Herman Miller's GreenHouse Factory Generates 15 Pounds of Landfill Waste Per Month

herman miller greenhouse interior photo
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Images credit Lloyd Alter

This doesn't look like any factory I have ever been in. The interior street (curved, because architect William McDonough wanted the experience to change as it unfolded before you) is full of plants and amenities; there are no doors separating it from the factory floor. But as attractive as the pictures of Herman Miller's GreenHouse are, the real story is in the numbers, which are mind-boggling.

herman miller greenhouse interior photo aeron

Eric Van Dam, Director of Production Operations, rhymes them off:

  • An Aeron Chair pops of the Herman Miller assembly line every 21 seconds, every 13 seconds when they have a lot of orders.
  • Each one takes 268 seconds to assemble. Every one is made to order; there is no inventory.
  • The "store" contains two hours worth of parts; each assembly line has a couple of minutes worth of parts. Trucks arrive from some suppliers as many as six times a day.
  • 50% of the parts used are manufactured within 30 miles of the factory in Zeeland, Michigan.
  • Every employee changes his station on the line every hour, and through different zones every month so that they can operate every station on the line, and not get stuck in the same job forever.
  • Last week when the snowstorms reduced deliveries and people stayed home, everyone was reassigned onto the most important line and they still turned out forty percent of their normal output.
  • About 45 million pounds of parts, materials and packaging come into the plant every year. Amount of waste sent to landfill every month: fifteen pounds.

These are the kinds of numbers that come from the "development of a culture based on removing waste from the system." They don't waste time, they don't waste materials, they don't waste energy, they don't waste anything.

Less Inventory, Less Waste

Production is based on the Herman Miller Performance System,, a just-in-time lean manufacturing system adapted from Toyota. Anything sitting around in inventory has to be housed, taking up space and burning energy to heat and move. So they develop a system where the factories supplying parts are close, reducing logistics costs, chances of delays, and fuel waste.

The system is fast, everything timed down to the second, every tool placed where it can be most effective, everything designed for efficiency.

herman miller greenhouse interior photo base

An example is this stack of Aeron chair bases. The worker connects one to the next part every 21 seconds, so the pile on the rack, at the very start of the line, is shrinking before my eyes. I ask what happens if she runs out of bases; Eric says the line shuts down, and that we will know in 1:21. I think even he was getting a bit nervous as the pile shrank to two bases. Then a guy with a cart appears around the corner and with a push, fills the whole thing in about a second and the line continues.

herman miller greenhouse interior photo gravity

There is a story behind that tilted rack, too; engineers had proposed a complicated device with motors, moving belts and sensors to deliver the bases; Agustin Coronado, a worker on the Aeron line, came up with a simpler idea based on gravity. He tells the Herman Miller Discover Blog:

Agustin says he began with an idea in his head, made a simple drawing, and created prototypes. Like many designers, Agustin observed, "You don't succeed every time. You just build it and you improve. And you can't be afraid to fail. You get tired today, but tomorrow is a fresh start."
herman miller greenhouse interior photo truck

Where it is a big order, the whole thing goes straight from the line into the truck, with a reusable cover instead of a box.

Other Environmental Perks

herman miller greenhouse interior photo ceiling

But one really walks away from this building with the impression that going green and doing the right thing isn't tacked on for public relations or greenwashing, but is built into the system and produces real benefits. That big skylight connects workers with the outside and improves working conditions, but one can also see in this photo how few electric lights are on; they are tied to sensors and turn off when there is enough natural light. They save a fortune on electricity, productivity is higher and absenteeism is lower.

herman miller greenhouse interior photo exterior

I am having a tough time finishing this post; I usually like to be critical of something, somewhere, but my critical faculties have deserted me. Oh wait, here's one: I'm shocked, shocked that you are still generating fifteen pounds of landfill waste every month. What ever happened to zero waste?