With sales down nearly 30% in the last quarter, Herman Miller is busy restructuring, consolidating its manufacturing operations, and…diversifying beyond furnishings. The company best known for industrial design classics of yesterday (by the likes of George Nelson and Charles and Ray Eames) and today (Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf‘s Aeron chair) is focused on a new product that you won’t be able to see, let alone sit on: Convia, a high-tech wiring system that allows offices, restaurants, and stores to integrate power delivery and save big on electric bills. Developed in consultation with Applied Minds as part of Herman Miller’s initiative to explore new lines of business in the wake of the 2001 recession, Convia aims to make traditionally rigid electrical infrastructure flexible. Mina Kimes explains how it works in the current issue of Fortune:
Normally, if an office manager wants to split, say, a conference room into two offices, he has to rip out the walls and hire an electrician to put in new wiring so that each office can control its own lighting. With Convia, the wires running through walls or cubicles are “smart,” so no electrician is necessary, just install a switch and point a wand at every lighting fixture you want the switch to control. In a flash the room is divided into two separate circuits.
The system, which also controls temperature and electric devices, can translate into big energy savings. Early adopters include the U.S. Green Building Council, whose new Perkins+Will-designed corporate headquarters in Washington, D.C. is “Convia-enabled.”
Now Herman Miller is stepping up its energy management game through a new partnership with Legrand, a manufacturer of products and systems for electrical installations and information networks. Under the terms of an agreement announced last month, Convia technology will be embedded into Legrand’s wire and cable management systems. According to Herman Miller, the deal will enhance Convia by adding control and monitoring of office plug loads (the amount of energy drawn by devices from an electrical outlet) and lighting loads. “Roughly 80 percent of people say they are uncomfortable with their workspace,” said Herman Miller CEO Brian Walker in a statement issued by the company. “When you consider that 50,000 commercial buildings are demolished each year, and that 45 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases are produced by commercial and industrial buildings, it’s clear we need to rethink how our buildings are created, used and changed.”