Coming up with a new product takes more than just a light-bulb moment. It takes a rare synchronicity of factors – from capabilities and strengths, to professional networks, to finances, to consumer demand – and then that ‘sweet spot’ for any successful product where design intersects with humanity. By Paul Hughes.

For us at Integra Systems, synchronicity was achieved when we hit on the concept of new range of sit-stand office desks, which developed into the WorkSmart Collection of BioSmart and AeroSmart workstation solutions. Fourteen prototypes and a lot of mental and physical muscle later, we’ve got a story to tell about how our company transitioned from creating innovative products for other businesses, to devising our own intellectual property under the subsidiary company Integra TransForm.

We were familiar with the sit-stand workplace trend  sweeping the globe – we’d been asked to produce an industrial sit-stand solution for a client’s assembly line, using Linak actuators, which we consider to be the best available. From a technical point of view, we already understood how the actuators worked, giving us a leg-up to create a new kind of desk in our own unique vision. But that wasn’t the tipping point.

I personally had been suffering from a prolapsed disc in my back and, being a highly active person, was mindful of how I went about my daily business and whether I would be putting additional pressure on my already-weakened spine. This led me to consider others working at Integra, and how they dealt (or failed to deal) with their own health and mobility challenges.

We knew what we could create with the sit-stand Linak technology, and we knew other sit-stand products available were inferior in structure and longevity. Anything robust was quite ‘clunky’, requiring a mechanical assist that forced the user to move their body – sometimes even leaning right over the desk – to raise the unit. We felt that was counter-intuitive to the desk’s purpose. We may not have invented the sit-stand desk, but we knew we could really improve on it, which became our primary objective.

It was important for us to make excellence our defining factor. Other sit-stand solutions had compromised quality to meet a certain price-point. We recognised our product would not be the cheapest, but it would be the best.

One way we tackled the cost issue was to create two solutions: BioSmart and AeroSmart. As the desk converter, BioSmart is the range’s flagship product, adapting existing office furniture rather than replacing it. As a whole-desk solution, AeroSmart figures at a higher price, and is more suited to those establishing a new office or replacing furniture and starting again. We were increasing our workload by perfecting two new products instead of one, but it also allowed us to service two very different markets without sacrificing quality for cost.

We have a breakout table in our office – which happens to be a sit-stand table – so we gathered around it as a group for some intensive brainstorming. The WorkSmart Collection started as just a few sketches; it took significant time and consideration before it leapt from page to prototype.

We recognised one definite challenge: with a freestanding unit like the BioSmart, you’re relying on one central point, the actuator. How do you create a secure, stable platform that looks great but is essentially just a pole? The actuator is only one part. The design genius comes through the engineering combined with the industrial design to create a unit that is ergonomic, attractive and mechanically functional with the strength to last the distance.

Our industrial designer looked at our sketches and worked out how to make our concepts manufacturable and beneficial to the consumer. From there, we continued to narrow it down until we settled on the winning design.

In commencing our sit-stand journey, we were mindful the market rapidly changes. Despite the time required to perfect and launch a product, we would need to respond to market demands quickly – whatever they may be. Without the aid of a crystal ball, we anticipated wanting to tool certain parts – such as the universal joints where computer screens are mounted – as well as making other advancements down the track.

With this in mind, we constructed our sit-stand units in a flexible manner to allow the product to evolve with the consumer. You could call it ‘scalable manufacturing’. Sometimes, if you go to tooling too early, it locks down creativity so you cannot improve your product later. We like to keep manufacturing methods flexible in the early stages so we can adapt to user demands. We’re constantly getting market research information, so if we were to lock in our processes, we would be unable to respond to that information. It is important to remain flexible, keep your design pencil sharp, and leave room for refinement.

You may have a burning desire to create a certain product – but is anyone buying it? That’s the question you need to ask yourself. We chose to develop and fund our WorkSmart Collection ourselves without the support of government funding or angel investment. This meant we had to keep processes Lean and complete as much development as possible in-house to manage our costs.

We chose to conceive an idea and then head down a path of design before we completed the market research, but our initiation into sit-stand desks and our ability to produce something entirely ourselves meant we were confident in taking this developmental journey.

Considering the groups we wanted to target, we got into the minds of medical practitioners, patients, ergonomists and even interior decorators. One medical practitioner – Dr Carolyn Royce –proved integral to our research. Within three days of supplying sit-stand units to her clinic free of charge, she asked us to send her an invoice because her staff loved them so much she felt it unconscionable not to pay for them.

We created a prototype for an RMIT ergonomist, as well as the senior ergonomist for the Coles Myer Group. He’s a perfectionist, putting us through all manner of hoops and hurdles before agreeing to sign-off on the units. We’ve been through four reviews with him, which, while a little frustrating, has been incredibly beneficial to us. We now know we’ve produced a product that is ergonomically sound.

Paul Hughes, CEO Integra Systems. In the next issue of AMT, Paul will explain how Integra brought its new product to market.