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November 1999


Protect Your Investment — Build Your Office With Modular Components

BY TOM KEATING AND EVAN KOBLENTZ, TMCTM LABS

When TMC™ president Rich Tehrani sent out the directive to the TMC™   Labs engineers for a couple from our ranks to plan a visit to Calgary, Alberta, Canada to report on the call center furniture of SMED International, there were no immediate volunteers. After all, those of us in TMC™  Labs are used to testing some pretty high-tech products, so spending three days looking at desks and chairs sounded less than intriguing. We didn't even have a clue what "SMED" stood for. But Rich said something about a free day to play tourist at the nearby Banff National Park, and he also said something about the trip being arranged by Mario Villena, an executive with the Miami-based CTI firm CellIT, where they make a call center-oriented voice/data switch. CellIT partnered with SMED to build the "Live Call Center" attraction at our CTI™  EXPO, and Mario wanted us to see first-hand what the company is all about. So we decided to think positively: We could always use a mini-vacation, and we trust the judgment of anyone who enjoys talking about CTI as much as his hometown's South Beach. Fellow technology editors Evan Koblentz and Tom Keating were off to Canada. First, we learned that SMED is not an abbreviation, it's the name of the company's founding family. (Later in our adventure, we would meet Mogens Smed, the company's president, whose father started the company.) We would also soon learn how wrong we were to assume that SMED is just another furniture company. It manufactures everything from desks and chairs to cable management floors to ceilings, and just about any other office furniture you can think of. Moreover, we learned some great lessons in customer service from them. Read on as we share some of them.

CellIT's Mario Villena and two SMED employees greeted us at the airport and shuffled us away via Chevy Suburban with a SMED logo on the side. We expected to be dropped off at the local Sheraton, but that was not the case. The truck began to travel deeper into the wilderness, and eventually we arrived at our destination. Surrounded by woodlands with a spectacular view of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, we got our first glimpse of Falkridge, the SMED guest retreat.
We took a brief tour. There was a three-story gazebo with a semi-indoor heated kitchen and dining room, numerous fountains and trails, a guesthouse and a second structure that resembled an office building out of Fantasia. The scoop was that this second building was actually Mogens Smed's former home, now transformed into the second guesthouse, and every building here was designed and furnished with SMED's own products. There were also fireplaces, super-big-screen projection TVs with touch-screen controls and satellite connections, fully stocked bars and refrigerators hidden away around every corner, all leather furniture and even motorized window shades. A team of 30 SMED employees and an outside caterer staff the resort.

The individual guestrooms impressed us as much as the rest of the building. Each had a living room, one and a half-baths, a Jacuzzi tub, a kitchenette, a deck with an incredible mountain view, a television and a state-of-the-art stereo unit with a remote that resembled a wireless mouse. Like most engineers, two of our passions are gadgets and food that's high in sugar, so we immediately went for the satellite TV and the complimentary candy stash. We each had our own room, and after the best night's sleep we've ever had on a business trip (probably because we didn't have to listen to each other snore), we were ready to head off to find meaning in call center furniture.

Before we continue, consider what we had experienced so far. We had yet to meet any SMED engineers or marketing executives, but we were already intimately familiar with the company, products and Smed's level of customer service. Falkridge serves its purpose as a product proving ground. By taking advantage of its own furniture and interior building designs, and by staffing the retreat with highly trained customer service employees, SMED had given us the same experience it provides visiting corporate executive clients or prospects. We were impressed by the extreme professionalism of this company.

Down To Business
We were given a grand tour of the new, multimillion dollar facility SMED had recently opened. The facility is the result of six disparate buildings being combined into one corporate headquarters — with absolutely no “down time,” which is an impressive feat! Our first stop at the SMED facility was to check out their line of chairs. While chairs may not seem too exciting, the chair is probably the most important piece of office furniture, as companies spend billions of dollars on workers’ compensation claims and employee sick time due to back injuries, which can be reduced by using a chair that supports the spine well and promotes good back posture.

SMED has engineered a line of chairs that are designed to support the back. Many of the chairs in the SMED product line feature a durable plastic back support, shaped according to the spinal curvature. This plastic back support is firmer toward the seat cushion and more pliable at the top, which allows a person to lean backward and arch the shoulders and upper back. We questioned the design of this. “Isn’t it bad,” we asked, “for the design of a chair to encourage a person to lean backward? After all, the first thing they teach you in school is to sit up straight.” The SMED representative agreed, but noted that since research shows that people recline anyway, they designed chairs that encourage spinal health by allowing a person to lean back to stretch the spine, instead of following the rules of traditional ergonomics.

Floor-To-Ceiling Considerations
After checking out the chairs, the next stop on our tour was SMED’s floor cabling management system. Floor-based cabling systems are nothing new — they have existed for over 30 years. What is unique to SMED’s CableFloor product is its modular design. Two-foot-square sections of raised floor, supported at each corner by a two-and-a-half-inch-tall plastic cylinder, allow you to organize different types of wires (network, phone, electrical) into separate rows by laying down the wires between each cylinder. This design can save more than 50 percent in cable laying fees compared to traditional methods. Each cylinder is corrugated into an “x” pattern, and for additional strength and stability, each is interconnected through a locking plastic framework. The top of each floor square is removable for easy access, and each floor tile can be customized with its own carpet pattern. See the above picture for an illustration of the CableFloor product.

SMED has not limited itself to designing the floors and the cables contained within them. SMED also has several products for the ceiling. For example, it designed adjustable sprinkler heads that can be turned to allow for a new wall to be placed where the sprinkler head used to be located. Another ceiling product is a noise-reduction system to help reduce background noise. SMED representatives demonstrated this product by walking us from the noisy cafeteria to an office area barely 75 feet away. The decibel level dropped dramatically as we crossed under the noise reduction system installed in the ceiling. Finally, SMED sells ceiling-mounted lighting fixtures, which use the reflection of ambient lighting (rather than a direct lighting source) to minimize the glare that often causes headaches, fatigue and other ailments.

Additionally, SMED creates modular movable walls with prefabricated electrical outlets, network ports and phone jacks, which is part of their lifeSPACE product line. Another product line called Chinook is used for freestanding offices, open plans or any office configuration in areas with very high ceilings. The Chinook ceiling beam system is easily integrated into any SPACE movable wall and moves with the walls should a company choose to relocate.

It’s Simple, It’s Sturdy And It Snaps
[click here to see example]

SMED demonstrated how simple it is to connect and disconnect its adjacent walls. A SMED representative held two five-foot wall pieces at 90 degrees to one another (a corner) and then proceeded to “snap in” a one-half-inch- wide by 5-foot-long triangular piece which blends in by matching the wall color. The triangular piece is specially designed to attach two pieces positioned 90 degrees in relation to each other. A rubber mallet is used to make the triangular connector snap into place and sit fully flush with both walls. Similarly, if two wall sections need to be connected end-to-end, to make a long hallway, for example, a tall, square (rather than triangular) beam snap-in is used. We were quite impressed with the strength of the one-half-inch-wide snap-in pieces. We shook the two corner pieces in opposite directions, but neither budged, proving the sturdiness of the wall.It is important to note that all of the walls, ceiling pieces, etc., are modular, which means that corners can be changed into straight walls and vice-versa. If you need to extend a wall, you don’t need to tear down the wall and rebuild it, which saves immensely on interior building modifications. You can also disconnect the components, ship them somewhere else and then reconnect them. Since you “own” the ceiling, walls and floor system, if your corporation moves to another location, you can take them with you, saving thousands of dollars.

If You Build It, They Will Come
During the tour, we found ourselves surrounded by state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment and were quite impressed with the quantity of products SMED builds. We saw a door being created by machines that had lasers to measure where the wood should be cut. We saw beautifully crafted rounded doors, as well as a private office wall being put together with opaque glass that had artistic etchings crafted into it. SMED uses a combination of AutoCad and Pro/E software to design and manufacture furniture, and it also uses this software to perform 3-D solid modeling (which provides realistic, on-screen product mock-ups) for sales and marketing purposes. We saw a demonstration of the solid-modeling software that depicted an executive’s desk constructed with mahogany wood and a lacquer finish. For readers who aren’t familiar with this kind of software, it allows computer-generated models to depict a “real life” version, down to the lighting effects, shadows and shine reflections off of the lacquer finish.

They Thought Of Everything
SMED has some interesting accessories, including a filing cabinet on wheels (called “Paradocs”) that has a retractable handle similar to carry-on luggage for pulling the filing cabinet to a new location. With a seat cushion on top, the filing cabinet doubles as a chair, and as an extra bonus, office supplies can be stored under the cushion. SMED told us that many of their customers love the versatility of these filing cabinets, particularly for employees who don’t sit at the same desk every day. Another versatile accessory in some models of the office desks is a pop-up power strip located conveniently on the top back corner of the desk. The power strip mounts vertically in an embedded shaft within the desktop. A notched cover lifts up for access, so users can lift out the strip, attach the necessary cables, reinsert it in the shaft and close the cover. This leaves only a neat and organized wire set exposed, rather than a messy and tangled power strip. Another option available is to have a deep, recessed tray that extends around the perimeter of the back of the desktop. A hinged pop-up lid can be lifted to reveal power strips, network ports and phone jacks. This is convenient for users and MIS personnel to connect or disconnect devices without having to crawl under the desk.

The B.I.G. Picture
SMED realizes that customers have a set budget for filling the interior of an office. As such, SMED has tried to make it as easy as possible to give its customers an accurate assessment of how much it would cost if the customer chose SMED over competing products. A software product called B.I.G. (Budgetary Intelligence at a Glance) is a Windows-based utility for calculating the costs. The main menu of this software includes “Shell Space,” “Constructive Solutions” and “Financial Benefits.” Based on several customer-supplied variables such as floor space, the number of desks, offices, etc., the software program provides an estimate of the total cost. The program can also be modified to use a low, medium, high or actual unit cost for each product element. It allows a user to set percentage rates for cost of capital, tax rate and churn rate (office renovations, such as moving walls), as well as the lease period. SMED told us that accountants and CFOs love this program since they can set the amortization rate.

Conclusion
We went on an adventure to discover what SMED is doing with its call center furniture product line. Little did we know that our 3,500-mile trek would reveal so much more, and that the customer service would be so good that we wouldn’t want to leave.

SMED, which is ISO 9001 registered, makes floors, ceiling products, walls, office chairs, office desks, doors, call center furniture and many accessories. As one SMED official put it, “Give us an empty office shell and we’ll build everything you need to fill it.” After seeing just a few of the products SMED sells, as well as seeing its manufacturing plant and all the products it can build, we were convinced that the statement was not just hype. At the end of the day, we felt that SMED showed us the true definition of one-stop shopping.

An example of an extremely innovative desk. The concept here is to put a file cabinet underneath your desk rather than beside it. The slide-away cabinet stays out of your way and saves space.

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