After serving nearly three decades as director of seating and ergonomics product management for Herman Miller Inc., Keith McRobert has leveraged his knowledge and experience into a new venture.
After opening the Spring Lake-based office furniture maker NEXposture LLC in 2020, McRobert spent 18 months on five different iterations to create a sliding, adjustable work surface that allows a user to see and access their computer while reclined. The company, which has concentrated its supply base solely in West Michigan, is now taking orders. MiBiz spoke with McRobert about the launch of his business and why ergonomics are so important.
What led you to embark on a new furniture project that focused so closely on ergonomics?
It kind of started back with my days at Herman Miller and leading their seating group. We would develop chairs with sophisticated tilt mechanisms that you could move and recline back and forth, which is good for your body to keep moving and to recline because it takes the pressure off of your lower spine. Pressure and movement are good, but we would get out in the field and look at people using our chairs and no one was using the tilt. They were mostly sitting forward and slumping. The only time they would recline back was for a phone call or to stretch. I always wanted to address that problem. So we decided to develop a sliding, adjustable work surface.
Standing desks have risen in popularity. Do those solve the problem?
Standing desks have been very popular since 2010. It’s good to stand — we also offer a sit-to-stand base — but people only stand probably less than 25 percent of the time if they have a sit-to-stand table. That means they’re sitting 75 percent of the time, and over half of that time is slumped over in a static posture.
A lot of furniture companies tout the ergonomically correct nature of their products. Why are ergonomics so important other than for comfort?
Ergonomics are extremely important for a couple reasons. One of the biggest issues with muscular skeletal disorders (MSDs) is back aches. Probably 90 percent of people in their lifetime will suffer with a back injury that will relate to being out of work or limiting activities. So, back problems are very prevalent. The other notion is that sitting all day long is not good for you and you have to keep moving, standing, sitting and walking around. I think this has become a bigger issue because people are working nomadically.
Indeed. Are people even paying attention to ergonomics as they work from home?
The ergonomic setup has actually gotten worse. When you were in the office, you had — for the most part — probably a pretty nice ergonomic setup. Now that people are working at home, they’re working at the kitchen table or kitchen chair or on a couch. So, it almost seems that all the ergonomics of the early 2000s have been pushed aside particularly from people working at home or hybrid approaches. They’re also working on a laptop. Those are the prevalent issues, and I only see them getting worse. I wanted to help users that are suffering from back and neck and shoulder injuries with a more ergonomic desking solution.
With all the supply chain issues that have grown out of the COVID-19 pandemic, did it present challenges to launch a furniture company?
It sure has. When we did the prototyping, the turnaround time from suppliers was eight to 10 weeks when normally it is around two to three weeks. That added to the development time. In a two-year period, on some products (we purchased), we had four or five price increases, particularly on steel products.
Who are you targeting with this selection of products?
It’s a two-pronged approach. The first is B2B and reaching companies through contacts with ergonomists, health and safety people, risk managers and workplace designers. I’m using a lot of social media to connect with these people and they want to trial it, so we send out demos and so forth. The second is the consumer — that’s the home office — and that’s really driven through the pandemic with everyone working from home over the last two years.
We’re really trying to reach both of those markets. It’s a little bit more difficult with B2C.
Starting up a furniture business in the shadows of industry leaders like Steelcase, MillerKnoll and Haworth — is that a challenge or beneficial?
In one way it’s good because there are a lot of great suppliers in West Michigan for the office furniture industry. For metal products, I don’t have to go too far. That’s the plus side, but in the market, it’s difficult because the big guys have their brand established.