Future-Proofing Your Work Environment
— Yesterday is passé
A conversation about the future of the laboratory environment with one of its leading authorities, Formaspace CEO Jeff Turk
Up until the 1960's, office environments remained much the same as they had since the first industrial revolution. Buildings were largely designed around the needs of architects and builders rather than around the needs of their tenants. Partially as a result of this mindset, and partially as a result of limitations in the technology of the time, work spaces were typically fixed, heavy, inflexible, and hierarchical, resulting in an outrageous amount of space per employee and an inability to reconfigure space to meet increasing technological and social needs.
That would all change in 1968, when Bob Propst and his team of researchers at the Herman Miller Research Corporation published a remarkable book-The Office: A Facility Based on Change. The book was revolutionary in that it served as the philosophical basis for a totally new concept in the office environment.
Hermann Miller envisioned an 'action office', where the facility responded to increasingly rapid changes in business, working methods, and teams. With the creation of Action Office, the designers at Hermann Miller created the first reconfigurable offices, and even invented a profession-facility management-to make all the moves. Flexibility in the office suddenly became a quality everyone wanted.
Today, office environments are increasingly flexible, social places. Floors are raised so that cabling can be re-rerun at a moment's notice. Columns are narrower and more widely spaced, creating more possibilities for reconfiguring the work environment. At the same time, these same changes created a lighter, more open feel to workspaces. A social atmosphere is developed. Connections and relationships are established and tended. People meet at the network printer as well as the water cooler.
However, laboratory environments never caught up. Old-line laboratory and industrial furniture manufacturers continued to produce the same inflexible, fixed casework, the same uncomfortable, heavy stools, with the same antiquated materials laboratories have used since the time of Faraday and Tesla, with only minor updates to accommodate more modern regulatory and scientific needs.
That is the environment Formaspace came into when it entered the laboratory and light industrial environments in 1993. The conversation began as any might, when a customer approached the company and asked for something different. The customer was a very young Michael Dell.
Michael explained that Dell Computer Corporation was small, but growing at an incredible rate. Could Formaspace build a product that was lighter, more flexible, and less expensive than the products manufactured by the company's existing supplier?
To learn more about the Formaspace approach to future-proofing the work environment, we spoke with Formaspace Chief Executive Officer Jeff Turk.
Formaspace: Tell us about the origins of the concept of Total Flexibility
Jeff: In 1993, Formaspace' predescessor was a custom cabinet maker about like any other. At about that time, Mike Dell asked us to come take a look at what they were doing with computers.
What we found was pretty amazing. Dell was repurposing labs very frequently, yet the labs were working with heavy, fixed, furniture grade products well beyond the budget of a typical rapid-growth company.
We soon learned that the situation at Dell wasn't unique. Across industries, laboratory uses were changing at an increasing rate. Sometimes we even saw labs change in purpose entirely - one year's defibrillator experiment was next year's catheter lab. Product cycle times were decreasing from many years to just months or even weeks in some cases. One of our main labs at Dell repurposes more than monthly.
We knew we could maintain the company's reputation for rugged durability and task-specificity, while also providing the flexibility the new generation of laboratory facilities managers would demand. So we decided to do something different. Future-Proofing was one of those concepts.
Formaspace: What is the creative process like?
Jeff: We began by asking a lot of questions about flexibility, because we found a lack of flexibility constrained our client's potential to remain on the leading edge of their fields.
For example, we asked, 'how should the workspace be configured?', and the answers we got back were 'it depends!' So we started putting benches on total-lock casters so that spaces could be reconfigured naturally without even calling the facilities manager. As a result, our benches can easily be moved around to accommodate new projects, project expansions, or whatever is 'next'.
Another thing we asked is 'why should our benches come in just a few sizes, when people come in all shapes and sizes?' So we designed a number of benches around the concept, from our three-shift benches, which come with electric or electro-hydraulic lifts, to the delux workbench, where the top moves up and down, down to our regular adjustable benches.
With each question we asked, we came up with more and more ways to create really infinite choices for our customers - almost everything on our benches can be changed out easily. The end result was that we designed benches even more rugged than the products that had been out on the market, but also with the flexibility our most forward-looking customers demand. When we added service to match, we began to get closer to the Future-Proof bench.
Formaspace: What have the results been?
Jeff: The changes we made in the market had some unanticipated consequences - our customers found it really easy to add or change components to meet evolving needs. They began to help us design even better, more flexible benches for their industries. And we began to see our large customers as partners in the evolving effort to lead the pace of change, instead of engaging in the old price debate.
The end result has been that Formaspace customers are on the forefront of their markets and are leading the pace of change of business. I tell our employees every day 'We work for the best companies in the world, so we have to make the best benches in the world. Apple, Baxter, Boeing, Dell. They are designing products, right now, today, that don't even fully exist yet, but are going to change the world. And they are all doing it on Formaspace Benches.' The best companies in the world really do all use our benches. That's an incredible legacy. It's something we are very proud of, and want to be part of for a long time to come.
Formaspace: Thank you for your time.
Jeff: Thank you. We're never done though. We are working on projects right now all around the world where customers are telling us about their needs, and we're still evolving. I'm looking forward to "what's next" as much as our customers are!
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