It seemed simple enough for a group of California aerospace engineers: Design a workstation for a friend who was injured and couldn't sit in an office chair for more than 10 minutes without pain. How hard could it be to create a chair and desk that would properly support the back and a work surface that would move with the user?
Plenty difficult, they found. Creating the perfect workstation is like seeking the Holy Grail. It seems simple at the time, but the complexities of melding the human body with furniture and technology has stumped designers for more than a century.
So it should come as no surprise it took the engineers six years and $3 million in funding to design the Altwork Station. Since it came from outside the industry, the Altwork Station looks like (almost) nothing else on the market — a workstation, electronically adjustable seat and easily integrated technology that makes it easy to work in a seated, standing or reclined position.
“Why hasn't someone made a workstation like this before? Because it is really hard,” said Altwork co-founder and chief executive officer Che Voigt.
What started as a project to help a friend work through an injury turned into a business model to create the ultimate healthy workstation. Voigt and his business partner, John Speicher — he's the guy who was injured — went to work designing the Altwork Station and building a business around it.
Perhaps because it came from outside the office furniture industry, the Altwork Station does look and function remarkably different from nearly anything else on the market, though Humanscale's new work lounge introduced at NeoCon certainly comes close.
What makes the Altwork Station truly unique is its connection to the user. The seat itself is radically different, allowing the user to work in a more traditional sitting position all the way to fully reclined. The seat is controlled electronically from a touchpad on the worksurface. As the seat moves — like a flower petal opening from under the legs of a user — so does the work surface itself, positioning itself perfectly as the user's position changes.
Everything is connected, but the workstation is designed to work in four key ways — sitting, standing, collaborating and focusing. The Altwork Station is not for everyone. It was designed for high-intensity computer users, Voigt said. Think traders, coders, CAD designers. And it does not come cheap. The Signature Series, which comes in 12 fabrics, five desk finishes, three frame finishes and three seat finishes, is being sold for the “pre-shipping” price of $5,500. The list is $6,900. The Standard Series, which comes in either a light or dark finish, is $4,500 “pre-shipping” price or a list of $5,900.
The price has shocked some in the tech world, but Voigt feels it is a fair price giving the amount of engineering and design that went into it. More than $3 million was spent to design it, some coming from the founders and some coming from angel investment money. For those in the office furniture industry, a complete workstation, including a seat, for about $5,000 sounds like a bargain.
“After we started working on it, I became more convinced that this wasn't just a product for people who were injured, but heavy computer users as well. Many people still use a computer as a professional tool and a lot of them spend hours and hours at their desks,” he said.
In addition to getting the ergonomics correct, Voigt said they had to design a product that was tech neutral, which means that it could work regardless of how computer devices change in the future. “We needed to design it knowing that the screen the user puts on it is probably going to be replaced several times in that product's history,” he said. “We had to be agnostic about screens, computers and input and output devices. So it has a standard VESA mount on the back. It allows the user to take the wire covers off and replace it different wires and so that tech changes to things like HDMI mini displays or display ports could be changed.”
It had to be comfortable as well. There are very few options for reclined work other than a pile of pillows on your lap and a laptop perched precariously on top. As technology has become more flexible, Voigt said, the company wanted to make a product where technology moves with the user instead of the user bending their body to make the technology work.
Voigt said comfort and creativity are intimately related physiologically. If people are not comfortable at work, they are not creative. So Altwork used ergonomic studies and its own research into reclined work to help with Station's design. As mechanical engineers, they initially came up with a product that was, well, quite mechanical. So Altwork tapped a few designers to help refine the final product to make sure it was as beautiful as it was functional.
While it does look radically different that what many expect from a workstation, the office furniture industry has seen something similar — Niels Diffrient's Jefferson Chair and Humanscale's new work lounge, which was displayed at NeoCon this year for the first time.
“I found some of Niels Diffrient's work online and know he was a very intelligent designer,” Voight said. “It was a real loss when he passed. I have huge respect for him and someday I am actually going to find one of his Jefferson Chairs. I know they are out there.”
As for the Altwork Station, it is set to start shipping next month. Voigt said the company had an extremely successful preorder campaign. It is also selling the Station through some traditional dealers and wants to add more. The company has plans to exhibit the product at some furniture shows, but hasn't finalized a schedule.
The Altwork Station was designed in California and will be built there as well. The company will be occupying a former HP location in Sonoma County. “It was extremely important to us to bring jobs back to California,” he said.
With all the knowledge the company built along with the Altwork Station, it plans to add accessories to its product mix as well. Might that knowledge lead to other workstations in the future? It's too early to tell, but if these entrepreneurs put their minds to other problems in the office, Altwork could be sitting pretty.