Herman Miller Eyes IP Uses

October 10, 2003
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HOLLAND — A wheelchair featuring the seating design of the popular Aeron office chair is just one example of the kind of new applications Herman Miller Inc. is seeking for its product designs.

In searching for new markets and new revenue streams, the Holland-based office furniture maker 18 months ago formed what’s known as the “Creative Office,” a team of designers whose job it is to work on advanced projects, including identifying new commercial applications for Herman Miller’s intellectual property.

The team’s first success is the C2S Aeron, a motorized wheelchair from Swedish wheelchair maker Permobil Inc.

Financially, the C2S represents at best only a limited niche market opportunity for Herman Miller that can generate incremental sales and profits. Conceptually — and perhaps more importantly — it shows that the company is open to licensing out its designs for new applications and business opportunities, Creative Office chief Ken Munsch said.

“It’s a signal, in a sense, that Herman Miller is willing to discuss its intellectual property and designs for application to other uses,” Munsch said.

By actively seeking new uses for its intellectual property, Herman Miller wants to leverage existing investments, know-how, design expertise and tooling to add to the bottom line, even if in a small way via limited niche markets such as wheelchairs, Munsch said.

“There are opportunities and we’ll try to take advantage of them, but not with any kind of illusion that there are any kind of treasures in this,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for some incremental business and some incremental profit.”

Permobil Inc., which bases its U.S. headquarters in Lebanon, Tenn., unveiled the new C2S Aeron motorized wheelchair last week at a medical supplies convention in Atlanta. The patented Pellicle seating material that gives the acclaimed Aeron chair its unique, iconic look works well in wheelchairs because of the way it evenly distributes a person’s weight, reducing the potential for wheelchair users to develop sores, and because it allows air to circulate, preventing heat and moisture build up.

Other ergonomic features, combined with the comfort controls of Aeron, are “very unique and long overdue,” Permobil President Larry Jackson said.

“The world’s most acclaimed, high performance seating design is now available for everyone,” said Tom Rollick, Permobil’s vice president.

Though actively pursuing new markets for intellectual property, Herman Miller isn’t the first to look at different sectors and applications.

Steelcase Inc. has partnered with automotive supplier Johnson Controls Inc. to integrate the designs behind the Leap office chair into automotive seating.

Steelcase and Johnson Controls last January debuted a Jaguar equipped with Leap seating at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Beyond the C2S wheelchair by Permobil, Herman Miller is working on “a number of development projects that are in varying stages and we hope they will be successful,” Munsch said.

Munsch couldn’t offer specifics on any project, although applications such as theater and lecture hall seating “are being explored” as potential new applications for office seating designs. There is also the possibility for automotive and airline applications, although they pose significant design and engineering challenges.

Automotive seating, for instance, needs to withstand the impact of vehicle crashes and meet federal safety standards, Munsch said.

“There’s a number of different requirements relating to the safety elements, much less the development aspect,” he said.

Herman Miller is working with an unnamed automotive supplier to apply the design behind its PostureFit to an automotive use. PostureFit is a device Herman Miller introduced a year ago to provide better lower-back support in the Aeron chair, resulting in more comfort in the pelvis and hips.

At a time when the office furniture industry has struggled like never before, Munsch welcomes the new initiative. The arrangement with Permobil provided an opportunity to work on a project that can help people by providing those who need a wheelchair a higher degree of comfort, and has meaning beyond the business opportunity.

The project was a good fit for Herman Miller on both fronts, Munsch said.

“It’s a nice niche and there’s a good purpose for it,” he said. “It’s kind of been a labor of love.”           

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