Collaboration is a powerful way to harness human ingenuity, but think about how businesspeople typically try to collaborate today. A team heads into a conference room for an important brainstorm. Before they can get to work, though, everyone spends several minutes searching for plugs for phones and laptops, navigating a tangle of wires on the conference room table. Next, they wait through a few false starts while the meeting leader tries to open the conference call line, and then find the perfect spot to place the phone where everyone can hear it and be heard.
It’s no wonder meetings are fodder for so many office jokes — yet it’s a serious problem. Between the lost productivity and stymied creativity, the bottom line is taking a hit. This is no way to do business.
But what if meetings were different? Imagine walking into a conference room with an elegant and uncluttered surface, charging your phone wirelessly on the table, and controlling a crystal-clear audio and video system with a wireless tablet.
This isn’t a work fantasy. At DuPont’s Silicon Valley Technology Center in Sunnyvale, California, it’s now a reality. In June, DuPont unveiled a groundbreaking “smart” conference table at the InfoComm 2019 trade show, but the team in Sunnyvale has been testing the first prototype table for nearly a year. Made from a sleek, seamless sheet of DuPont Corian® Solid Surface, the table eliminates the usual jumble of equipment: embedded inside the surface is an array of tiny microphones and speakers, a retractable HDMI cable, and wireless mobile phone charging stations.
“We take these simple concepts and imagine all the different things that we could do to make an existing item — like a conference table — better, more sophisticated, and enabled by technology.”
Greg Blackman, DuPont research fellow
The smart table is the first innovation to emerge from DuPont’s efforts to couple its proven materials with state-of-the-art electronics. The goal of the Smart Materials team is to seamlessly combine form, function, and style to invent a new class of products and spaces where technology is fully integrated. Using this concept to transform a conference table was an idea sparked at the Silicon Valley Technology Center because it could meet an essential workplace need, and the team has been prototyping a number of other concepts since then.
“We take these simple concepts and imagine all the different things that we could do to make an existing item — like a conference table — better, more sophisticated, and enabled by technology to provide data and analytics,” says Greg Blackman, a longtime DuPont research fellow and technical leader of the Smart Materials team.
The art of the possible
DuPont’s Smart Materials team was launched in 2018 on a simple but profound idea: With embeddable circuits, wireless internet technology, and tiny electronic components, we don’t have to rely on stand-alone devices to enable the internet of things. The entire building environment — from furniture to walls and carpets — can become productivity tools if you have the right materials and electronics expertise.
Brian Ammons, Business Director for Smart Materials, saw this idea as a unique opportunity to leverage the breadth of capabilities from across DuPont, and also to utilize some of the powerful technologies that had been added through the company’s 2017 merger with Dow, especially in electronics. (In 2019, the conglomerate divided into three new businesses, with the new DuPont focusing on specialty materials.)
No one on the Smart Materials team remembers exactly when the idea of a conference table first emerged, Ammons says, but the opportunity for innovation was clear from the start. Nearly everyone, including Ammons and his team, laments the current state of business meetings, and the DuPont group recognized that a table is the type of portable, ubiquitous solution that could be put into real-world tests quickly. The group began asking “what if?” — the first step toward expanding and rethinking the idea.
“We talk about the art of the possible, where everything you could possibly imagine is part of the conversation because we’re trying to pull on people’s creative impulses,” Blackman says.
The initial brainstorming produced dozens of ideas for the table, not all of which were practical for a first iteration. But wireless phone charging was a compelling addition. And the quest to reduce clutter led the technical team to place tiny microphones at eight spots around the table, eliminating the need for a cumbersome speakerphone. Choosing high-performance microphones with higher-frequency bandwidth than a typical telephone meant that voices would come through loud and clear.
After decades of working with DuPont Corian® Solid Surface, Blackman chose the material for the first prototype table. Corian® Solid Surface is strong, durable, and aesthetically pleasing, and can be fabricated into nearly any size and shape. So the Smart Materials team collaborated closely with the Corian® Design team. Together, the group started tinkering — drilling out small Corian® Solid Surface slabs to embed LED lights, wireless chargers, and other electronic components.
To enable the embedded speakers, researchers procured small components called audio exciters — thin metal disks that send vibrations through a rigid surface to produce sound. With the exciters in place, the entire table acts as the speaker, with rich, clear sound emanating from its surface. Beyond improving conference calls, it can double as a booming sound system, streaming music from a smartphone.
“We like to play rock and roll,” says Blackman, who’s partial to Led Zeppelin and ZZ Top. “You can literally feel the table vibrating. It’s very visceral.”
Rapid versioning and ongoing improvements
Working closely with their electronic components partners, the Smart Materials and Corian® Design teams developed a fully functional prototype in just 85 days. After the table was used internally for meetings in the Silicon Valley Technology Center and customers and early-stage partners tried it out, it was clear DuPont was on the right track.
The hybrid team, says Blackman, “completely embraced the idea of a lean startup.” Working at a fast clip, they created prototypes and early-stage models, or minimum viable products, for testing. “We put our technology in the hands of real users, and the customer and market feedback enabled us to continuously improve it,” he says. “We pivoted quickly to new, more impactful solutions.”
At InfoComm 2019, the team demonstrated the capabilities of the smart conference table to leading AV professionals, another valuable test group. It made an impression — rAVe Publications named the DuPont smart conference table the 2019 Best AV Furniture Product.
An updated and enhanced version of the smart conference table has since replaced the first-generation prototype at the Silicon Valley Technology Center. This latest design is also featured in the state-of-the-art “Collab Lab” in the new Wilmington Global Innovation Center at DuPont’s Experimental Station in Delaware. The Corian® Design team installed a table in their offices outside Buffalo, New York, as well. Beta customers can preview the table at any one of these U.S. locations, and DuPont is also looking for customers to test the product in their own offices. (The table is available for pre-commercial sales.)
For DuPont, traditionally a specialty materials supplier, releasing an all-in-one conference solution is a bold venture. DuPont is not top of mind for most companies seeking to upgrade their conference facilities, but that could change with this sophisticated “conference room in a box.”
Now, the Smart Materials and Corian® Design teams are continuing to drive the question of “what if.” They have a list of about 25 potential features for future versions of the smart table. And then there’s the longer-term potential to create entire smart rooms: occupancy sensors, automated temperature and lighting controls, touchless switches or voice-activated controls, and Corian® Solid Surface wall-mounted panels that double as projector screens with embedded audio exciters for sound.
These are the kinds of innovations the Smart Materials team has just begun offering. The plan, says Blackman, is to rapidly roll out new ideas and test on-site or at a partner’s location, all in an effort to align “the art of the possible with the reality of the doable.”
And in so doing, these integrated solutions can equip us to conduct a better meeting, to collaborate, and perhaps to do what he and his colleagues did in creating the table: innovate.
Leveraging DuPont’s innovative strength in both the electronics and the building and construction market, the Smart Materials business is focused on creatively integrating electronic functionality and traditional building materials, with a digital overlay, to provide value and information not previously accessible to building owners and operators.