be agile and adopt changes like you were just describing?

Jon Hirschtick: I think most customers agree with me that they just don't know anymore what's going to be around the next corner. There's a wave of feeling that things would go back to normal after a while. But as we're seeing in our new COVID world, it's hard to know when we'll be back to normal or what the new normal will be.

What they're saying is that cloud solutions are working well for them. Employees can use them at home. They have tremendous security capabilities.

By the way, with a full cloud architecture, data stays in a database in one central place in the cloud. It never gets copied to a local computer, so you can access it from your home computer, but you don't get a copy on the home computer. Every access is logged. It's so much saver, and so they can proceed with confidence and security, and employees can use whatever computing devices they happen to have at home.

Advice for product designers

Michael Krigsman: You've been a tech pioneer and a cloud visionary. You literally invented this product category that's now so widely used. What advice do you have for product designers, for innovators in how they can be successful in this very rapidly changing world in which we find ourselves?

Jon Hirschtick: Be agile. Understand that the world is changing faster than it's ever changed before.

Two is, understand that we always feel like the computing revolution, the digital journey has happened. You feel like, "Well, computers, everyone has one." Then you discover, "No. I thought everyone had one, but now everyone really has one."

We're going through a new generation of digital solutions that create enormous opportunities for people. Digital is transforming many things. As we say at PTC, digital is transforming the physical world. The toolset we make is part of that story.

I think you have to have an ability to visualize solutions to your problems and your customers' problems using an in-depth understanding of the art of what's possible with modern technology. Digital and full cloud is a very, very significant part of that tech, but not the only area.

Michael Krigsman: Embrace cloud, be agile, adopt new ways of working and collaboration, and go forward with that spirit of open-mindedness to change.

Jon Hirschtick: Yes.

Michael Krigsman: Jon Hirschtick, thank you so much for taking time to talk with us. I really appreciate it.

Jon Hirschtick: Well, Michael, it's a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.

Published Date: Oct 21, 2021

Author: Michael Krigsman

Episode ID: 726