NeoCon: Sit-To-Stand Stands Up

June 18, 2007
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CHICAGO — Not more than two years ago, sit-to-stand workstations were a niche of a niche. Virtually unheard of in the American office but a standard in Europe, height-adjustable workstations have existed only as a specialty segment of the ergonomics accessory market.

In the past year, that has changed dramatically.

Steelcase Inc., Herman Miller Inc., Haworth Inc., American Seating Inc. and an array of other West Michigan firms either have launched or announced plans to launch height-adjustable workstations in the past 12 months.

American Seating launched Parlay Plus, an upgrade to its Parlay collection of tables that includes a pneumatic base.

"We want to support the move-ability of the office environment today," said Rick Arnold, American Seating national sales manager. "This is the way people work today."

Steelcase introduced its Airtouch adjustable-height table last year and is currently developing an updated model with heavier load-bearing capabilities, the Airtouch Plus. Herman Miller launched an adjustable-height laptop cart as part of its Herman Miller for Healthcare line. Haworth had plans to add a sit-to-stand option to its new Planes collection this year.

"The North American market is catching up to Europe, and the Europeans have had adjustable-height desks and tables for four or five years," said Brian Bascom, principal of Velocity Partners, a local consulting firm specializing in the furniture, health care and technology fields. "Everybody who doesn't already have adjustable-height products is now scrambling to have an entry into that market."

Details Inc., Steelcase's ergonomics specialty brand, is one of a handful of West Michigan companies — along with Altus Healthcare, Amneon, izzydesign, Hekman Contract and idea@work — already in the sit-to-stand market. Height-adjustable work surfaces are the fastest part of its business.

"We've been attacking this whole area of movement and mobility," said Edmund "Bud" Klipa, Details president. "We've become more sedentary in our lifestyle in general, just sitting there all day long, and that's not good for you. Research is showing that if you have the ability to raise your desk to a standing level for particular periods of time during the day, it is good in terms of things like skeletal disorders, fatigue and stress reduction."

The Center for Ergonomic Research at Miami University supports those claims, stating that "movement is required to promote blood flow to muscles and relieve fatigue resulting from static exertion," among other findings. Other studies found that adjustable workstations reduced injury claims by 50 percent — generating a return on investment in two years — and increased productivity by 2 percent.

Details has integrated sit-to-stand into current launches such as the AdjusTable Series 7.1 tables, the Series 3 table, and ShareLink 8 computer kiosk launch. The Series 7.1 might be called the Cadillac of sit-to-stand tables for its sheer hydraulic power. The table is believed to be the heaviest duty offering on the market, capable of moving an entire workstation upward and downward. With the exception of the smaller laptop carts made for the health care market and some specialty offerings from Hekman Contract, idea@work and other manufacturers, sit-to-stand workstations have predominantly been drafting tables with the ability to satisfy a seated position.

The extra weight capacity comes at a price, however, as the Series 7.1 lists for approximately $2,000 to $5,500, depending on accessories.

Details is also working to take the office worker's mobility a step further. In partnership with researchers at the Mayo Clinic, the firm is developing a "walking desk," which it hopes to introduce at the National Ergonomics Conference and Exposition in November. The walking desk is the brainchild of Mayo Clinic endocrinologist James Levine, who received national attention for his design of an office and workstation that incorporated a short track and exercise equipment.

Levine found that the sedentary lifestyle of the office worker was leading to widespread effects on a worker's metabolism and was a contributing factor to the nation's obesity epidemic. He also found that the effects could be reversed by integrating movement into the worker's daily regime, a process he calls "non-exercise activity thermogenesis," or NEAT.

The walking desk was a natural extension of the sit-to-stand business, Klipa said. It incorporates a sit-to-stand table, a wireless keyboard and mouse, a flat-screen monitor mounted on an adjustable arm — all adjustable above a slow-moving treadmill. It is not intended to be used at speeds of more than 1 to 2 miles per hour — any faster crosses the line between motion and exercise. Even at that pace, the average worker will burn an extra 800 calories during an eight-hour workday.

"This idea that you sit down at your desk and you're there for eight hours a day is really being challenged in the workplace right now," said Klipa. "We're moving toward more of an ambulatory office rather than a sedentary office."

The interest in sit-to-stand spells good news for Grand Rapids manufacturer SUSPA Inc., a supplier of pneumatic cylinders used in sit-to-stand products. The company has been showing its newest electronic lift system, ELS 2, along with its latest offering, the Varistan lockable gas spring.

"We're hoping the interest will continue," said Michael Schmidt, SUSPA sales and marketing manager for industrial operations. "Ergonomics is very big in Europe, but it hasn't caught on yet in North America. Hopefully, that will change soon."

Grand Rapids designer Thomas Newhouse is a pioneer of adjustable-height workstations. He designed SmartMoves, the first line of height-adjustable wood casegoods, for Hekman Contract in 2004. This year, he designed two height-adjustable systems: the metal NEXT product line for Baker Manufacturing, to be marketed in partnership with Herman Miller, and the Quin transactional desk for Harden Contract.

Quin, however, is not a sit-to-stand model. It is designed to allow for different-sized individuals to use the desk over time. A series of rings at the base of the desk determine its height. When a user needs the desk to be higher or lower, a facilities crew will lift up the desk and make the adjustment.

"This is really a green story," said Newhouse, noting that Harden manages its own forests. "It's forever grade. If you can adjust it, there will never be someone that it doesn't fit."

In its first exhibition at NeoCon, Stelter Partners won a Gold award in the Best of NeoCon competition for its Vanerum Collection, a portfolio of European K-12 desks, chairs and tables the Grand Rapids firm is distributing stateside. Some of the pieces in the collection are height-adjustable, but for the purpose of adapting to different physical heights, rather than posture.

"That's something you can't do with most desks in this country," said Jim Stelter, president of Stelter Partners.   

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