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After COVID-19: Where is product development headed?

A global pandemic begets innovation for industry-leading software-as-a-service engineers—and real solutions for real people.

As the novel coronavirus continues its global devastation, with nearly 300,000 deaths and economic tumult, it’s not hyperbolic to say things will never be the same. However, it doesn’t mean things can’t improve down the road. Finding silver linings at the moment isn’t easy, but there are people in the product development world working together—even though they’re apart—utilizing collaborative intelligence to help groups solving problems directly related to the virus.

Jon Hirschtick, president, SaaS business, at PTC and founder of Onshape

Jon Hirschtick, president, SaaS business, at PTC and founder of Boston-based Onshape, now a PTC business, is one such engineer making a difference in the fight against COVID-19. PTC's Onshape, the first pure software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform that unites computer-aided design with powerful data management and collaboration tools, is the only product development platform that’s architected for the cloud. This enables engineers to design products on demand and collaborate in real time without being tethered to a machine or device. The technology is being used to assist organizations like MasksOn, a nonprofit effort to mass-produce reusable, sanitizable emergency-use face shields for medical purposes and distribute them to clinicians who lack access to federally approved equipment. It’s just one of the initiatives the remote employees of Onshape (acquired in 2019 by PTC for $470 million) are working on during the pandemic.

We talked to Hirschtick about working at breakneck speeds, aiding in the manufacture of ventilators in El Salvador, and how the ingenuity of medical professionals will change supply chains.

Q: COVID-19 has obviously had a devastating impact on the global economy. What have we learned about how businesses can adapt to these massive challenges?

A: In the product development field, we’ve learned how quickly teams can form and get to work. Multiple people in different locations can instantly join a team and work together to create products through various iterations at a pace unimaginable in normal times. Think of it like a car driving at 55 mph getting off at the next exit: Now, all of a sudden, we’re going 150 mph without established roads. It’s forcing people to focus on the fly, but once you know you can safely go that fast, it's not going to stop after the crisis is over.

Q: What was Onshape’s role in the MasksOn project?

A: Onshape had two roles in the MasksOn project. The obvious one was providing a platform for teams around the world to use for development and management of projects, which is our day job. Since the pandemic hit, everyone's focusing their attention on how to be hyper-agile and hyper-innovative. That’s our sweet spot, so we were able to take on a second role: volunteering. We jumped in wherever we could. I’ve done fundraising, advising, and recruiting. Others have participated in the engineering and manufacturing of masks, as well as shipping and logistics.

Q: As engineers and manufacturers try to come up with COVID-19 solutions in record time, what innovations have impressed you the most?

A: The Rise Emergency Ventilator from the Boston-based company Meter has the combination of the speed and cost advantage of a garage startup with a level of professionalism ensuring patient safety that’s cool to see. There’s also a ventilator being made in El Salvador—a critical technology in a location where you can’t meet with people to hand out computers or install software.

Q: Has there been another period in time with a similar burst of innovation?

A: The one that sticks out to me is the American space program of the 1960s. I was a kid when President Kennedy said we would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Those rocket launches are part of the reason I have an engineering career today. I was deeply inspired. It’s important for kids to understand the role science, technology, and engineering play in solving problems, like keeping people on the front line of the pandemic safe.

Q: You played blackjack with the MIT 21 team. Did anything from your card-playing days help you grapple with the pandemic?

A: What I learned playing blackjack is: Most people don’t have a good feel for how long the run at the table is. People overgeneralize from a small sample size, which is what we're seeing now. Some say, ‘Oh my gosh, everyone in the world is getting the illness,’ which isn't true. Others say, ‘We’re all set, we’re fine now, the number of cases went down,’ which isn’t wholly accurate either. As a member of the blackjack team, you learn [that] winning or losing a few hands in a row doesn't mean as much as you think about how well you're playing. It's the long run that counts.

Q: In terms of engineering innovation, what would you like to see in the aftermath of the pandemic?

A: Supply chains need to be completely rethought so countries don’t have to wait around for shipments of life-saving supplies from other countries. I think there will be a stronger focus on local resiliency. Isolation and remoteness have fostered the development of protective and medical gear that’s not going away. A doctor told me that, on an ad hoc basis, they started taking all of the instruments, IV drips, equipment, etc. typically found in a patient’s room and moving it outside for safety. Medical professionals are using socket wrenches, plastic tubing, and plexiglass to protect the patient and clinician.

Decentralized efforts are succeeding in many ways, but COVID-19 is having serious implications for so many industries that product development needs to respond in a way that benefits all of society. I hope more of our energies will be devoted to understanding what we share in common. I’m optimistic the reset button has been hit, and it will be a climate ripe for entrepreneurship and innovation. After this horrible COVID-19 crisis diminishes and we finally get to the other side, there's going to be a golden era of reshaping society for the better.