Formway engaged the Centre to facilitate the eco-design process and provide a sounding board for creative environmental ideas that emerged from the Formway team throughout the design phase. The Melbourne based eco-design research group and its associates is recognised as one of the world’s most active research centres related to environmentally oriented product development.

The Centre commenced its eco-design partnership with Formway in 1998, and has worked intimately on the LIFE project providing environmental advice and direction throughout the design process.

The approach was underpinned by ensuring that the design brief for LIFE comprehensively addressed environmental factors from the outset. Blending eco-design into the early stages was considered critical and demonstrated that Formway was committed to producing a product with a low environmental impact from day one.

In collaboration with diverse Formway personnel, the Centre developed a detailed eco-design brief that would help the design team and others in Formway, understand and apply environmental objectives and principles. The design brief covered eco-design objectives aimed at eliminating and/or minimising a range of life cycle environmental impacts. Specific design considerations covered areas such as:

• environmentally oriented materials selection

• design to facilitate cleaner production

• design for durability and extended product life

• design for reupholstery, refurbishment and reuse

• design for disassembly and recycling

The eco-design brief for LIFE also outlined important system-wide considerations able to maximise the chair’s overall environmental performance, especially those where the influence of design is diminished because of end-user behaviour or regulatory requirements. In this regard the Centre developed practical issues papers, case studies and recommendations related to:

• product stewardship and life cycle management

• environmental communications, including product information and marketing

• the role of environmental labels and other value-adding mechanisms

One of the most rewarding aspects of the RMIT-Formway collaboration on LIFE, has been the continual enthusiasm shown by Formway personnel. Company directors, senior management, tool makers, marketers, and of course the design team, consistently engaged with the project’s environmental objectives as a source of stimulation, innovation and differentiation. 

The integration of eco-design factors into LIFE was characterised by an interactive and collaborative process between RMIT and Formway. The resulting team dynamic was outcome-oriented and productive. 

The partnership also demonstrates the evolving nature of global research cooperation and the key role of IT and communications technologies in enabling information exchange and project-based team work. 

Furniture and the environment 

Issues such as materials efficiency and dematerialisation, durability and extended product life, low impact materials and recyclability, have all provided a point of productive intervention that tackle multiple objectives. These objectives are not mutually exclusive and reflect an holistic approach to furniture design and associated product life cycles. 

Global warming, emissions to water, solid and hazardous wastes, resource depletion, visual pollution, and reduced biodiversity, can all in some way be traced back to the production and consumption of manufactured goods such as furniture. 

Formway understands these issues and impacts and has a proactive approach to their resolution within the context of the furniture industry. Formway’s research, design and development activities related to environment and sustainability is an ongoing process, mindful of emerging technologies and evolving work practices.

The eco-design or environmental spectrum at Formway encompasses more than recycled materials. From a more commercial perspective, the enthusiasm associated with developing environmentally sensitive products has evolved considerably in recent years. High profile, global corporates across several key sectors – including the furniture sector – have engaged with environmental issues for different reasons. 

The LIFE chair represents a new benchmark in office chairs worldwide that embodies Formway’s environmental philosophy, design innovation, technical ability and workplace foresight.

LIFE has already won a gold award for seating design at the prestigious NeoCon international furniture tradefair in Chicago in June this year. Industry peers have acknowledged its exceptional qualities and attributes, mindful that it symbolises an unprecedented point of reference for eco-design and ergonomics in the furniture industry. 

LIFE... cycle thinking 

Materials 

The design team aimed to avoid the use of problematic materials such as PVC. The foam used for the seat and arms is blown without chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that are known to damage the ozone layer. The medium used to manufacture the foam is water.

Recycled materials were used for the metal components wherever possible. The total recycled content of the chair is 52% by weight. The highest recycled content is 100% for some of the aluminium components, up to 90% for some zinc components and up to 20% for ABS, nylon and acetal.

At this stage some of the nylon components cannot incorporate recycled content due to a loss of properties in the recycling process. Opportunities to switch to recycled nylon are still being evaluated.

Manufacturing processes

Processes that are known to have a higher impact on the environment, such as powder coating of metal components, were avoided. The elimination of powder-coating not only reduces overall material consumption, it also avoids the generation of solid and hazardous waste by-products, especially the liquid wastes and processes required to pretreat powder coated components. 

Wherever possible production scrap is reprocessed in-house, for example post-industrial plastic scrap from the injection moulding process is granulated and fed back into the injection moulding machine. Similarly, all aluminium scrap is recycled.

Impacts on a healthy workplace

The use of adhesives for the assembly process was avoided wherever possible to make the disassembly process easier, and to minimise emission of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the workplace.

VOCs are emitted from adhesives, paints and some plastics, and research has linked emissions to poor indoor air quality and ‘sick building syndrome’. Productivity losses of up to 6% have been identified in staff working in buildings where indoor air quality is poor and is estimated to cost companies billions of dollars annually in lost productivity.

The LIFE chair has replaced most of the adhesives with alternatives fastening mechanisms such as snap fits, hinge pins or spring clips.

Another highly significant feature of the LIFE chair is the improved ergonomics, which will contribute to a healthier workplace and more productive workers.

Water avoidance

One of the best ways to reduce environmental impacts is to eliminate unnecessary components and reduce the total amount of material used. The LIFE chair weighs only 15 kg (33 pounds), which is significantly lighter than competitive products that weigh between 18 and 25 kg. LIFE also has fewer components – only 177 compared to over 200 for one competitor.

Such a reduction translates into approximately 18% fewer components than its primary competitor. This eco-design achievement facilitates easier disassembly, reuse & refurbishment, as well as materials recycling when LIFE reaches end-of-life.

One obvious example of the light-weighting strategy is the back of the chair, which is made from a knitted fabric with an optional plastic lumber support. The knitted fabric has replaced the conventional plastic back with foam and upholstery fabric. 

Durability

The LIFE chair has been designed for durability. LIFE’s 10 year warranty underscores Formway’s design targets and demonstrates the company’s confidence and commitment to product life extension, compared to the more common five year warranty.

Increased durability has been achieved through Finite Element Analysis and Design Validation tests specifically aimed at eliminating weak points and maximising product longevity. The lack of any damage-prone finishes such as powder coating, also reduces aesthetic deterioration.

Reuse and refurbishment

The LIFE chair has been designed for reuse and refurbishment, which is another way of increasing the life of the product and adding value to the customer. Many of the components, including the seat and back sub-assemblies, seat, back and arm toppers, the aluminium base and the upholstery are easy to remove, replace or ‘retrofit’. 

Disassembly and recycling

The LIFE chair has been designed for disassembly to assist in repair and refurbishment as well as recycling. Features include:

• elimination of most adhesives apart from soft tops and labels – these have been replaced with snap fits, hinge pins or spring clips which are easier to take apart

• a reduction in the total number of components

• seat and back toppers don’t need tools to assemble or disassemble

• only a screwdriver, allen key, mallet and pair of pliers are needed to dismantle the whole assembly

A reduction in the number of components will facilitate easier reuse, refurbishment and recycling. In this regard LIFE outperforms similar chairs currently in the marketplace e.g. LIFE has approximately 18% fewer components (it has 177 parts) than its primary competitors. 

The LIFE chair incorporates other features that improve recyclability. Most of the plastic parts have in-mould labels to help identify the different plastics so that they can be separated for recycling.

Most of the materials used in manufacturing the chair are technically recyclable (e.g. aluminium, steel, ABS, polypropylene, nylon and PU foam).

While a large percentage of the chair is technically recyclable, a system would obviously need to be put in place to collect, disassemble and recycle them. Formway and its partners are currently investigating the possibility of establishing a take-back scheme in certain markets. 

Collectively, the eco-design features embodied in LIFE directly and indirectly contribute to improved waste avoidance, waste reduction, reuse and refurbishment, as well as materials recycling when LIFE eventually reaches end-of-life.

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