Sauder Manufacturing Co. has turned out wooden furniture for college dorm rooms for 25 years, but the company wanted to rethink its chairs to reflect changes in the college lifestyle, and turned to plastics to make its concept a reality.
The Trey chair - combing elements of a desk chair, stool and floor rocking chair in one piece - represents only the second time the Archbold, Ohio-based company has used plastics and its first major foray into development of plastic furniture from the ground up.
``Our roots are in woodworking, but for this project, we decided to take two steps back and take a look at how our products were being used,'' said Tony Warncke, director of product development.
The chair is the first plastic offering from Sauder's education division, said Phillip Swihart, chief executive officer of Fort Wayne Plastics Inc., during the Alliance of Plastics Processors annual conference April 1-3 in Memphis.
Bringing the company's concept to reality required planning not only from product designers, but also FWP, which is creating the chair's plastic components with structural web gas-assist and low-pressure molding using polypropylene, ABS, glass-filled nylon and thermoplastic elastomer.
``It was a big process for engineering this,'' Swihart said. ``We had a few trials and errors.''
Sauder Manufacturing got its start more than 60 years ago making wooden church pews, and has since expanded into making seating for colleges and hospitals. Its parent company, Sauder Woodworking Co., also makes wooden home furnishings.
The company first used plastics on its Clarity brand of auditorium-style seating for churches. That project was shepherded by an outside design group.
With the Trey chair the company used its own expertise - with help from Boston design group (Eleven) - to create its own product from scratch. They began, Warncke said, by taking a fresh look at the way dorm furniture is used today.
``We have made a concentrated effort to be market driven,'' he said. ``It starts with a better understanding of how our furniture is used.''
Today's student moves into the dorm with an array of electronic equipment students didn't have a generation ago - including laptops and gaming systems, he said. That mixture of equipment means that they don't always use desks the same way their parents, or even their older siblings, did.
But at the same time, dorm rooms haven't gotten any bigger.
Once the company and designers started creating the Trey chair, they wanted something that could be used several ways without taking up more space, was light enough to move easily, but still sturdy enough to stand up to the abuse college students could produce.
That led them to plastics and the three-in-one chair. The seat can be used as a traditional task chair, but it also is made with a curved structure that can be lifted off of the base and set on the floor to become a low rocking chair.
The base itself is flat enough to serve as a low desk for a laptop, can be used to hold snacks or used as a bedside table - but also is strong enough to be used as additional seating.
The company then came to Fort Wayne Plastics to find the best way to manufacture it.
FWP had not worked directly with Sauder Manufacturing previously, but it has been reaching out to manufacturers in a variety of fields to introduce itself to potential customers ready to convert metal parts to plastics, Swihart said. Typically that would mean smaller, functional parts. Trey took the conversion issue to a whole new level, he said.
The molder does both structural foam and structural web processing, but opted for structural web because it offered Sauder both strength and aesthetic values.
``It could have been made all out of structural foam, but the appearance issues led us to structural web,'' he said.
Sauder sells primarily directly to colleges and universities, where its furniture becomes a standard part of the dorm room furniture. It introduced the Trey in October and has been introducing it to colleges. It already is in place in one college - Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Ind. The company also has sold it to a number of universities where the chair will be added to dorms during the summer in time for fall classes.
But so many college buyers who have seen the chair have expressed an interest in buying one for their teenagers at home, prompting Sauder to set up a separate direct-buying Web site for the Trey chair.
``This has been so much fun to show people,'' Warncke said. ``There's such a flexibility of design here, and people are really responding to it.''