BOSTON — The project was code-named Emma, after a designer's grandmother, but it no longer is a closely guarded secret in the halls of Herman Miller Inc.
Herman Miller, an office-furniture maker with a reputation for flashy design, had worked 14 months to develop a landmark for its industry and for plastics in general. The Holland, Mich.-based company wished to produce the first all-plastic office workstation. More than merely a desk, the system would include a computer tray, pullout shelves, adjustable table legs and a swinging side table.
Nothing on that scale had been introduced to the consumer market, said Don Karaus, design and development project engineer. The furniture maker was working with a short time line: The company wanted to show initial concepts in June at NeoCon, a high-profile office-furniture show in Chicago that attracts thousands of potential buyers and media.
From there, the goal was to develop a prototype workstation by early this year, in time for Structural Plastics '99, held last month.
But Herman Miller faced a major wall in the way of progress. In a world ruled by sturdy steel and aluminum workstations, plastics had never taken a lead role, Karaus said.
``We wanted to create something structural, lightweight and durable, creating a feeling of openness,'' Karaus said in an interview April 20 at the Structural Plastics show in Boston. ``But in the past, we couldn't do this with injection molded plastic. The tooling costs alone would have been astronomical.''
The U-shaped desk stretches more than 4 feet on both sides and integrates complex fasteners, clips and shelving units.
The production-cost answer was a move to structural web technology. Herman Miller worked with molder Horizon Plastics Co. Ltd. of Cobourg, Ontario, to make the desk on its structural web press with a clamping force of 750 tons.
By shooting gas behind the material, the firm was able to make the large, precision parts fairly easily, said Horizon Vice President Brian Read. The web process also added structure to the parts and provided a smooth writing surface with few sink marks, he said.
Using the web process also helped lower the workstation's price tag. The cost of the plastic desk is similar to that of metal, Karaus said.
``This is an application well-suited for structural web,'' Read said. ``The challenge to us, and to Herman Miller, was finding the right design and materials for the manufacturing process. We hadn't attempted anything like this before.''
The head-turning design, which attracted stares at Structural Plastics, was the work of two outside designers commissioned by Herman Miller: Britain-based Ross Lovegrove and San Francisco-based Stephen Peart.
Their collaboration resulted in a desk system that was 50 percent lighter than its metal counterpart, and that provided flexibility to reconfigure the space for different uses.
The product was designed for ``high churn,'' Karaus said, referring to a workstation that can be moved and reconfigured easily.
Material choice also was crucial. Herman Miller wanted the desk surface to be translucent for style and to allow sunlight to mix with the desk surface and illuminate it.
By using textured materials, the opaque desk changes colors depending on the time of day. Those colors, from a luminescent orange to a deep blue, are supposed to keep the worker alert, based on in-house company studies, Karaus said.
The chameleon effect was accomplished using a special ABS resin blend developed by Diamond Polymers Inc. of Akron, Ohio. The ABS includes additives and clarifiers to give it a ghostlike, see-through sheen.
Beneath the work surface are concentric honeycomb circles of plastic, in a beehive shape, used to provide structural strength and connote sturdiness.
And the translucent shelves, which Herman Miller branded as Legolike, have perforated holes and side grab handles that give them the appearance of milk crates.
The flooring system, while not plastic, also is a bit post-modern. The fabric tiles pull away to reveal a maze of wire cabling that can be connected to the desk computer and lights.
At Structural Plastics, the system won both the Judges' Award, a special honor for a unique product, and the People's Choice award from conference attendees.
The workstation also picked up an honorable mention at the conference from a three-judge panel for the IDSA/Plastics News Design Award, sponsored by PN and the Industrial Designers Society of America.
Still, the all-plastic desk concept could be a bit ahead of its time. Herman Miller is evaluating how to take the concept to a commercial audience, Karaus said.
The company plans to use the basic idea in future workstations, he said. But whether the entire system finds the mass market remains to be seen. The company could start small, Karaus said.
``This might work best with high-tech companies,'' Karaus said. ``They're usually the first to try something really innovative.''
If so, Herman Miller could have a jump on competitors. Steelcase Inc. and Haworth Inc. are considering plastic workstations but have no immediate plans to build them.
Haworth, based in Holland, Mich., recently launched a plastic injection molded overhead desk unit called One Touch, said Haworth spokeswoman Nicole Tallman.
``We're evaluating plastic continuously,'' she said. ``We're always looking at ways to increase its use.''
But is the mass market ready for a futuristic plastic desk?
``We'll have to see where the concept goes,'' Karaus said. ``It's a bit early to know.''