VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — When Herman Miller Inc. wanted to make cost-effective, structurally solid, aesthetically pleasing end panels for its Kiva range of high-end, mobile office furniture, it turned to plastics and to a process it had not used before — gas-assisted structural web molding. The Zeeland, Mich.-based firm put its faith in New York industrial designer Eric Chan and in Cobourg, Ontario, injection molder Horizon Plastics Co. Ltd. to lead its foray into this uncharted territory, and it paid off.
"We're all very pleased with the product," said Jan Vandermeer, new-product supplier quality egineer at the Design Yard, Herman Miller's design nerve center in Holland, Mich. She noted that the firm considered alternative materials before settling on ABS resin and on the structural web process.
"We worked through many issues," she said, but it has all come together well.
A jury of five independent industrial designers concurred last week, when they selected the molded vertical panels on the steel-and-plastic bookcase/storage unit as winner of the IDSA/Plastics News Design Award. The jury panel chose the product from 48 eligible entries at the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Structural Plastics 2000 conference in Vancouver.
The award — sponsored jointly by the Industrial Designers Society of America and Plastics News — officially goes to Chan, principal of Ecco Design Inc., the 14-person industrial design and product development firm that he founded in New York in 1989.
Chan said he developed the Kiva collection to blur the boundaries between free-standing and systems furniture. Having mobile furniture affords firms the flexibility to configure the work spaces they need quickly and efficiently.
One of his challenges was to create rigid shelving and bookcase units of various sizes for the Kiva line.
"We considered metal for the end panels," he said in a March 30 telephone interview. Metal had the necessary structural quality, but secondary processes such as welding and painting tend to drive up its finished-product costs. Molded plastic offered soft corners and other pleasing, aesthetic features. And the large expected production volumes for the Kiva line made the tooling affordable. So did some innovative tooling design by supplier MSI Mold Builders of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Through the use of interchangeable cavity core inserts in the tool, Horizon is able to make three different sizes of end panels (measuring 1, 2 and 3 feet in length) in the same mold. Herman Miller, by mixing those tall and short vertical panels with similarly varying lengths of metal shelves, can produce as many as nine different configurations of storage units.
"This minimized tooling costs and maximized machine production capacity," explained Horizon President Brian Read.
Chan said he needed to convince Herman Miller that structural web molded plastic would yield a suitably stable shelving unit. It needed to be lightweight, for mobility and cost reasons, but it also needed to be extremely rigid. The design incorporates many structural cross-ribs to produce what Chan calls "a very solid-feeling end panel." A cabling system of crossing guide wires on the back of the units not only looks slick but also ensures dimensional stability.
Horizon's use of a Uniloy Milacron gas-assist molding process allowed Chan to develop a thicker section that also provided a grip by which to move the unit. Herman Miller's Vandermeer admitted that her firm had no internal knowledge of the structural web process before the project began, but said: "We liked the fat-wall aesthetic. We couldn't achieve that with wood and steel. It had nice contours, too."
Read drew on Horizon's experience in using the gas-assist process to mold spoilers for Ford Motor Co. sport utility vehicles.
"We knew we could web-mold the panels. ... We needed a good melt-flow envelope, so [the ABS resin] would flow along and still encapsulate the gas. On this, we had to keep the [two] nozzles on the bottom, and we had a 3-foot-long flow channel that we had to core out."
Horizon also had to allow for multiple 3-inch by 2-inch metal inserts in the side panels that are used to anchor the steel shelves, and for metal inserts in the bottom of the panels to accommodate either rolling casters or stationary feet.
Herman Miller may use a fair bit of plastic innovatively in its product lines, but Chan said many designers and manufacturers still do not fully comprehend the material.
"People understand wood and metal," he said, and they know how to join those materials. "But when people look at plastic, it's a mystery [to many]," he said. "They don't understand parting lines and gating. But it's not that difficult. I love working with plastics."Horizon Plastics used gas-assisted structural web molding to create award-winning end panels for Herman Miller's office furniture.