Have you ever had a problem that kept you up at night, aching for a solution? Maybe how to twist your body for that final push on a boulder or how to describe the magic of the mountains to your non-outdoorsy friends? For REI Senior Product Designer Jon Arruda and Manager of Engineering, Product Development Steve Moenaert, that problem was the brand-new REI Co-op Flexlite Air Chair. When you peel back the curtain of the design process, their reasoning becomes clear.
The story begins with a dream: creating a chair that weighed less than one pound. Why one pound? That’s the weight that backpackers told REI, through an insights exercise, they’d be happy carrying into the wild for the luxury of a real camp chair.
Arruda and Moenaert started working on this dream by first crafting a carbon fiber chair with a complicated structure held together by ropes. After months of work, it became clear that the chair was too difficult to put together in the backcountry and had too high of a price point. They scrapped the idea and went back to the drawing board.
What they came back with was a structure that was efficient and comfortable—a refinement of the REI Co-op Flexlite Chair. “But that is doing it an injustice,” Arruda countered. “We had to reengineer it from the ground up—not just the frame, but the seat as well.”
The two began by disassembling an older model of the Flexlite Chair, and weighing each component. Then they came up with a goal: slashing the weight of each part in half. Easy, right?
Arruda kicked off the design process with the seat, working in paper instead of fabric. He challenged himself to not only cut the weight in half, but also to craft the entire chair seat out of one piece of fabric. He borrowed the concept from sailing and parachutes: light fabric can carry lots of weight when engineered properly.
“This chair follows that less-is-more ideology,” Arruda said. “But less is more difficult. It has fewer moving parts, fewer stitches. To execute that simplicity is hard work.”
As Arruda worked on the seat design, Moenaert used computer-aided design (CAD) to turn Arruda’s 2-D drawings into 3-D computer models. With these models, Moenaert could efficiently and accurately change the dimensions of the chair as the design shifted, allowing for quick iterations.
Next up for Moenaert was something called a finite element analysis (FEA), a computer-assisted technique that helps solve engineering problems. “I’d test the structure of the chair virtually before we made any prototypes,” Moenaert said. “We can take the same [real-life] test requirements and virtually simulate them—showing what spots are weak and strong, where we can take material out, where we might have a failure.”
That was just the beginning of Moenaert’s computer-assisted engineering. He also built computer models to test the type of material they should use, the diameters needed in the aluminum frame, and how to fill the parts of the chair during the plastic-molding process—all of that resulted in a more efficient design process.
“There’s a lot of science behind it, and a lot of art,” Moenaert said.
Once they had a virtual model, the REI designers built rapid-made prototypes and sent them to the Magnusson Lab, REI’s in-house testing lab, for evaluation. As Arruda and Moenaert began testing the prototype, they continued refining the design to eliminate weak spots and make the finished product as strong as it could be. Magnusson Lab engineers scrutinized every component of the chair, from the tubing and frame to the hubs—the parts that hold the frame of the chair together—and the seat. Each part of the chair went through hours of testing and analysis to trim the chair’s weight without compromising strength.
“I’ve never worked on a product that I’ve made this many iterations of,” Arruda said. He was able to create a sample and immediately get it into testing. Once there was a failure, they could tweak the sample and get it back into testing. “This was a process of honing the intended design through rapid iterations,” he said. “In some ways it’s a great example of ‘design, build, test, repeat.’”
Finally, once the design team felt they had gotten the design right, the entire chair was tested with yet another new machine—a massive weighted bag that was lifted and dropped into the seat thousands of times—simulating a user sitting in the chair repeatedly over its life cycle. The machine proved remarkably able at finding and destroying weak spots, kicking off a whole new cycle of testing that would continue until the finished product met REI’s rigorous standards.
The final product is the one-pound Flexlite Air, a lightweight—yet luxuriously comfortable—camp chair engineered to the nines. But, according to Arruda and Moenaert, perhaps what’s most exciting about this chair isn’t even the chair itself (although it is worth celebration)—it’s what the design process means for future products coming out of the REI Co-op. Everything from Moenaert’s computer programs and equations to Smith’s drop-machine was crafted specifically for this project, and will be useful for others, too.
“We sleep well at night when we think about this chair,” Arruda said. “We found every problem, we tested every point. It’s more than just a chair, it’s what it represents.”
The stage has been set. Now we wait: What will the REI Co-op Brand dream up next?