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Shifting to Services? Office furniture makers shake up business model with new data offerings

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Herman Miller worked with Grand Rapids-based Open Systems Technology to develop its cloud-based Live OS system, which collects and analyzes data on how workers use office furniture. Herman Miller worked with Grand Rapids-based Open Systems Technology to develop its cloud-based Live OS system, which collects and analyzes data on how workers use office furniture. PHOTO COURTESY OF HERMAN MILLER INC.

CHICAGO — When Herman Miller Inc. first introduced the Aeron chair during the dawn of the dot-com era in 1994, it took the office furniture industry by storm. 

Office furniture insiders consider the iconic, best-selling ergonomic chair as one of the industry’s most successful innovations of the modern era. 

In the more than two decades since the Zeeland-based manufacturer launched the Aeron chair, the way the industry innovates has shifted in many respects. While products have largely driven the office furniture industry in the past, many executives expect the next vanguard to be defined by disruptions to business models. 

“I think some of it may be a different kind of innovation that’s not about a product,” said Kevin Kuske, president of Genesis Seating Inc., Davidson Plyforms Inc. and Grand River Polishing, which are part of the work furniture group at Leggett & Platt Inc. 

“What happened was the industry, being manufacturers, was naturally very product-driven,” he said. “This drive to think more about space as a place to attract and retain (workers) means you have to start thinking more about the space and less about the individual products and how they tie together.”

While office furniture makers are dedicating resources to pursue a number of new adaptations to their business models, their dedication to data tracking stood out as a key theme during this year’s NeoCon trade show in Chicago. 

Instead of solely relying on selling products, the largest office furniture manufacturers aim to increase the services they offer, particularly when it comes to collecting and analyzing data on space utilization. 

For Herman Miller, that initiative comes in the form of its Live OS system, a cloud-based data collection and analysis platform it developed in partnership with Grand Rapids-based Open Systems Technology

Live OS uses sensors integrated in Herman Miller’s furniture to collect data on how workers are using spaces. The information is uploaded to a secure cloud, analyzed and can be used by both Herman Miller and its customers to determine what times the furniture is being used, by how many workers and so on. 

“I think what people are thinking about is can you really offer space to customers as a service rather than selling them products,” Herman Miller President and CEO Brian Walker told MiBiz. “If you think about what we’re doing with Live OS, essentially it’s a service. We might sell you the desk with the technology, but the real value driver behind it is probably bringing you data as a service and helping you understand how to tune your space better as you go along.”

Walker sees that philosophy as a departure from how office furniture makers have done business in the past. 

“It’s something we’d often talked about, ‘How do we get better data to help our customers to know their spaces are working?” he said. “We spent a lot of this year building case studies around how we’re helping customers improve. Those were very successful. Now we’re going to have, over time, a much more data-rich stream to pull from.”

Steelcase Inc. also is pursuing data collection and analysis as a key part of its business model going forward. The Grand Rapids-based office furniture manufacturer partnered with tech giant Microsoft earlier this year on a project called “Creative Spaces.”

So far, the project has involved incorporating Microsoft Surface devices into a number of different office layouts, but the company plans to expand in the coming years to include internet of things technology, according to Steelcase President and CEO Jim Keane.

“Our smart connective strategy is showing that new business models build around data (and) how people are actually using space,” Keane said. “They help facility managers be more thoughtful and be more data-driven as they plan space, and help users use spaces more effectively to help them reach new levels of performance.

“I think data … will be an important part of our business model going forward.” 

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