Engineers and designers assigned to create a new seating system for Steelcase Inc. spent two years sorting out joints, angles, pivot points and molding techniques.
They reconsidered supplier relations and looked at market strategies.
And they also put up with one running joke: ``Every time we told people what they were doing, they'd always say, `But we work for Steelcase, not Plasticcase,' '' said Nancy Funk, senior product engineer for seating in the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based office furniture giant's new-product development group.
As the firm's Cachet line of chairs goes into production this year, the business has pushed the envelope of what the furniture industry can do with structural plastics. The Cachet took home three top design awards at the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Structural Plastics Division annual conference, held April 14-16 in Dearborn. Steelcase won the conference award for the top new product submitted, best in the furniture category, and the people's choice honor for most popular.
Steelcase launched Cachet development in early 2000, starting with a concept brought forward by outside design consultant Peter Pearce. Pearce had an idea for a stackable chair with small torsion springs in the back legs.
The springs give the legs a sort of a knee joint, allowing users to recline and get more comfortable than they normally would in chairs that typically fill a conference hall. With that proposal in hand, Steelcase's team decided to rethink the entire structure.
``We wanted to break the paradigm of what a stacking chair could be,'' Robert Battey, engineering team leader for seating, said April 16 at the conference.
The company needed Cachet to be lighter and easier to stack than a standard chair. It also wanted a swivel version.
Going lightweight, Battey said, meant the standard design of a metal frame was out. Working with Steelcase's plastics specialists in its Attwood Corp. subsidiary and its Rapid Tooling Group, the firm created a frame molded with glass-reinforced nylon and a seat and back made of an unfilled polypropylene surface and glass-reinforced PP perimeter frame.
Virtually all of the chair is plastic, with just a few metal attachments and the torsion spring. The stackable chair comes in at 11 pounds, compared with 20 pounds for its typical office chair, and will retail for about $300. The swivel chair, weighing 20 pounds, will carry a retail list price of about $550.
But coming up with the concept was only part of the project.
Neither Steelcase nor Attwood had the expertise to make the Cachet, which it hoped would create a new buzz for Steelcase in the industry. It found Morton Custom Plastics of Lebanon, Ky., to make the frame using gas-assist injection molding, and GAC Plastics LLC of Petoskey, Mich., is producing seats and backs on a two-shot rotary platen injection press. Steelcase assembles the parts.
``There's no question that this was a risk for us, in terms of working with all new groups. They're molding parts that are crucial for our success,'' Battey said. ``All along the way, it's been a little different for the way Steelcase does things.''
With the knowledge gained through the Cachet project, Battey said he expects Steelcase to go even further.
``We've got that in our tool belt now,'' he said. ``We know how to process plastics; we know how to design with plastics. We can push this envelope further out there.''