Ma­te­rial Science


Azure - - CONTENTS - WORDS _David Dick-agnew

Why Steel­case’s lat­est task chair is so revo­lu­tion­ary

What hap­pens to a task chair when its mov­ing parts are re­placed by a sin­gle ma­te­rial that can achieve the same dy­namic mo­tion? In 2008, James Lud­wig, Steel­case’s vice-pres­i­dent of global de­sign and prod­uct engi­neer­ing, at­tempted to an­swer this ques­tion with a sim­ple sketch. “I asked my engi­neers, ‘Could we do that?’” he re­calls. “They told me, ‘Not yet.’” So be­gan a quest to cre­ate the per­fect chair. Re­search into the dif­fer­ent ways peo­ple sit led to the fine-tun­able Ges­ture in 2014 – what Lud­wig calls the “ul­ti­mate sit­ting ma­chine.” Ges­ture was fol­lowed in 2016 by its op­po­site, Lessthanfive, a car­bon-fi­bre chair with zero mov­ing parts. Silq, launched this spring, is the syn­the­sis of th­ese two ap­proaches: It re­spon­sively sup­ports a sit­ter’s move­ment, but with only a sin­gle ad­just­ment, for height. “The ma­chin­ery of a typ­i­cal task chair might in­clude a cou­ple hun­dred parts,” Lud­wig says. “Depend­ing on how you count we have around 30.” In­stead of mov­ing parts, Silq uses a ki­netic ma­te­rial that ex­ploits the ten­sion be­tween parts. The strat­egy was in­spired by the blade-like pros­thetic legs used by Par­a­lympians such as sprinter Aimee Mullins. Formed from lay­ers of car­bon fi­bre that flex, the legs bounce back to re­turn en­ergy to the run­ner’s step. With the ini­tial ver­sion of Silq, the seat pan and back float atop an outer shell of car­bon fi­bre that sim­i­larly stores en­ergy when a sit­ter leans for­ward or back and ad­justs to dis­trib­ute sup­port where it’s needed. But car­bon fi­bre, be­ing a hand-worked ma­te­rial, is ex­pen­sive. So af­ter achiev­ing its goal with a car­bon-fi­bre model, the Steel­case team set out to repli­cate the ef­fect in a more af­ford­able chair, de­vel­op­ing a for­mula for a pro­pri­etary poly­mer. Part of the new high-per­for­mance ma­te­rial’s abil­ity to mimic car­bon fi­bre’s ten­sil­ity lies in its form. “Each one of Silq’s el­e­ments is sim­ple,” Lud­wig ex­plains. “But as they be­come one sys­tem, they op­er­ate in con­cert to cre­ate com­plex mo­tion.” The re­sult is a chair that in­stantly adapts to al­most any sit­ter. “When it’s all your own, a highly tun­able chair can be per­fect,” Lud­wig says. How­ever, in en­vi­ron­ments like shared work­sta­tions, col­lab­o­ra­tive spa­ces or board­rooms, “those ad­just­ments of­ten be­come hin­drances for healthy, in­tu­itive and com­fort­able sit­ting.” By in­cor­po­rat­ing re­spon­sive ad­just­ment right into the ma­te­rial it’s made from, Silq’s one-siz­e­fits-all ap­proach re­moves knob-fid­dling from the equa­tion. steel­

With so few mov­ing parts, the Silq chair en­abled its de­sign team to re­fine the de­tails to an al­most or­ganic level – in­stead of vis­i­ble nuts and bolts, the pieces join to­gether seam­lessly.

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