CHICAGO — These days, furniture purchasers likely are interacting with a product virtually before they ever see it in a showroom or store.
That’s but one example of how technology is changing the landscape of the office furniture industry and will be a leading disruptor for years to come, said Paul Nemschoff, vice president of global strategy and marketing at the Holland-based Haworth Inc.
“(We must) embrace technology and look at how it can actually make (the process) better,” Nemschoff told MiBiz at NeoCon, the annual office furniture trade show in Chicago. “That’s everything from digital marketing to commerce to how we engage with our dealers and visibility to the activities that they have.”
With mobile apps already able to adjust the height of custom tables, and augmented and virtual reality helping conceptualize office space and furniture designs, industry experts say West Michiganbased office furniture makers are shifting their focus to include more technology in 2018 and beyond.
“It’s an asset,” Configura Inc. CEO Johan Lyreborn said. “We need to do it properly. … We are just seeing the beginning of how we use computers to be smarter and better. Just look at how we can be better on using materials, research work around that, and also how we estimate how much material we need to deliver. All those calculations are improved every year. Then the manufacturing will be smarter, so less (material) waste and also less transportation.”
According to Custer Inc. CEO and President Todd Custer, this shift includes manufacturers partnering with tech companies to diversify product offerings, while saving time and money in the process.
An example is Steelcase’s partnership with Microsoft Corp. to create Creative Spaces, a work setting that caters to the person using it. Custer said these types of teleconference-like spaces are where technology and furniture collaborations seem to work best.
“It’s adding technology to furniture products where it makes sense,” Custer said. “It’s a lot of integration with monitors (and) screens. … Think of tech as making work visible.”
Steelcase’s push to integrate more technology also includes its creation of Workplace Advisor, a workspace that collects data on space usage while improving how companies “justify large capital expenditures and improve the overall employee experience,” according the company.
If a company has a 30,000-square-foot facility but only uses 20,000 square feet “because their eight-person rooms are only being used by three people,” the data will be able to show those results, Custer said.
“(Office furniture manufacturers) are really supportive of innovation and creative workstyles,” he said. “Steelcase’s partnership with Microsoft supports that creative, innovative work. They are using technology in the space to affect design.”
At Custer Tech, a division of Custer Inc., the company invested significantly into growing its technology capabilities, including more than tripling the size of its employment base since 2010.
“We decided to invest in that business because we think it’s a growth area and our customers are interested,” Custer said. “The first couple of years we were operating at a loss, but we saw a turnaround a couple of years ago, and now we are starting to see some profits.”
The Sweden-based Configura, which maintains a Grand Rapids headquarters and specializes in software to help design office furniture in a given space, works with the three big West Michigan office furniture makers.
As those companies continue to invest more in technology partnerships that help enhance their products — for example, using virtual reality to visualize a client’s office space through various digital renderings — Lyreborn said companies will improve their manufacturing processes and products.
“Companies need to go more dynamic in the terms of how they look at their own products and their own offerings,” Lyreborn said. “Now, with technology, you can build in a lot of variations in software and it’s still easy for designers and architects to design and make (improvements) on the products.”
These variations, Lyreborn said, are what set every company apart, even though a product from Herman Miller might look similar to a Haworth product. For example, he said a workstation at Herman Miller has different hardware than a workstation from Haworth.
“All those kind of things are different for those companies,” Lyreborn said. “So the software we provide kind of adapts to all those differences.”
Currently, Configura is using a concept called “live design” to help engage clients with current and future products. According to Kelsey Haldane, marketing and public relations specialist for Configura, the process allows users to meet their client’s expectations, enhance their experience and speed up the sales process.
“(Our program) CET Designer gives users the ability to physically take their computer to the client and work side by side with them, making instantaneous changes to fabrics, finishes and even replace/add entirely new products,” Haldane said. “All of these changes can then be showcased in 2-D, 3-D, photorealistic renderings, virtual reality, 360 degree fly-through videos and now augmented reality — allowing the customer to see what their new space could look like.”
Office furniture manufacturers are not only incorporating tech into products but also are finding uses for it on their factory floors.
Inside its Caledonia wood plant at 4100 68th St. SE, Steelcase is deploying tech to improve energy performance by using Limelight, a cloud-based system from the Zeeland-based TwistHDM LLC that dims down lights during slower hours of operation.
For a previous report, a company spokesperson said Steelcase had already replaced more than 1,300 energy-intensive light fixtures at the wood plant since 2010, reducing electricity consumption by 9 percent in the Caledonia location and 22 percent in its distribution center.
Now the company is targeting a 25-percent reduction in energy use in the next few years.
“It’s conserving energy and being smart about the space,” Custer said. “We do something similar. It’s the same with monitors and the same with screens: When we know who is in the space, we can design a room to turn off when no one is in there. … There’s sophistication like that that we are really working on in the dealer and manufacturing side.”