ZEELAND, MICH. - Herman Miller Inc. is out to redefine itself for a generation of business start-ups.
A longtime supplier of desks, chairs and other office furniture for the established corporate world, the Zeeland company wanted to tap into the breed of Internet-agile companies just setting up shop.
So it created a new line of low-cost, lightweight furniture that uses plastic materials and molding techniques in new ways, opening new markets for processors and giving a new look to the company.
The Red product line uses structural foam molding to make desks. The thermoformed core of a boogie board is now a desk divider for one system, and the company is using compression molded products for the first time in its history.
The systems, said program manager Diane DeBoer, push the design and production envelope for both Herman Miller and its suppliers.
``These are all fresh, all new products,'' she said during a July 20 interview at the Red office in Zeeland.
The line also has opened the door for some suppliers to expand their sales base to the furniture industry.
``This is kind of a horse of a different color for me, just to be dealing with furniture,'' said Jay Fisher, program manager for Composite Products Inc. of Winona, Minn., which traditionally is linked more closely to the auto industry.
CPI is using transfer compression molding to produce components on three different systems in the Red line, including the legs on Red Grasshopper desks.
``It definitely is a new direction for our company and a new opportunity for us,'' he said.
The products designed for Red all are created for a new breed of customers: those just starting out, with limited budgets but big ideas. The typical customer will be an operation looking for innovation rather than the status quo.
The systems must be low-cost, so even a business with less than $1,000 to spend can buy both desks and chairs. They also must be lightweight, since they are purchased on the Internet. They are shipped within 48 hours and end up in office settings where they're likely to be moved frequently.
Top that off with ease of assembly for executives who - lacking the full building staff that more-established counterparts have - must put the systems together on their own, DeBoer said.
``A lot of our customers are software guys who are more accustomed to working with code than their hands,'' she said.
The company runs assembly tests by pulling in workers from other divisions, then timing the process from the moment they open the box.
Horizon Plastics Co. Ltd. of Cobourg, Ontario, has worked with Herman Miller on its products for years but still is swept up with its potential to grow through Red.
``For us, it's been fantastic,'' said Horizon President Brian A. Read. ``They push technology; they go right after it. There's no fear of trying something new.
``It's providing a leading edge for the plastics industry. I wish more [original equipment manufacturers] had their attitude.''
A Horizon-molded Red desk took two honors at the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Structural Plastics Division conference in Atlanta earlier this year, winning for retail/consumer products and people's choice for the system that uses structural foam molding on the Red Snapper.
The desk uses a glass-filled polypropylene and ABS combination that is strong and lightweight. Horizon adapted the technology from an industrial product; in this case, it had been used for garbage Dumpsters.
Horizon is using low-pressure, gas-assisted molding to produce a translucent door on the Red Grasshopper filing system, making the plastic mimic some of the style of a stained-glass window. A wide urethane border around the compressed-fiber center on the Red Orbiter desk provides a style flair and a tactile difference from a typical desk.
``We wanted to select something that was fun,'' said Melody Henriksen, new-product development commodity manager for Red. ``It not only has to be low-cost but something that's innovative.
``It's furniture with an attitude.''
The systems have caught on best so far in the New York and San Francisco areas, both home to start-ups that are trying to hook into the Internet business style. Herman Miller has billboards up in both locations and recently opened the first Red retail store in New York.
Composite Products had courted Herman Miller for years, seeking the right opportunity for its processing capabilities, Fisher said. The new line is providing just the niche to show what it can do with transfer compression molding.
``We're happy we could get in on the ground floor with the Red group,'' he said. ``With Herman Miller, it's really taking us a step forward.''