ROBRADY at CUSP - Talking About the Design of Everything
The Cusp Conference is about the “Design of Everything”. Its not just about design, its really about the experience you get from an auditorium full of energetic thinkers and doers from around the world interacting with 20 presenters for 20 minutes each. This year I was asked to be one of those presenters. I chose a personal story. The story of ROBRADY design and the Vectrix Corporation goes back many years– and many, many adventures… this is but one of them.
As the ROBRADY Powersports video came to an end and the music slowly faded to silence, the full-stage projection screen went up high enough for me to come onto stage while riding a Vectrix electric maxi-scooter. What was not completely apparent at the time was that the stage was a bit slicker than I remembered from rehearsal and the adrenalin was probably racing a bit more than anticipated. So, as I gunned it back stage and the rear end of the scooter proceeded to brake loose and began to swing out from underneath me, I adjusted the steering, flew into the focused spotlights, and let off the throttle as I jammed on the rear brake– leaving a generous amount of tread across the remainder of the stage. Bottom line- it must have looked good from the audience! What else matters?
Wow! It’s great to be in Chicago! Riding this bike never gets dull. Riding this bike on stage definitely never gets dull…
For those that may not know, this is a 100% electric scooter. It has a top speed of 62MPH, a range of 40-50 miles (depending on terrain and the need for speed) and, it is one very quick ride. Seriously, the electric motor is attached directly to the rear wheel and once you move the throttle, there is no delay- you're off to the races. It’s also important to note that this is the first, commercially available, scooter of its kind. It is legal to ride on any road in the world- this is serious electric, zero emission transportation. And, this is available today!
To be perfectly honest, whenever I’m speaking to a group, I’m always selling- ALWAYS. My studios, our creative capabilities, you know- sell, sell, sell… “Got to respect the payroll”… However, for now, that’s truly the furthest thing from my mind. For that, I want to thank Dave Mason, Greg Samata and Kevin Krueger for the invitation to speak here today and everyone at CUSP for the tremendous hospitality- Thank you.
Today, I’d like to talk about this maxi-scooter and the story behind it … A very personal story
As you saw from my video, I’ve designed a number of products. But this one is special- very special. The story of this scooter and the program that launched it is a story about the love for design– a story about passion for beautiful forms. And, what story wouldn’t be complete without tragedy and heartache? … but more on that later.
This particular story starts in Pasadena California – at the Art Center College of Design, where I graduated many life times ago. I survived the grueling all nighters that were an all too regular event, and through it all I gained a world-class education that was the springboard for what was to become my first company, ROBRADY design.
After I graduated, I landed what one might consider as every young man’s dream job— designing boats for Cigarette Racing in Miami Florida. Yes, there actually is a “Cigarette Racing Team”. Remember “Miami Vice” and all the cool go-fast boats? Well, that was my mission out of Art Center and project number one was this little guy— 42’ long, 8’ wide, five seats, and twin 1000+HP engines arranged in staggered formation. This is a rush like none other. I’ve had fighter pilots ask for rides— really. And as for green… well, not so much. But I was young. I thought I was on top of the world… and then– the recession of 1990 hit. Anyone remember that one? It might pale in comparison to our current situation, but it knocked me out and I thought I was down for the count. It was a very low time for me personally. Things went dark… very dark…
As fate would have it, I moved to Sarasota, Florida- why? I literally have no idea why – it just seemed like a nice place to land at the time (and it truly was). With no clients – no projects – I did what every young, unemployed designer does. And “no”, I didn’t start working at ‘Starbucks’.
What I did do was to hire myself– and thus ROBRADY design truly began. With my energetic passion for design and in an effort to legitimize my world, I assigned myself projects with radical deadlines— mind you fictitious deadlines with fictitious clients, which would require me to pull all nighters (really) so that I would feel engaged. “Alive” as a designer… Fortunately, this actually paid off and I began to build my design business – one client at a time.
As I started getting real clients, I landed a great one— Yamaha! I ended up designing their first jet boats and a number of WaveRunners. It was a very exciting time with a lot of great people and a whole lot of fun!
Then, one day, about one life-time ago, as luck would have it, I received a group of visitors to my rather new studio. You see, a group had come down from Rhode Island to look at some very special Electric Vehicle technology that belonged to the company in the building next to mine. Those friends of mine (“EV Rider”) told the Rhode Island company (at the time called “Breeze Acquisitions”) about their neighbor who was doing fantastic work for the mighty Yamaha .
Well, if I was doing Yamaha work, I must be good— perhaps I could design their new electric scooter? This is where the young entrepreneur / designer enters and says—“ABSOLUTELY… Not a problem… love to do it… Got lots of ideas on the subject!”
Now, I should confess that I’d never been on, let alone designed, a scooter before. But who was I to say anything to the contrary… “Have sketch pad, will travel…" And thus this adventure began.
After several years of working closely with what was to become the “Vectrix Corporation” we were ready to take on the world and develop our first vehicle. But where did it start? …. Well, with this little sketch— … this little sketch launched me on an adventure I wouldn’t trade for the world.
Our design program started with a lot more sketches, a few tons of clay, and about a billion hours of love, sweat and tears. Well, no tears, but it was a lot of sweat! We worked on top of an actual frame to make sure we were clearing all the “hard points”. We sat on it in every possible way and were constantly honing the ergonomics, the mechanical clearances, and the lines, the lines, the lines! The lines and forms had to be perfect! The challenge was to create beautiful forms without crashing into all those batteries we were trying to conceal. We tried to imagine how it would work. And for that matter— would it work?
As the clay model was completed, we first digitized then rebuilt the design in the computer. I now had a mechanical engineering department that was on the task. It was a great time at the studio— well, let's say it was an interesting time at the studio.
Everybody pitched in and helped with anything that needed to be done. We all joined the Rapid Prototyping department and became builders, sanders, painters, and welders. This was a project that brought wives and friends in at night to help out—sanding, prepping, whatever, to meet the insane deadlines. My wife (who is a fantastic graphic designer, an awesome chef, and in the audience today) brought in meals: crock pots of chili, spaghetti, soup, sandwiches, muffins in the morning, anything to keep the team focused and alive! Focus, focus, focus!
Well, up to this point in my career, I could always point to an event or two at Art Center that defined pain as I new it. My Art Center experience defined what it was to deliver on impossible deadlines. That was-before this. This program did it for me, nothing before and (thank god) nothing since has ever been so difficult – or, put me under so much pressure! … We were now working around the clock to hit our deadline!
You see, for me, I was constantly getting calls from the Officers at both Vectrix and Parker Hannifin— our 12 Billion dollar development partner. All very, very concerned that I wasn’t going to be done for the Miami Fuel Cell Symposium deadline (November 3rd, Monday, 2003… 5pm… sharp)! I remember thinking back to the days when I first took on the job of designing scooters– what would the entrepreneurial / designer say? I told them all, “it takes time to get it right and we were right on schedule. Get out your best suits for Miami and be ready to take center stage with the talk of the show- no doubt about it!” Then, I would proceed to throw up.
Well, not really– but I can say I felt like I’d been run over more than once. I honestly wasn’t sure what I’d do if I missed hitting this deadline! One could leave the country— but Parker is a global Fortune 500, where do you hide from that? More to the point, what was I to say to (literally) all my other clients who had been graciously put on hold for a month or two? (While the entire studio focused solely on Vectrix- talk about “all in and let it ride”!). What was I to say to all the people in the studio who were working day and night to make this radical deadline? Talk about pressure! Time to take my own medicine… Focus, focus, focus. Yea, I’m not sure that was working anymore, but the only feeling worse than all the mounting pressure was the “concept” that I might miss a major deadline. Now, that was daunting!
Well, nothing like basic fear, sleep deprivation, a ton of talent (not me mind you, my team!), and the fear of having to avoid the reach of Parker by relocating to a small island in Antarctica to keep one focused on hitting deadline.
We pushed the scooters into a waiting van at 10 AM on the morning following the last all-nighter– on the day of the show. I remember passing out on the cement of my parking lot and how great it felt– like a bed of feathers. I could have fallen asleep right then as if I was in the Palace of Versailles.
But – it just wasn’t in the cards for me. Oh, no, no, no– somebody had to get to Miami for the Premier!
My wife drove me and the projects’ lead prototyper, Radar (yes, when you’re a celebrity builder, one name will do), four hours to the show. Nearing arrival in Miami I said that I just wanted to go to the hotel and crash out— for about a month. Well, right then, Peter Hughes, Chief Technical Officer and VP of Engineering for Vectrix phoned me in the car. “You must come to the show!” My heart sank— I didn’t have an ounce left to give. I would have been rejected at any blood clinic for being on empty. What more could he possibly want now? Well, Peter caught his breath and went on to say that I “had” to come to the show to experience the rave reviews the bikes were getting and I’d regret it forever if I missed out. Everyone loves it! Get over here!
Well, this is where the (very tired) entrepreneurial / designer wakes up (just) long enough to say— “ABSOLUTELY… Not a problem… love to do it… Got lots of ideas on the subject!!!” Zzzzzzzzzzz……
Yea, it was a great opening…. Peter’s comments were right on target– we were the hit of the show. And, Yes, we had met the deadline.
Now lets fast-forward a bit. Based on the prototypes we had built for Miami, we went on to the production level design work. We refined the design, sharpened the forms, honed the ergonomics, engineered every single body panel to the “nth” degree. We developed the industrial and mechanical design for the lighting systems, and worked very closely with the truly incredible team at Vectrix to test, coordinate, homologate, and prepare the billion or so details for the bike to enter production… and so it did.
As a side note, during this period of time, I became a father. I’m not going to say that this was quite like that, but I will say it’s an incredible feeling to finally see every ounce of my love for design and my passion for beautiful forms roll down the assembly line with so many people, working so very hard, to make each and every one just right. It’s just incredible.
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned, a story like this has many chapters. I just wasn’t expecting the next chapter to be Chapter 11— thus the tragedy. Although Vectrix filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this month, the bright side is that there are several groups vying to capture this product and re-launch the company. That is the true power of this design, this product– this fantastic vehicle.
In closing, I love this scooter (I said it was personal), because my team helped bring it to life. We drew it, we sculpted it, and more importantly, I believe ROBRADY design became what it is today because of this ride. There have been many designs that I’ve created, but there has been no other project that fueled me to grow, to develop as a designer, or pushed me so far beyond my wildest imagination. I owe a lot to this little electric scooter…