The Office Meets The Road

    DETROIT — In forming a unique alliance that brings their respective industries together, Johnson Controls Inc. and Steelcase Inc. are betting that a person who enjoys the comforts of a high-end office chair at work will gladly pay a little more for a vehicle that offers the driver the same qualities behind the wheel.

    The thinking is compounded by the very vehicle used to showcase how the design behind Steelcase’s Leap office chair was converted into an automotive application: a 2003 Jaguar S-Type, a vehicle where comfort and features are high on the list for buyers.

    By bringing into the vehicle the kind of ergonomic benefits that come with the Leap chair, Johnson Controls believes it has created a package that car-buying consumers ultimately will see as a must-have and that will help automakers sell cars.

    “It going to have showroom appeal,” said Rande Somma, the president of Johnson Controls’ Plymouth-based Automotive Systems Group, who likens the seating concept to the introduction of cup holders into vehicles two decades ago, a simple innovation that consumers quickly embraced.

    Consumers today won’t go without them and will eventually react the same way to the new seating design offered through the alliance with Steelcase, Somma said. He called the Leap automotive seating concept “the most significant new opportunity for seating I’ve seen in a long, long time.”

    “Once this product gets into the marketplace, the phenomenon is going to be no different than a cup holder,” Somma said. “As it delivers significantly improved comfort, people are not going to want to give it up.”

    Johnson Controls and Steelcase debuted the Leap automotive seating concept last week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Johnson Controls hopes to sell the seating to an automaker by the 2006 model year.

    Executives from both industries see the integration of seating designs by office furniture makers into the automotive industry as a natural.

    And Johnson Controls and Steelcase are not alone in the endeavor.

    Herman Miller Inc. is working with an unnamed automotive supplier to apply the design behind PostureFit to an automotive use. PostureFit is a device Herman Miller introduced last September to provide better lower-back support in the popular Aeron chair, resulting in more comfort in the pelvic and hip region.

    Dr. Brock Walker, a spinal care and ergonomic seating specialist who has designed seating for racecars, including NASCAR and Formula 1, designed PostureFit. Herman Miller now wants to license the design for uses other than office seating.

    “We believe we have a great solution with application in multiple categories. We’re looking at how we can develop that as a massive commercialized application,” said Mark Schurman, Herman Miller’s director of external communications. “Commercialization in the auto industry is the logical next step.”

    An annual survey by J.D. Power & Associates indicates there’s plenty of room for improving the comfort of automotive seating. The 2002 Seat Quality Report ranked lack of lumbar support as the most frequently cited problem.

    “The seat manufacturer that can find a way to improve lumbar support and comfort without compromising quality will have a huge competitive advantage in the market,” J.D. Power & Associates research director James Lohmann said in the report, released in late November.

    The meeting of automotive and office furniture manufacturers provides automakers new expertise to address the issue and holds benefits for both industries.

    Product innovation is essential for auto suppliers’ success. New products, such as seating that provides significantly improved comfort and can appeal to the car-buying consumer, are exactly the type of innovation automakers want from their suppliers, said industry analyst James Gillette of IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids.

    “That’s where you make money and that’s where you sell cars in this business,” Gillette said.

    Office furniture makers in turn have a massive new market to target with their designs and technology.

    The licensing agreement that enables Johnson Controls to use the technology in the Leap chair to produce automotive seating has “great potential” for Steelcase, said Frank Merlotti Jr., president Steelcase’s North American operations.

    “Anytime you see your technology utilized across industries, it’s both flattering and obviously good for the company financially,” Merlotti said. “When the intellectual property works outside of your industry, you certainly want to leverage it.”

    In this case, Steelcase and Johnson Controls are leveraging each other’s core expertise to give auto companies a better product they believe will grab the attention of consumers. The appeal is particularly high for buyers of luxury and high-end vehicles, a market segment where new auto innovations typically are launched and many consumers generally tend not to quibble too much over the cost of a feature they find to their liking.

    “There’s no question that when you get into those price points, the buyer is looking at a lot more features and value,” Somma said.

    One Johnson Controls executive estimated the current cost of adding Leap seating to a vehicle at $500 to $1,000. The eventual price could vary widely, ultimately depending on the vehicle model, market class and styling of the seating, Somma said.

    The Leap automotive seating concept is the product of a four-year collaboration between Steelcase and Johnson Controls that began when designers from both companies were doing ergonomic research at Michigan State University.

    “They ran into each other and some of their ideas began to percolate,” Merlotti said.

    The benefits of Leap come from a design that enables the back to change shape and move with a person’s upper and lower back, and a mechanism that automatically adjusts the seat bottom as the back reclines.

    The Leap automotive seating concept is “unlike anything ever offered in a passenger car,” said Jeff Edwards, group vice president and general manager for Johnson Controls’ Automotive Systems Group.

    Both Somma and Merlotti see the potential for further collaboration to take additional Steelcase designs for office products — particularly when it relates to a person’s comfort —and apply them to the automobile.

    “It would stand to reason that you could, when you look at the similarities and alignment of what we’re trying to do in terms of occupant comfort,” Somma said.

    Even with that desire for future collaboration, Merlotti stresses that Steelcase is not straying from its core business. Steelcase, he said, is merely licensing its Leap technology for other uses.

    “This is not where our focus is,” he said. “Steelcase is not going into the auto business.”           

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