Inshoring A Swedish Software Company Grows Stateside

What do DeLaval cream separators and the furniture in your office have in common? They may have been designed on computer systems using a software program from a Swedish company.

DeLaval is a long-established name in the American dairy industry. They make everything from those machines that separate cream from milk to a line of robots that can do the actual milking. They were founded in Sweden in the late 1800s and now have a global presence.

Steelcase is a long-established name in the commercial furniture industry. They were founded in 1912 in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Those two companies, in different industrial sectors, both design many of their products using computer software from Configura, a 21-year-old company that got its start in Linköping, Sweden.

Configura’s office in Grand Rapids.

Five years ago Configura wanted to broaden their global footprint -“ and opened an office in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Why Grand Rapids? To begin with, it has much longer summers than Sweden. It’s also at the heart of the U.S. commercial furniture industry. The father of one of the founders of Configura owned a commercial furniture company in Sweden. “He knew that selling commercial office furniture was a complex sell because there are so many variations,” explains Peter Brandinger, the Swede in charge of Configura’s west Michigan office. “His son was a computer science major at the local university. The son and a friend started trying to figure out ways to use technology to make his dad’s job easier.”

“As a consumer you can walk into a retail furniture showroom, see a sofa and chairs and know exactly what they look like and what they will cost,” says Brandinger. “In the commercial office sector there are many more things involved. You have to work with someone who can figure out what you need, then they have to take a lot of time to figure out what it’s going to cost and then someone has to build everything.”

Configura VP Peter Brandinger and company CEO Johan Lyreborn accept 2008 best of category award at NeoCon.

Computer technology was a boon to the contract furniture business in the ’80s with the spread of Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software. As it did in the automotive industry, CAD programs made it much easier to do the grunt work of designing routine furniture such as chairs and desks. But their additional functionality was limited.

“The [CAD] design tools that existed, (and still exist),” says Configura client Steve Ericsson of Grand Rapids-based Steelcase, one of the country’s leading commercial furniture makers, “did little to help the dealer designer understand product application rules and available options as they created solutions. The tools did not have the ability to automatically generate supports, brackets and electrical harnesses. And, they did very little to help the designer, the sales person and the customer see the solutions in 3D, especially when it came to representing chosen surface materials.”

Configura’s Brandinger says that not only does the software do all of that, but it then “connects to the Steelcase ordering system so that it orders the right parts.” He explains that while his other commercial furniture clients make similar products, “their manufacturing systems are different, their engineering is different, so what we do for them has to be different as well.”

Brandinger amplifies on the complexities of the competitive field of office furniture. “The business logic, including how they price, how they market -“ all that can be incorporated into the Configura software. There is a chain of events that takes place, from the point of sale to the actual installation of the product.”

The basic operational information about a specific product -“ such as size, color options, location of electrical wiring runs, and even links to manufacturing and re-ordering data is also baked into the software. The way it’s presented, and to whom, can be very different, Brandinger says. “The client wants to know how it will look and what it will cost, the manufacturing people don’t care how it looks -“ they just want to know the right part number to make and how many of them.”

“In order to be more competitive on the market today,” says Brandinger, “you need to work smarter and more efficiently. Still today a lot of companies struggle with these types of products because of the work effort they have to put into selling them. They won’t even go after a lot of potential business because they can’t afford to sell smaller projects. They have to have much more margin and they can only get that going after big projects -“ and in bad times there aren’t that many big projects out there.”

Steelcase uses a combination of the Configura-powered SmartTools design software and their media:scape furniture and technology products to do collaborative ‘live’ design with their clients.

Configura has created a software “platform” that can be customized by its clients and integrated into their existing branded systems. In the case of Steelcase, their customers know the customized version as Steelcase SmartTools. A big advantage of SmartTools is the ability to make changes to a project on the fly. “Less sophisticated programs don’t have that integration feature that allows all of a client’s systems to keep each other updated,” says Brandinger.

“With the new workforce coming out of school today,” says Brandinger, “they’re not very interested in learning the type of very complicated tools or product-specific information that you need. We can take care of all that because it is a daunting task to learn literally hundreds of thousands of part numbers and how to put a work surface together with a panel system -“ you need to add three more brackets if you make it one foot longer, that kind of thing.”

“They want to be creative, they want to be visual, they want to be problem-solvers for their customer,” Brandinger continues. “We want to make sure they don’t create problems.”

“What we do is enable the design and sales force to go before a customer and show them a concept for a project and when the customer says that it’s close to his budget, but something has to be modified to bring the cost down, that can be done right there in the client’s office or our customer’s design studio,” says Brandinger.

Steven Eriksson of Steelcase.

Steelcase’s Ericsson agrees. “With our products now in the SmartTools software, our dealer designers can quickly create anything from small ‘typicals’ to entire floors of furniture. They get instant ‘list pricing,’ an accurate part count and the ability to generate a great rendering that sometimes replaces the time and expense involved in a real mockup. In short, it helps our design teams at our dealers focus on doing great designs for clients in a fraction of the time and with significantly fewer errors. Steelcase benefits from their use of SmartTools in terms of a higher percentage of clean orders, increased win rates and more effective customer engagement.”

The idea of “customer engagement” is an unexpected additional component, Brandinger says. “The design team can go to a customer with a floor plan and, to meet the budget, they might have to lower the panels or do something else. They can make those changes in front of the customer and there’s this interaction where the customer actually is participating in the design process. This was impossible before.”

Configura had several options to choose from before deciding on Grand Rapids as the anchor for its American operations. The city’s business development group, The Right Place, helped find affordable office space and assisted in house hunting for the Swedish families that initially moved to the area.

A Steelcase dealer-designer’s collaborative space layout for a high-tech firm that wanted to attract great talent by showing what their prospect’s workspace would look like.

Now with a total of 20 employees -“ four from Sweden and the rest, including a university co-op student, locally hired, Configura is expanding into additional sectors with opportunities similar to the commercial office business. These include high-end kitchens and baths and material handling business so vital to the manufacturing sector.

The challenge, says Brandinger, is finding additional staff. “We want to find skilled software developers. They don’t have to be experienced because we’re happy to hire them straight out of college. But eight years ago, when the IT industry sort of crashed, people entering school didn’t have software developing on the top of their list. Nobody saw the future in that segment and today we are suffering because of it. That’s a shame because we could really use more of them. It doesn’t require ‘super humans’ to be software developers. We work closely with the local colleges, such as Grand Valley University, and present to their classes. We’re always trying to do our part.”

Breaking news: At NeoCon, the upcoming international commercial furniture design conference, Configura will be announcing a photo-realistic project-rendering component to their software. Designers will also have the integrated ability to create movies that simulate a 3-D “fly-over” of the completed project -“ something that used to require separate software and separate skills to accomplish -“ making it even easier for their customers’ clients to visual a completed project-¦ and make changes.