RGE Legacy Products - Chair Bases

In the 1980s, RGE were contracted to mould parts for a pressure die casting company based in Stourbridge, owned by John Haines. The parts were for small brushes that fitted into the castor hole on the leg ends of pressure die cast aluminium chair base before the castor was assembled. The company was very successful, with a range of pressure die cast bases leading the market in the UK and selling abroad, particularly in Scandinavia. However, the introduction of cheaper, though lesser quality, fabricated and sand cast bases threatened their position in the market.

John reached out to RGE to look at the possibility of developing a plastic alternative. Creating a chair base from plastic that would be as strong as its aluminium counterpart was a big task. In order for the chair to pass the Bifna specifications, it had to be able to take a load of 1.13 tonnes for two minutes, then relax for two minutes and applying pressure again for a further two minutes, before recovering to its original position, alongside a stringent torque test.

RGE researched to find a suitable material to meet the design, strength, cosmetic, processability, and competitiveness criteria. The initial designs produced were strong enough to meet the load requirements, but too expensive to stand a chance of penetrating the market. It was not until we found a combination of reduced weight and more competitive materials that we felt that RGE had a product that would be economical to produce. RGE then had to decide on a design that could appeal to the largest cross section of customers.

RGE modelled a base in wood, based on a design that could appeal to as many companies as possible, as there was no guarantee that the market would accept a plastic base – the only way to test the market was to lay down a full production tool. To add to this, most customers would need three sizes in the same design to cover their range of chairs: 23inch Typist, 25inch Task, and 27inch Executive.

The first set of bases made by RGE was named the Dingle, and was available in 23, 25, and 27inch sizes. The chair was very simplistic, and accommodated for 40mm and 50mm bores, as well as 11mm 10mm castors. RGE began a long period of testing, putting the base through all the test houses to get certification in order to demonstrate they were as strong as pressure die cast bases, the most difficult of which was to simulate aging and how different environments would affect their performance. This resulted in lots of modifications to overcome weaknesses that showed up.

The production of the chair base marked a first for RGE. We had designed, tooled, tested, and certified a plastic chair base that was fully recyclable and met a market need. This was eventually copied by many companies all over the world to become the dominant product used for office chairs, and today plastic bases outsell aluminium bases by a ratio of 4:1.

Once RGE has successfully produced a robust product, we needed to introduce a QC procedure that would ensure that consistency in the production process was maintained. The involved making special purpose equipment to monitor bases from each batch. The biggest fear was any breakage when the chair was in use, as this could result in serious injury, calling into question the reputation of plastic bases and the market as a whole.

John Haines sold his company and joined RGE to market the bases, and his knowledge of the market and contacts within it were invaluable in establishing a place within the market quickly. As RGE started to approach customers, some problems were encountered. As we only catalogued every two years, RGE were not prepared to introduce a new base until the products were re-catalogued. One market leading company at the time also said that they would need to run a five year test program before they would consider introducing the Dingle to their range – although they ended up being a big customer. Many companies wanted exclusivity, but this was not a viable option as none of the companies had large enough demands to justify the investment in tools to get a return. It became clear that the possible market in the UK was not sufficient on its own, and RGE would have to generate oversea sales.

Luck played a hand in getting the market to accept plastic bases – RGE were very competitive on price against aluminium bases, and in 1987, aluminium prices shot up. Chair producers could make big savings by changing to plastic bases, and once some companies grabbed onto this advantage, others had to follow the move or risk losing their market share. Fashion also changed from aluminium to textured finishes with mainly black bases, although there was also demand for a range of colours. This increases the volume of orders, and soon RGE had to lay down duplicate tools. RGE was shipping all over the world and found success in America, which led to the purchase of a green field site in Tennessee to set up a production facility closer to the end user.

Once larger companies gained confidence in plastic bases, they were keen to have their own designs. Throughout the 1990s RGE worked with larger companies in the UK and abroad, producing bases designs and tooling. Since we introduced plastic bases to the office chair market, we have manufactured in excess of 100 million bases within the group. Today we are the largest injection moulding company in the UK, supplying the office furniture market with everything from single components to full chair kits.
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