America's Best:

Technology & Training Help Furniture Company Soar

Bird-in-Hand Woodworks has a firm grip on the educational furniture market.

By Karen M. Koenig

     
Bird-in-Hand Woodworks Inc.

Division of Childcraft Education Corp., a School Specialty Co.

Lancaster, PA

Bird-in-Hand Woodworks Inc. manufactures wood and melamine early education furniture under the Childcraft, Bird-in-Hand, abc School Supply and School Specialty brand names. The company’s sales in 2002 were in excess of $19 million.

Three Keys

1. Bird-in-Hand offers comprehensive training programs and rewards employees based on their capabilities.. The company has more than 40 different jobs and related skill levels.

2. The company invested $3 million in new CNC equipment and finishing lines during the past few years.

3. The company does not market through retail stores. Products are sold via mail order and the Internet.

 
   
     

At Bird-in-Hand Woodworks Inc., education equals success — in more ways than one.

A manufacturer of solid wood and melamine early education furniture, the Lancaster, PA-based company is equally renown for its longtime advocacy of employee education.

The need to enhance worker skills through comprehensive training programs has become vitally important in recent years. As Bird-in-Hand has invested more heavily into new technology — $3 million in the past few years — the stakes have been raised to have qualified personnel to run and maintain the machines. Employees have an incentive to learn — and the more they learn, the more they earn, says David Hommel, Bird-in-Hand’s vice president of manufacturing.

Bird-in-Hand’s philosophy has paid off, in more ways than one. There is little to no turnover of its full-time employees, adds Bill Brugmann, production manager. And by motivating its employees, the company has been able to increase its production and therefore its sales. 2002 sales were more than $19 million, a gain of 24 percent over 2001 figures.

Education Equals Success

A division of Childcraft Education Corp., which is owned by School Specialty Co., Bird-in-Hand sells its lines via mail order and the Internet under the Childcraft, Bird-in-Hand, abc School Supply and School Specialty brand names.

The range of products includes: desks, shelf units, activity and writing centers, audio/visual storage sets and dramatic play units. On a percentage basis, storage cabinets account for 50 percent of Bird-in-Hand’s sales, with dramatic play units accounting for 25 percent and miscellaneous products, such as, easels or puzzle racks, the remaining 25 percent.

To distinguish itself from competitors, Bird-in-Hand instituted an in-stock guarantee program this year on all its manufactured wood products, Hommel says.

“Sixty percent of our business is during school vacation time, between June 1 and Aug. 30. Back orders and delivery delays can cause serious problems for our customers.

     
 
A manufacturer of early and elementary education furniture, Bird-in-Hand manufactures the wood components sold under the Childcraft, Bird-in-Hand, abc School Supply and School Specialty brand names.  
     

“With our in-stock guarantee on all our furniture and equipment, our customers are able to receive their orders within days, instead of weeks. This eliminates the worry of not being able to open schools due to a lack of required furniture.

“All our products also have a lifetime guarantee,” Hommel continues. “If it breaks, we will repair or replace it for free.

“Our products have to be durable; schools are often making a 10-year or more investment on what they buy. You’ll find those products that are sold at a consumer price point — which is typically only a three-year investment — are often less durable,” Hommel adds.

Manufacturing Finesse

All items manufactured by Bird-in-Hand are made from a combination of Baltic birch plywood, solid maple and/or pre-laminated boards. The birch plywood and maple are finished with a UV clearcoat that resists moisture and stains, Hommel says.

“The wonderful thing about it is the kids can write on them with markers and teachers just have to wipe them off,” he adds.

The Giardina UV finishing line, which is used in conjunction with two Heesemann MFA 8 sanders, was part of the three-year, $3 million investment in equipment made recently by Bird-in-Hand. In a span of 29 seconds, Hommel says, parts on the line are sanded, cleaned, seal coated, cured, sanded a second time, topcoated then cured a final time. Approximately 40,000 square feet of material are finished on the flatline system each day.

For edge finishing, the company installed a Superfici coating line that Hommel says runs 2 to 3 miles of edgings — at 110 feet per minute — every day.

“Before we used to spray everything. Since we’ve installed these lines, we’ve taken our annual VOCs from 67 tons down to 4 tons,” he adds. The company uses Chemcraft finishing materials.

     
 
The Biesse Rover 24 (pictured) and Busellato point-to-point boring machines are used to bore holes into the components. In addition to crosstraining its employees, Bird-in-Hand is also an advocate of placing new employees with more experienced ones to facilitate the learning process on machines such as the Busellato point-to-point.  
     

In addition to the finishing lines, Bird-in-Hand’s equipment investment has included new panel saws, point-to-point boring machines and CNC routers.

“Our investment in the new equipment paid off in less than 18 months,” Hommel says.

“It wasn’t until 2000 that we bought our first CNC machine, which was a Komo router. Up until then we had lots of table saws, drill presses and drills.”

The typical production flow today calls for panels to be cut on one of two panel saws, a Biesse Selco EB120 or Holzma HPL 22. Next, the cut panels are transferred to one of the company’s two Komo CNC routers, an FEA which it purchased three years ago, or the newer VR1005TT Mach III. Any boring which needs to be done is performed on either a Biesse Rover 24 or a Busellato point-to-point boring machine.

For those product lines which incorporate maple trim, the solid wood mouldings are first machined on a Pinheiro gang ripsaw, then run through a Diehl five-head Accumold moulder. “The moulder runs at a snail’s pace — 16 feet per minute. It’s only about 1 foot above burning the wood, but the finish is so smooth we don’t have to sand,” Hommel explains.

After finishing, the components are sent to inventory or assembled for immediate shipment. A final quality control check is performed by the assembly line and team leaders using a basic checklist for reference, says Miroslaw “Mickey” Szczotkowski, assembly supervisor.

“Our productivity has gone up almost 75 percent in the last few years,” Hommel says. “Some of it’s been due to the new machines, but most of it is because people understand their jobs better.”

Emphasis on Teaching

Bird-in-Hand doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to training its employees.

“Though I prefer to call it teaching, not training,” Hommel says. “They’re not like dogs where they’re being trained to behave — they’re people. And once they’re taught, they have the knowledge to find better ways to do their jobs,” Hommel says.

     
 
Used in conjunction with two Heesemann MFA 8 sanders, the Giardina UV finishing line, right, is used to finish approximately 40,000 square feet of material a day. Within 29 seconds on the line, panels are sanded, cleaned, seal coated, cured, sanded again, top coated and cured a final time.  
     

And the greater the knowledge at Bird-in-Hand, the higher the earning capability. The company has more than 40 different jobs and rated skill levels, with employees required to perform basic functions in order to advance. On the CNC machines, for example, the skill list includes basic programming and commands, machine setup and basic maintenance, as well as any OSHA requirements pertaining to the specific machine (see examples). Promotions can be awarded throughout the year. “We’ve even had people who rose three or four times in a single year,” Hommel says.

New employees often work with experienced ones to facilitate the learning process. Bird-in-Hand also brings in machinery vendors periodically for repeat training.

This is especially effective in the mill area, where most of the employees are cross-trained. “Cross-training keeps everyone flexible,” says Jeff Wasilewski, second shift supervisor. “We can move anyone around to an area that needs help.”

“It also helps avoid any (potential bottlenecks) with the work flow and keeps employees’ interest level up,” adds Bob Fletcher, mill supervisor.

Experience has shown that an enthusiastic employee is a productive one, says Hommel. Prior to the installation of the UV line, for example, the company arranged for the finishing area employees to attend a three-day seminar at the Electro Technology Center in nearby Allentown. “This got the employees all fired up before the UV equipment came in,” Hommel says. “Within 24 hours of receiving the machines, we were producing parts — it’s all about preparation.”

“The biggest difference between our shop and others,” adds Brugmann, ”is that we treat our employees like adults. We give them latitude, trust in their training — and we trust them to make the right decisions.”

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