The office chair. There's not much to it really—a back, seat cushion and strong legs upon which it is designed to support the body—which has made the seat little more than an afterthought for most of us, even though we spend countless hours each day sitting—either at a desk or conference table. To the developers and engineers at Herman Miller (www.hermanmiller.com), the chair is a tool that helps improve productivity, health and inspires creativity. For generations the Zeeland, MI-based company has been reinventing the chair through innovative designs: the Ergon (1976), Equa (1984) and Aeron (1994).
"Every ten to twelve years we set out to reinvent the task chair," says John Aldrich, Herman Miller's vice president of product development engineering, whose team spent more than four years creating their latest seating reinvention: the Embody. "We really started from scratch, especially when it came to the seat and the back. I said since the first day of this project that we needed to reinvent the seat and the back," Aldrich adds. What's so innovative about Embody and what can the auto industry learn from it? Take a look:
Independent designers Jeff Weber and the late Bill Stumpf—co-designers of the Aeron, Ergon and Equa chairs—approached Herman Miller executives about creating a chair that would improve the mental health and physical performance of workers tied to their computers for extended periods each day. (Herman Miller does not have any full-time designers on staff; the company relies on outside design consultants to develop innovative ideas.) "Accommodating technology at the expense of people has become the priority in creating work environments," says Weber, who wanted to turn that equation on its head. They extensively studied the motions of the human body using the Civilian American and European Surface Anthropometry Resource Project (CAESAR) along with research from the University of Michigan to develop a chair that would work in harmony with the human body. Design execution required extensive use of digital tools; the master model for the seat and back had more than 10,000 features.
Typical work chairs use cushioned backs to provide support for the spine; most of the time this approach is imprecise and cannot be tailored to the individual user, resulting in back strain. To resolve this, the Embody team studied how windshield wipers hug glass throughout the operating cycle. thinking it would be advantageous to focus on developing a material that would bend and flex while supplying maximum support for various body shapes and sizes. The idea required development of a specific elastomer to accommodate the durability and customization necessary to provide maximum back support. "To form fit the contour to a custom contour we had to come up with a flexible geometry so each of the beams is specifically designed and individually tuned to twist and bend with each part of the back—there are micro-adaptations going on constantly," says Aldrich.
During the initial development phase, engineers had planned to reuse the materials on the back for seat cushion support. Early development mules proved that solution wouldn't work because the elastomer was too pliable and couldn't keep the body centered. That problem required a completely new design configuration resulting in a four-layer solution that mimics human flesh. The bottom layer is constructed from a proprietary material that allows for expansion and contraction without creeping; the middle layers contain elastomeric springs, each with their own equation and force deflection characteristics; while the top fabric features a pixilated design that has its own geometry to re-orient itself after each use. This complex layer combination required some out-of-the- box thinking when it came to assembly, as Aldrich explains: "The bottom layer has about 80 connection points and that layer is plastically deformed but elastically strained in order to get all of those holes to line up for assembly. So we had to figure out how all those holes lined up when the material is stretched during the process—it's very precise and is done in 45 seconds."
Embody's Automotive Lesson
Before joining Herman Miller more than a decade ago, John Aldrich, vice president of product development engineering, worked in seating at both a major automotive supplier and an OEM. He says the auto industry can learn a lot from his company and the Embody, especially when it comes to innovation. He acknowledges several automakers have had designers visit Herman Miller’s design barn facility in Holland, MI, to take a gander at the Embody, and he expects a few of the technologies used in the chair to make their way to future vehicle interiors—particularly the seat cushion design. Still, he says automakers have a long way to go when it comes to being truly innovative in seating.
“When I was in the auto industry, whenever something innovative like [the Embody] came up, the ‘why we shouldn’t do it’ comments were overwhelmed by the questions of how could we do it. The industry is just too conservative,” he says. One of the biggest changes he says automakers have to make is encouraging buy-in from all of their people, starting with the design staff through to production engineering: “In the auto industry, a lot of the people who do the invention aren’t the people who do the execution and that’s a problem.” Herman Miller’s approach relies on outside designers to present ideas and they eventually get to lead the project through the entire process from engineering and supplier discussions, to production finalization. He says the auto industry has to move past the age-old thinking that relies solely on foam and fabric seating into new materials and designs that improve space utilization and enhance interior design. “What about when the world is no longer foam and fabric?” he asks.