by Art Raymond
Factory of the Future
To compete globally,
These technologies can be assembled in a myriad of ways. To simplify this
discussion, let’s look at the two ends of
adopt new technology and
Rapid change is upon us. Competitive
advantages in some countries that now
dominate the furniture industry are
waning. One may reasonably ask if the
tectonic plates underlying the world
economy have shifted sufficiently to enable a rebirth of wood furniture production in the U.S.
The window of opportunity for such
a renewal, in my opinion, is opening. At
their current pace, the all-inclusive cost
of furniture made in China, by far the
leading supplier of wood furniture to our
market, will soon approach those in the
remaining, better managed U.S. plants.
But China is not our only competitor.
Furniture production is booming in
Vietnam, and the search for new, more
competitive sources in other countries
To compete globally, U.S. producers
must strip their existing plants to the
floor and install newer means of building
furniture that will satisfy their customers. No shortage of new technology is
available for that task. The truth is new
technology is being introduced faster
than users have absorbed it. And technology goes beyond process machinery
❯ New materials such as lightweight
panels and waterborne, fast curing
❯ New handling equipment that saves
labor and space.
❯ New information systems that optimizes process operation.
Cabinet plant on steroids
This operation can build semi-custom, upper-medium priced wood
furniture for consumers who demand a
wide selection of style, configuration,
species, and finish. This plant features
flexible machinery, both CNC and
dedicated one-function varieties, able to
produce in lot sizes of one. Limited work
is completed before a customer order is
received. Specialty suppliers provide key
components within a few days of order.
Throughput time is measured in days,
be beefed up to build residential solid
wood and veneered furniture. In fact,
that’s already happening. Many cabinet
companies now offer youth bedroom,
home office, entertainment, and dining
room furniture in a variety of styles,
species, and finishes. When the housing market recovers, this expansion of
traditional cabinet product lines will, no
This plant competes not on price but
rather its ability to produce exactly what
the consumer wants.
is being introduced
faster than users
have absorbed it.
A key asset of such a plant is its information system. Order information flows
seamlessly through product engineering and purchasing out to the front line
workers in the form of bar-coded tickets.
This information directs the setup of machinery and the transfer of components
through the correct machining processes then to final assembly, finishing, and
packing. No finished goods warehousing
is required; shipping occurs immediately
upon order completion.
Cabinetmakers have operated this
model for years and successfully defended their turf from competitors who
have lower costs. There’s no reason a
basic, semi-custom cabinet plant cannot
At the other end of the spectrum,
is a high production plant 180 degrees
removed from the semi-custom scenario
above. This model gives the consumer
great functionality, less choice, and
decent quality in exchange for a very low
price. Such a plant produces a narrow
product range designed around a basic
material/construction platform and fabricated on highly focused technology.
This plant’s culture concentrates on
relentless cost cutting and attention
to performance. Product engineering
continues well beyond a new item’s
introduction. The goal is to lower
costs across the line by two to three
percentage points each year. That’s
accomplished by applying new machining technology and minimizing material
This operation looks nothing like a
conventional 1990s era furniture factory.
It employs lightweight panels as its material platform, foiling and finishing lines for
applying UV-cured waterborne coatings
for surface decoration, and ships every
product flat packed. It operates three
shifts and pushes out huge volumes
through machine and finishing lines