At the Herman Miller Design Yard in Holland, Michigan, windowed hallways stem off the main office (or Front Door, in Miller speak) and snake around green space, forming a formidable campus of corrugated steel and muted colors. Down one of those halls, through a light blue office and behind a wooden door that looks like it might lead to a middle school classroom, emerge the distinctive sounds of muffled bangs and bonks.
Pull open the door and you’ll hear the tonal buzz of dozens of machines and the methodical punching of the seats of Aeron chairs in what Herman Miller calls the Durability Lab. This is just one section of the sprawling test lab for Herman Miller’s furniture.
Hardly anyone expects the amount of testing or the work that goes into testing furniture, says Larry Larder, manager of Test Services and Quality Systems at Herman Miller. Larder is a mechanical engineer who has been at Herman Miller for 17 years, and in the test lab for close to ten. “What we’re trying to do, what we’re trying to figure out, is how long a product is going to last under different testing conditions,” Larder says. Herman Miller has an admirable 12-year warranty, so the company works to ensure its products will last that long—at least.
Despite feeling tucked away behind other offices, the lab is a formidable space: It measures tens of thousands of square feet and is the height of an airplane hangar, with the capacity to run 1,890 different tests ranging from durability to staining.
Today, fleets of office chairs are being dragged over different surfaces, others are being pulled back or tugged forward thousands upon thousands of times, and more still are being continually sat on and swiveled in by mechanical, calibrated butts (some with wallets attached for extra realism). Shelves are hung on drywall and weighted down to see what the load-bearing weight will be (meaning: until the shelving collapses). This is all to keep in line with the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturing Association (BIFMA) guidelines, which sets the industry standard for minimum performance for a product. Certain companies, though, including Herman Miller, go to extra lengths to ensure durability. Larder explains that while the industry standard of testing for, say, a chair they produce might be to drop a weighted bag on its seat 30,000 times, Herman Miller might do it 100,000 or 200,000 times to make sure it’s up to their own warranty standards.
Arguably more impressive than the products themselves are the machines Herman Miller has designed to conduct testing—while the products go through hundreds of thousands of rounds of testing, the machines are conducting these tests over and over on multiple products, running millions of cycles of testing in their lifetime.
“You test until you see evidence of something happening,” Larder says. Noises, squeaks, debris—they can all mean something isn’t quite right. There has to be a happy balance between geometry, loads, and material, Larder adds. Designers don’t want to give up on geometry because of looks, engineers can’t compromise on loads because you can’t say who can and can’t use a piece of furniture, and material is often dictated because of cost. In general, no designs are ever scrapped; it’s mostly adjusting here and there to achieve the right balance.
In another room, adjustable-height desks with loads on them are undergoing cycling tests, moving from their lowest position to their highest position to simulate use over time. (Larder calls this gaggle of furniture a “ballet of tables.”) Furniture will also stay for up to a week in a series of environment chambers simulating heat, humidity, or cold, with the hottest one going up to 140 degrees. Through these tests, engineers are looking for warpage, delamination of veneers, glues that fail, finishes that corrode or peel—anything that will result from extreme environments. They use these types of tests for good reason: There have been instances of frozen, shattered chair wheels and overheating, melting plastic after shipping.
The company has also devised tests for measuring how much wear a person’s shoe can impart on a metal chair bottom, and it has even invested in synthetic perspiration to simulate how sweat affects their fabrics. There’s also a cabinet of booze and a stash of cleaning products for alternating testing.
It’s not just new releases that undergo this process, either; a visitor to the test lab might well catch a glimpse of a stalwart like the Aeron chair. “We’re still selling the chairs, we’re doing material changes, we’re doing design improvements,” Larder explains. “We test stuff throughout its life cycle so many times. People don’t realize it’s not just a one and done thing.”
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