“Be sure to understand your end user and the supply chain through which your material moves. Many companies want to ‘do the right thing’ in terms of materials health and optimising life cycles, but the economics must make sense.”
As a result of the huge efforts from environmentally-minded companies into the development of next-generation, bio-based materials there is now a great deal of choice – with more fantastic products no doubt in the pipeline. One company leading the way in this area is Steelcase Inc., the sustainable manufacturer of furniture, technology and architecture products that includes desks, conference materials and acoustic solutions in its range.
Sharon Tracy, the principal researcher of strategic materials development at the company, joins Bio-Based World News for the latest instalment of 5 Minutes With… Sharon speaks to Dave Songer about the big range of products they manufacture and supply, offers some invaluable advice to the future stars of the bio-based world and gives a picture of what the future of innovative, sustainable materials could look like.
Dave Songer (DS): Hi Sharon, thanks for joining us. For those who don’t know you, can we begin with a description about what Steelcase Inc. does?
Sharon Tracy (ST): For more than 100 years, Steelcase Inc. has helped create great experiences for the world’s leading organisations, across industries. We demonstrate this capability through our family of brands – including Steelcase, Coalesse, turnstone, Designtex, Steelcase Health, Steelcase Education, and PolyVision. Together, we offer a comprehensive portfolio of furniture, technology, and architecture products and services designed to unlock human promise in the workplace. We’re globally accessible through a network of channels, including more than 800 dealer locations. @Steelcase is a global, industry-leading and publicly-traded company with a fiscal 2017 revenue of $3bn.
DS: You’ve been with the company for close to three years now, what does your role entail and what do you most enjoy about it?
ST: My role is a combination of researcher, translator of research to practice, catalyst, team builder, and innovation process developer. I love the variety of projects; the great people I meet and am privileged to work with, both internally and externally; and the excitement of bringing new materials innovations into the company to not only help us grow as a company, but to help all the workers who use our products be as well as they can be.
DS: And the bio-based industry – what do you most enjoy about being involved in that?
ST: Again, the people are so great to work with – we share a passion to have a positive impact on others and the environment, which is very energising. I also enjoy applying my experience with materials to find real, actionable ways to continually improve materials health and life cycle in cross-functional teams including engineering, chemistry, design, business, and marketing.
DS: What is the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced?
ST: Sustainability is a multi-factorial concept that is difficult to systematise. Given this complexity, we need to build the internal business process concurrently with the work of innovating materials technologies.
DS: What advice would you give an individual or start-up looking to get started in the bio-based industry?
ST: Be sure to understand your end user and the supply chain through which your material moves. Many companies want to ‘do the right thing’ in terms of materials health and optimising life cycles, but the economics must make sense. Understand what problems your material will solve because they represent its value. Also, build applications one at a time; start with low volume and higher margin items to build your capability and process so that cost will continually decline over time, which will open more applications to you in the future.
DS: Can you provide any detail on any projects that Steelcase Inc. is currently working on?
ST: We have a cross-functional team that has formed around the problem of wood by-product materials that are generated when we manufacture furniture. Broadly speaking, the by-products contain veneer, cut edges of particleboard with laminate, and wood dust from drilling operations. We’re challenging ourselves to reduce by-products going to landfill, not only by considering our product development processes but also by looking at plant operations as well as a variety of beneficial reuse scenarios to give these materials a second life.
DS: Where would you like to see Steelcase Inc. in ten years’ time?
ST: We will have a robust process for evaluating new materials to rank them in terms of multiple dimensions of sustainability. This process will be implemented to the degree that every designer and engineer will be able to have information at their fingertips, enabling them to make informed decisions at every necessary point during product development. Our products will be designed to minimise material waste, yet maximise the product and material life cycle(s).
DS: You spoke at this year’s World Bio Markets – what did you discuss and what did you get out of the show?
ST: I co-presented with my colleague Megann Head, who is an engineer in our global sustainability team. We shared a bit about Steelcase’s leadership in the realm of sustainability, noting examples in materials, such as having the first Cradle to Cradle certified product – our Think chair. We then described how we’re evolving our thinking and capabilities to include optimising life cycle impacts, enabling end-of-use strategies, and ensuring material health. We shared that incorporating bio-based materials involves balancing many factors, including physical (such as energy and chemistry); stakeholder (customer requests and internal functions); business (supply chain, economics, development processes and implementation processes); and the importance of communication throughout the whole process. Bio-based materials are innovative materials, and innovation is a complex process, so it’s good to start small and continue learning in cycles of increasing impact.
While at the show I met many people with whom I followed up with in respect to specific materials or relationships to nurture. I also learned from the other speakers about how they’re thinking about incorporating bio-based materials into their products.
DS: What is your favourite bio-based product and why?
ST: Lumber is my favourite bio-based product. You might think that it is in Steelcase’s range, but perhaps this question illustrates how far industrialisation has come. It’s more cost-effective to make furniture look like wood by encasing a composite board with veneer than to make the entire piece out of wood. I believe I just gave myself an LCA homework assignment!
DS: Yes, they're fantastic materials. Thanks Sharon.