AwardWinning Technical Ingenuity

August 12, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Imagine if steel-drivin’ folk hero John Henry had worked with the machine — the railroad’s steam-powered driver — instead of against it: Think of what they could have accomplished together.

In the office furniture industry, two companies have done just that.

Configura, a Sweden-based company with an office in Grand Rapids, and Details, a Steelcase company, both were recognized earlier this year at the NeoCon World’s Trade Fair. Configura won a Best of NeoCon Gold in the software technology category for its CET Designer Version 2.0; Details won an Innovation Award for its Walkstation.

The Walkstation’s journey truly began four years ago when Details made a move from “accessories” to furniture.

“We were contacted because of our understanding of ergonomics to assist this company in meeting their needs in a line of electric, height-adjustable work surfaces,” said Dave Kagan, director of marketing communications/product launch at Details. “So they kind of dragged us into it — happily.”

Height-adjustable tables continue to be Details No. 1 selling category, but the Walkstation is the company’s No. 1 attention getter — for better or worse.

“It’s really become an iconic product for us,” said Kagan.

Basically, the Walkstation is a height-adjustable table connected to a special commercial-grade treadmill, but it also comes in a “sit-to-walk” configuration transforming from a sitting desk to a standing station. The treadmill’s top speed is only two miles per hour.

“It is definitely not intended to be a cardiovascular exercise,” said Kagan. “It increases the endorphins in your brain, which helps stimulate creativity. It also helps energize you. It helps increase your focus. A lot of people like to get on it right after lunch.”

While Details makes the Walkstation, the initial idea for it belongs to Dr. James Levine, a Minnesota endocrinologist.

“He had spent about 10 years of his life conducting the most extensive research on the subject of obesity in America,” said Kagan. “He realized that while strenuous exercise is a good thing and can help reduce obesity, most people flat out simply don’t do it. He came up with the theory of non-exercise activity thermogenesis, called NEAT. It basically represents the amount of energy you burn while doing more everyday kind of activity — such as walking, gardening, playing guitar.

“His theory was, if we could just get people to do their normal kinds of everyday activities just on a regular basis, they would burn energy and lose weight. He said, ‘Where are most people not burning energy? It’s in the workplace, sitting on our butts.’”

He paired with Details, which put its knowledge-base and marketing behind his prototype, resulting in the Walkstation. While the design is fairly simple, marketing it so people would understand its intent was not. Some people saw the Walkstation as a gimmick.

“We really haven’t seen any trend or pattern about who’s purchasing this. We’ve got it at large companies and at very small companies,” said Kagan. “What we have seen is some companies bought them right away. But most companies took the ‘Whoa! Prove it.’”

So Details set up a 30-day trial system where companies could bring it in to the office and try it out. “We’ve heard from a number of people who said, ‘If you take it now, our employees would kill us,’” said Kagan.

Companies typically buy Walkstations in small quantities, often just one to begin with. Employees may “book time” on the machine, and Details has noticed that companies that buy one often end up buying another because the machines become overbooked by employees.

While NeoCon judges handed the Innovation Award to Walkstation, just as ingenious is Configura’s CET Designer Version 2.0.

CET, which stands for Configura Extension Technology, is a software program that does parametric graphical configuration, or PGC. That may be difficult to say, but how it works is incredibly easy.

The process works something like this: If a business wants to configure a new office space, it contacts an office furniture supplier. If that supplier uses CET, they are able to create fully illustrated 3D office layouts in a very short period of time, compared to the more commonly used CAD programs. The program shows the user what is possible and what is not, while automatically adding in all the little connecting pieces that make up an office space. The program also keeps a running total of costs for what is being created.

The program is well suited for office furniture layouts, where there are many components that go into the creation of a space. Both Haworth and Steelcase use CET Designer. Brandinger said the program would be useful for any industry that builds complex products with multiple variations.

“In the office furniture industry, it makes a lot of sense,” said Peter Brandinger, vice president business development for Configura. “We sort of originated out of the office furniture industry.”

Brandinger said that Sune Rydqvist, co-founder of Configura, used to have a company in Sweden that created panel systems. He did all of the work for office layouts manually.

“He had to draw lines and create drawings and had to count (each part),” said Brandinger.

Rydqvist asked his son, Gören, who was studying at the Linköping Institute of Technology for a Master’s of Engineering degree in computer technology, and his good friend Johan Lyreborn, who was studying the same thing, if there was a way to use technology to simplify all the drawings and calculations he was doing by hand. In 1990, Configura was formed.

The software, Brandinger said, helps designers spend more time designing rather than doing repetitive re-calculations as changes are made. It also simplifies and speeds up the sales process.

For a company to use CET Designer, its products must be programmed into the software. This means each company has a personalized version — and that means a substantial initial cost.

“It’s not that easy,” said Brandinger. “No one has all the data around the product, what it can and can’t do. It’s not stored anywhere. They have a lot of spec guides and books that contain a lot of information about how you put that furniture together, but it doesn’t have the rules that you need in order to make the software work. … We want the people that sell furniture — we want them to be creative, we want them to spend their time making solutions that add value to you as a customer.”

After the initial cost of programming a company’s products with each product’s variations and limitations, Brandinger said companies will save money over time, because they can now build upon that base. The program also saves money by making the sales process faster and more responsive to customers, making dealers more efficient and competitive. It also removes the cost of errors by doing calculations while the design is being created. Finally, because CET is so easy to use and visually oriented, it helps the communication process between designers, sales and the customer.

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