Celebrating 30 years of operation in 2015, The Quantum Group’s founder Jeff Bruner describes his exceptionally innovative textile company in a recent interview with Textile World.
James M. Borneman, Editor In Chief
ne gets the impression that 30 years of research and development (R&D) into problem solving and unique manufacturing capabilities provide a broad palate from which to operate and create an array of textile products and solutions. Founder Jeff Bruner likes to say that The Quantum Group takes on projects that other textile companies cannot, or will not, pursue. Quantum and its sister companies have a wide range of knitting and weaving capabilities, as well as fiber extrusion of mono- and multifilament yarns.
Getting A Start In Textiles
Jeff Bruner established The Quantum Group in 1985 having just completed a five-year career at Burlington Industries. He had a degree in fabric design from the then Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science (PCT&S), now known as Philadelphia University. “I specialized in knitting and really wanted to be the best,” Bruner said. Later, he attended Leicester Polytechnic, United Kingdom, to continue his knitting studies.
After working for Hoechst Fiber in New York City as a development engineer for knit fabrics, Bruner returned to PCT&S to teach knitting and perform research. He spent his summers visiting knitting machine manufacturers throughout Europe to continue his practical knitting education. After a stint as a consultant for Owens Corning, Bruner left teaching for a position at Fiber Glass Industries in Amsterdam, New York. He was then asked to join Burlington Industries in Greensboro, N.C., as a product development manager to introduce Burlington to the weft-inserted warp-knitting business. Ultimately, the politics and bureaucracy of Burlington in the early 1980s didn’t agree with Bruner. “I just really wasn’t equipped to deal with it,” he said. “That’s when I went out on my own and formed The Quantum Group.”
The Quantum Group
In the early days of the company, Bruner presented many seminars on multiple textile subjects and continued contract R&D work. One early customer was General Motors (GM). Quantum developed an elastomeric seat suspension material for GM. It was used as a B-surface material which means it’s not seen, replacing the metal springs underneath conventional fabric and foam used in the car seat.
However, Bruner faced stiff competition. “I was up against Milliken, Collins & Aikman, and some of theother big guys at the time like Quaker, and I was just working out of my living room figuring out how to do things.”
Quantum located a facility in High Point, N.C., that worked with Bruner to make samples. With these samples in hand, Bruner convinced GM to finance a dedicated assembly line to make seat suspensions to be used in Pontiacs, Buicks and Oldsmobiles. Bruner said this business lead came from a past student from his teaching days, a story that in Quantum’s early years would repeat itself.
“Another student of mine went to work for Meadox Medical,” Bruner said. “Meadox made vascular grafts, bifurcations, artificial veins and arteries, tendons and ligaments — all kinds of devices that go into the body.” As the popularity of Meadox’s products grew, so did concern about product liability for the polyester suppliers. The resulting restricted polyester supply offered an interesting opportunity for Quantum. “I worked with Meadox to find alternate suppliers of polyester yarns from suppliers all around the world and characterized the sources,” Bruner said. “Eventually Meadox installed their own yarn extrusion equipment and developed their own process.”
Like with so many Quantum clients, the relationship with Meadox was long-lasting even when the company’s owner sold Meadox to Boston Scientific. “As a result of working with them and building a long-term relationship, we kept the business with Boston Scientific even through a series of ownership changes. Going back almost 30 years, we’ve been dealing with the same people there and working in various capacities. We were producing some monofilament and yarns for use in medical applications.”
In the early 1990s, pretty much everything between the seat suspensions and medical yarns was the result of working with past students at General Motors and Meadox Medical, until Quantum was approached by Herman Miller. The Zeeland, Mich.-based furniture manufacturer had hired Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick to design an office chair it had conceived of that did not feature the typical upholstered foam.
“Herman Miller was looking for someone who could develop or engineer a fabric that would work in what would later be known as the Aeron® chair,” Bruner said. “The two designers of the Aeron chair were working with Herman Miller and are long-time designers for them. Chadwick was searching around and Herman Miller went to their normal suppliers to see who had the interest, capability and wherewithal to develop and manufacture this yet to be conceived, engineered and designed fabric for the Aeron chair.”
The chair’s design became iconic and was at the forefront of ergonomic design. With conventional fabric suppliers showing little interest in the project the designers and Herman Miller needed to find an alternate source.
“Chadwick called DuPont and inquired with them because he heard about this seat suspension using a DuPont elastomer, and Quantum was using quite a bit of it for the GM seat suspension,” Bruner said. “At that time, Quantum was doing consulting work for a company in High Point, and we started to develop the Aeron fabric with them. I went to the owners of the company and said, ‘Look, I need an agreement. If I’m going to develop this, I need to know how Quantum is going to get compensated.’” They basically said, “Well, we aren’t sure, we don’t know if there is a future in the project, or how big it’s going to be, so we are going to have to play it by ear.”
“At that point, I said I wasn’t interested, and I resigned,” Bruner explained.
Quantum’s business was growing. The company continued work with clients such as Meadox Medical, and also had a contract to build a yarn extrusion plant in Gibsonville, N.C., for a company called New Generation Yarns.
“After I resigned, Herman Miller approached me again to return to the project,” Bruner said. “With about nine months left of development work, Herman Miller contracted with Quantum to finish the job and loaned me the funds to hire an employee and rent a building. That happened in early 1994, and then the chair was introduced a trade show in Germany called Orgatec — a big office furniture trade show in Cologne,” said Bruner.
Aeron® And Pellicle®
The fabric Quantum created for Herman Miller was branded Pellicle®, a word defined by Merriam Webster as “thin film.” According to Herman Miller, Chadwick and Stumpf designed the first office chairs that lacked traditional foam or padding, replacing it with a body conforming suspension fabric with an open, breathable construction. The design distributes weight evenly, while eliminating pressure points and heat build-up, according to the company.
When Stumpf passed away in 2006, the New York Times reported: “The Aeron became an instant classic, chosen for the permanent design collection of the Museum of Modern Art on Sept. 21, 1994, a month before its introduction at a trade fair called Orgatec in Cologne, Germany.”
“People forget how controversial it was, how shocking it was, when it first came out,” said Michael Bierut, a partner at international design company Pentagram, and a juror for the National Design Awards. The traditional executive chair was lavishly upholstered, often with leather. “The idea was that upholstery equaled comfort,” Bierut said. “Mr. Stumpf and Mr. Chadwick discovered that comfort could be rendered in a delicate and precise and beautifully engineered way that had nothing to do with creating a throne, but with creating a perfectly calibrated machine for seating.”
The Aeron chair and its Pellicle fabric continue to be a success, and its development was a milestone in The Quantum Group’s 30-year history. Interestingly, given Bruner’s focus on knitting as a young man, he used leno-weaving technology to solve Stumpf and Chadwick’s design challenge. “The biggest thing we do today is leno weaving,” said Bruner. “It is an extremely old technology that most companies don’t use anymore due to its cost, complexity and slow speeds, but it’s been key to a very good business.”
Industries & Markets Served
Recreational & Entertainment
- Climbing harnesses
- Bike seats
- Theme-park ride seating
Office Furniture Herman Miller products including:
- Aeron® chair featuring Pellicle fabric
- Eames® chair featuring Cygnus mesh fabric
- Mirra Chair featuring AireWeave seat material
Industrial & Consumer Products
- Tubular fabric belting
- Drive belts
- High-strength materials
- Tubular fabrics such as firehose
Automotive & Aerospace
- Automotive and airline B-layer seating
- Boat mesh chair
- Ferry and subway seating
- Mower seating
- Tire cord fabric
Construction & Geotextiles
- Building and construction
- Filtration fabric
- Road reinforcement materials
Heathcare & Other Applications
- Healthcare chairs
- Window screens
- Privacy screens
- Outdoor furniture