Former Herman Miller executive launches ergonomically-focused office furniture products
After serving nearly three decades as Director of Seating and Ergonomic Product Management for Herman Miller Inc., Keith McRobert has put his knowledge and experience to work in a new venture.
After opening the Spring Lake-based office furniture maker NEXposture LLC in 2020, McRobert spent 18 months over five different iterations to create a sliding and adjustable work surface that allows a user to see and access their computer when tilted. The company, which has focused its supply base solely in western Michigan, is now taking orders. MiBiz spoke with McRobert about starting his business and why ergonomics are so important.
What led you to embark on a new furniture project so closely linked to ergonomics?
It sort of started with my days at Herman Miller and leading their seating group. We would develop chairs with fancy tilt mechanisms that you could move and tilt back and forth which is good for keeping your body moving and tilting as it relieves pressure on your lower spine vertebral. The pressure and movement is good, but we were going out in the field and watching people use our chairs and no one was using the incline. They were mostly seated forward and slouched. The only time they bowed was for a phone call or to stretch. I always wanted to solve this problem. We therefore decided to develop a sliding and adjustable worktop.
Standing desks have grown in popularity. Do these solve the problem?
Standing desks have been hugely popular since 2010. It’s fine to stand — we also offer a sit-stand base — but people probably only stand less than 25% of the time if they have a sit-stand table. standing. This means they are sitting 75% of the time, and more than half of that time is slouched in a static posture.
Many furniture companies tout the ergonomically correct nature of their products. Why is ergonomics so important other than for comfort?
Ergonomics is extremely important for several reasons. One of the biggest problems with musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) is back pain. Probably 90 percent of people in their lifetime will suffer a back injury related to being out of work or limiting their activities. Thus, back problems are very common. The other notion is that sitting all day is not good for you and you need to keep moving, standing, sitting and walking. I think it’s become a bigger issue because people are working nomadically.
In effect. Do people even pay attention to ergonomics when working from home?
The ergonomic setup has actually degraded. When you were in the office, you – for the most part – probably had a pretty nice ergonomic setup. Now that people work from home, they work at the kitchen table or chair or on a couch. Suddenly, it almost seems that all the ergonomics of the early 2000s have been shaken up, in particular by people working from home or hybrid approaches. They are also working on a laptop. These are the most common problems, and I only see them getting worse. I wanted to help users with back, neck and shoulder injuries with a more ergonomic desktop solution.
With all the supply chain issues that have arisen from the COVID-19 pandemic, has it been difficult to start a furniture business?
It’s certain. When we did the prototyping, the lead time from the vendors was eight to 10 weeks when it’s normally around two to three weeks. This added to the development time. In two years, on certain products (which we bought), we had four or five price increases, in particular on steel products.
Who are you addressing with this selection of products?
It’s a two-pronged approach. The first is B2B and reaches companies through contact with ergonomists, health and safety managers, risk managers and workplace designers. I use a lot of social media to connect with these people and they want to test it, so we send out demos and so on. The second is the consumer – i.e. the home office – and who has really come through the pandemic with everyone working from home over the past two years.
We really try to reach those two markets. It’s a bit more difficult with B2C.
Starting a furniture business in the shadow of industry leaders like Steelcase, MillerKnoll and Haworth – is that a challenge or an advantage?
In a way, that’s good because there are a lot of great suppliers in West Michigan for the office furniture industry. For metal products, I don’t need to go too far. That’s the positive side, but in the market it’s difficult because the big guys have their brand established.
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