Don't expect Steelcase Inc. to change its name anytime soon, but the office furniture giant is becoming more and more comfortable with the language of plastics.
The company has steadily increased its use of structural plastics since its 2002 introduction of the Cachet stackable chair, and uses plastics in many of its best-known brands, including its executive-level Leap chair.
With the introduction of two new chairs to its product line the cobi and the i2i the company has taken its understanding of plastics another step forward.
The Grand Rapids, Mich.-based company is learning more about how to design for plastics, said Kurt Heidmann, chief engineer, during an interview at the office furniture showcase NeoCon World's Trade Fair, held June 9-11 in Chicago.
The company is becoming familiar with the shapes and materials early in the design phase, and knows whether an early concept can actually be molded, he said. That helps cut production time, since less time is spent going back to the drawing board to rework drawings and models.
With the two new chairs, Steelcase is using overmolding and gas-assisted injection molding, and is turning out its biggest-ever one-shot part for the glass-filled-nylon shell of its i2i lounge chair.
Both the i2i and the cobi were designed with vertical openings in the back which Steelcase refers to as ``fingers'' to give the chairs more natural movement, so they can adapt to a range of users.
The i2i is intended for use in lobbies and other open settings where workers can collaborate in casual settings, whereas the cobi is for use in conference rooms. In both settings, Steelcase wanted chairs that would allow workers to be comfortable for long periods of time, but without the need for multiple adjustments.
Both chairs use just a thin layer of urethane foam, instead relying on the flexible structure of the plastic to provide the comfort.
``A lot of people equate big and overstuffed with comfort,'' said Jody Hanson, seating marketing director. ``With this, we show that something thin and flexible is comfortable.''
The chairs were even designed to allow for nontraditional seated postures, with space under the arms for people to swing their legs if they sit sideways, she said.
To create the i2i's shell, the company worked closely with its molders and mold makers to come up with something that would be strong enough to stand up to use in a corporate setting, but also look beautiful, said Chris Norman, an engineer with Steelcase's seating unit.
The cobi is produced via gas-assisted molding of glass-filled nylon for structural support, Norman said. The polypropylene back also has an overmolded thermoplastic elastomer along the upper edge to soften the look and feel.
``What we're really trying to have here is to have something flexible that will move with you,'' he said.