Innovative Auckland design research company PLN Group has a become a leader in modern office design and comfort not only in New Zealand but also overseas.

PLN, established in 1977 and based at Avondale, puts original thought and research into developing its furniture and growing its business. PLN’s global sales have grown more than 500 per cent since 2010 when it decided to take a R&D/innovation journey and add `social purpose’ to its work.

"We were never going to win the low-cost race and we decided to use furniture to improve people’s lives and business performance," says PLN chief executive Blair McKolskey. 

"R&D is what we do – we study what people need and how we can solve it. With intelligent thinking and great design, we create high-value products that provide innovative solutions."

After reviewing workplace practices and spaces, PLN creates the right balance between promoting collaboration in modern, open plan offices and allowing essential quiet spaces (for phone calls and meetings).

PLN Focus Pods
PLN’s Focus Pods privates a quiet space to complete work and make calls

Looking into the future

As open plan offices become noisier, PLN’s focus is on acoustic design, functionality, increasing productivity and future proofing clients’ investments. Included in the portfolio are Hush Lights and Focus Pods, which soften sounds and reduce reverberations and distractions. The soft walls of the work pods contain layers of nanofibre which produce superior sound absorption.

Following an introduction from Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED), the nanofibre is supplied by fellow Auckland innovator, Revolution Fibres. McKolskey says the nanofibre layers have created a significant improvement in acoustic performance, and his company is now working with Revolution Fibres to improve air filtration and the quality in the office.

PLN plans three to five years into the future. McKolskey says the open plan office strategy is under attack and "we want to find out if it is the plan or the execution that is wrong. Using sensors, data analysis and Internet of Things, we will map the environmental influences on the workplace – such as how often a person is at their desk and at what periods of the day."

McKolskey says the future is fluid. "One thing we do know about today’s workspaces is that they will not look the same in the future. Organisations change direction. People move to new spaces and take on new roles. Teams form and re-form. The spaces they occupy need to adapt to meet these needs."

"Workplace furniture needs to be designed with future flexibility - in this way office furniture becomes an investment rather than an expense. The smart workspace will be able to accommodate these changes with the minimum amount of time, cost and disruption – adding to employee comfort and satisfaction."

Workplace furniture needs to be designed with future flexibility - in this way office furniture becomes an investment rather than an expense.”

Blair McKolskey, PLN Group chief executive

Portfolio of smart products

In the United States alone, it’s estimated that poor workspace design costs businesses $300 billion in lost productivity each year.  

PLN’s portfolio of products ranges from modular office furniture, collaborative soft seating, work pods, acoustic lighting and screens to phone booths, presentation boards, laptop/coffee/side tables, rugs and residential sofas.  

PLN has developed the Colosseum modular furniture system which seats up to 18 people and incorporates acoustic lighting, laptop tables and mobile whiteboards. Colosseum is furniture designed as architecture in the open plan office, increasing visual and auditory privacy without the need for office walls. The modular pieces can be moved in a variety of configurations to suit the presentation, meeting or social gathering.  

Employing 30 people, PLN exports to 15 countries including China, India and United Sates, and its research-led products are found in Google, Apple, Hewlett Packard, Citibank, HSBC and Disney offices. The Hush acoustic light is a big seller in the United States.  

PLN’s export earnings now make up 40 per cent of total revenue. In New Zealand its customers are mainly interior designers, architects and corporates such as Air New Zealand, PwC and ASB Bank.

Megan Woods and Blair McKolskey PLN
Megan Woods, Minister of Research, Science & Innovation with Blair McKolskey, Director of PLN Group.

How ATEED helped

ATEED, Auckland’s economic development agency, has helped spur PLN’s growth. ATEED facilitated Regional Business Partner Capability Development vouchers and introduced PLN to Revolution Fibres, based at Henderson.  

The two companies quickly established a strong working partnership as PLN added the ground-breaking nanotechnology to its furniture. "The technology gave us a big boost," says McKolskey. "We are currently leading the world by deploying nanofibre in our furniture solutions." PLN joined the ATEED invitation list to attend the Tripartite Economic Summits in Los Angeles in 2015 and Auckland in 2016. This enabled PLN to make important connections and build relationships overseas.  

The company is now preparing to establish its own beachhead in the United States. “The United States market is very important in our growth programme – it will make a meaningful difference to our future, scale and approach,” says McKolskey.  

He joined a Callaghan Innovation-led Internet of Manufacturing delegation to the United States in June 2018 and visited futuristic factories which are on the cutting edge of the Internet of Things.  

Supported by ATEED and now backed by a Callaghan Growth Grant, PLN will use these insights and others and increase its R&D investment over the next three years. "We want to prove the efficiencies of office workspaces using sensors and predictive software, develop product responses, measure the changes and then create new designs that make offices more productive," says McKolskey. 

At a glance

PLN Group’s business: Researching, designing and creating smart furnishings to improve the comfort and productivity of offices – and improving the lives of staff.   

Location: Headquartered in Avondale, Auckland.  

Export markets: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China including Hong Kong, Colombia, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, UAE, United States.  

ATEED assisted by: Introducing PLN to Revolution Fibres and developing nanotechnology for its furniture; inviting the company to participate in the Tripartite Business Summits; facilitating Regional Business Partner vouchers and Callaghan Innovation R&D grants.  


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