By Cindy Atoji Keene
Rick Chin’s bio on Twitter reads, “Trying to make products that matter. Would-be software inventor and long-time SolidWorks CAD guy.”
As director of product innovation at SolidWorks, Chin is a 3D design expert who is tasked with creating new technologies related to computer-aided design (CAD), a software tool that has replaced tedious pencil-and-paper drafting with powerful digital renderings. “It’s been used to design the ergonomic keyboard you may be using, prototypes for breast tissue reconstruction, skyscraper buildings and much more,” said Chin.
A product called “edrawings” was one of Chin’s first spinoffs, created after he heard frequent complaints about how difficult it was to send or receive drawings across different CAD systems – incompatible data files and slow Internet connections often made viewing difficult. He and his team devised a viewer that combined traditional 2D drawings and 3D models in a new way that not only solved the problem but allowing a traditional engineering drawing to be animated by hitting a “play” button. This was followed by other innovations, including a sustainability dashboard that allows users to design in a more environmentally responsible way by comparing the possible carbon footprint of producing a product. “I enjoy conceptualizing, prototyping, and launching new products,” said Chin, 46, who was trained as a mechanical engineer and has five patents from the product work he’s done over the years. “As a longtime CAD guy, making CAD easier and more powerful is near and dear to my own heart.”
Q: You’ve been working with CAD for almost 20 years. How has it changed?
A: Back in the 1990’s, solid modeling programs cost thousands of dollars per seat, and were only available on expensive Unix workstations. SolidWorks took very powerful drawing tools, made them easier to use, moved to the Windows desktop, and created 3D for the masses. Today SolidWorks has capabilities that include various simulations that can test motion capabilities, fluid-flow and thermal analyses as well as 3-D printing, and much more.
Q: How do you generate ideas and better understand customers?
A: When people think of innovation, they imagine some great new technology, and then do market research to gauge the reaction. Instead, my focus is to start surveying in a general way and create solutions for current problems. You need to have your radar up. I’ve trained myself to listen for a high level of emotional engagement, whether in a restaurant or walking down the street. Successful products are ones that transform someone’s feelings of helplessness and anger into feelings of empowerment. If you solve an inconvenience for people, they appreciate it, but if you solve a frustration for them, you’ll be their hero.
Q: What projects are you currently working on?
A: I’m very interested right now on how users interface with computers, including augmented reality, where images from the real world are augmented by computer-generated input. There are also new ways for people to interface with CAD systems rather than just a keyboard, mouse and computer screen, whether it be gestures, waving your arms, or jumping up and down.
Q: Have you always wanted to be an inventor?
A: I like to build and create; it’s the way I’m wired. I took drafting and programming classes and did well in them. My first computer was a Radio Shack TRS-80 that had 64 kilobytes of memory – today your basic digital watch has 10 times more computing power. I went to college for mechanical engineering because it was the closest thing to being an inventor, and I’ve been in the CAD industry ever since.
Q: Have you used SolidWorks for family projects at home?
A: I used it to design the sun room in my house. It was great because I could test out the space and see how the couches, chairs, and table would fit around the fireplace. There were challenges on the window placement for the room, because the addition had a non-standard roof angle. The contractors were stunned when they framed the sun room and everything laid out exactly where it should be, with the angles I told them to use.
Q: Where do you brainstorm?
A: Anywhere I can get myself to a relaxed state, which is the best way to let ideas flow. It can happen in the shower or while I’m strolling around. It’s tough to brainstorm at my desk. To think something through, I need to get rid of stress and strain.