Scalability: New Marker for a Well-run Woodwork Business

Bill Esler

Best practices in business management evolve as experts adapt to changes in technology, materials, and—when it comes to the workforce—society at large. Materials and end products change from Henry Ford’s manual assembly line to Tesla’s automated workflow. 

While managers in many industries can claim “exceptional conditions” due to markets and end products, the wood manufacturing business differs from others. For one thing, wood is an organic material, with variances in the raw material from sheet to sheet and board to board. And the size of its raw materials—4 x 8 and even 8 x 10-foot sheets of panel—requires more square footage per employee than plants in many industries. 

Designing a plant that will handle existing volume may be short-sighted, say experts. A cabinetry or furniture plant structured to deliver 300 units daily may choke whenever the volume peaks significantly, leading to long lead times, customer dissatisfaction, and lost sales. 

Manufacturing expert Joe Baggett, the principle of Innovative Wood Process Solutions, recently hosted a conference on scalability, with a half-dozen business management and cabinetry manufacturers presenting strategies for a more flexible approach: a plant built to rise and fall in capacity without backing up at the peaks, or going into the red when sales dip. 

Baggett is the lead speaker in the day-long “Process Automation” symposium at IWF 2022, presented in partnership with 2020. He advises managers to avoid patching up bottlenecks and to take the long view when working to optimize production processes. Process Automation will take participants on a journey to explore where and how a modern woodworking company’s sales, purchasing, engineering, production, and finance processes can be automated. 

One recent expansion by a furniture maker provides a good example. Hellman-Chang hit a home run with its dramatic designs, even with price tags of $25,000 or more for dressers, desks, and other casegoods. Its small 5,000 sq. ft. shop was soon overwhelmed as its artisans struggled to work by hand to carve, finish, and cure its products. Multi-step finishes, in particular, led to delays as workers waited for the stages to air cure between steps and completion. 

“Arguably our largest challenge is how to scale it,” says Hellman. “Because now we gravitate toward bench-made furniture, but bench made is difficult to scale. “We desperately want to have the stations that are fully set up by process, but because we don’t just build cabinets, we have so many different processes that require different setups that we haven’t really cracked that nut yet.”

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