Computerized robots, routers and carvers are used to help replicate pre-industrial revolution furniture styles.
Whether it is making its trademark 18th and 19th century furniture or branching out into contemporary styles, Century Furniture strives to offer a little something out of the ordinary, says Ed Tashjian, head of sales.
The Hickory, NC-based privately owned company follows the philosophy of Harley Shuford Sr., who founded Century Furniture 53 years ago, Tashjian says.
Shuford wanted the company’s furniture, which includes bedroom, living room and occasional pieces, to be of such high quality it would not only bring satisfaction to the people who bought it, but to the people who made it, as well.
Century Furniture managers know that for the company to stay competitive, it must be a design leader. As Tashjian puts it, “We consider ourselves to be in the fashion business.”
Jim Conley, director of product engineering, says the company especially wants to compete successfully in the high end of the furniture fashion spectrum. “Ours is very complicated furniture,” Conley adds. “We’re willing to spend a lot of money to get that last little bit of a difference.”
That little bit of difference is what helps give Century a big edge in its market niche. To gain that edge, Century, which is part of Century-Valdese Industries, has concentrated in recent years not only on purchasing new equipment — including CNC carving machines and robots for distressing wood — but on implementing more sophisticated planning to make the best use of that equipment. In many cases, Conley says, “We’re using 21st century technology to duplicate 18th and 19th century parts.”
Century and Computers
The company views itself as among industry leaders in computerization and believes it may be the only U.S. furniture maker to integrate product development and the manufacture of show samples at a technical center, Conley says. “The main thing is we have a formal product development process” that works, he says.
The four-year-old technical center is helping Century side step the productivity lulls that can plague furniture makers faced with the dilemma of manufacturing prototypes for their High Point furniture market showrooms at the same time their plants are in full production mode to fill customer orders.
Conley says the proof is in the pudding. During the last three markets, Century’s case goods production, as measured in wholesale dollars, has held steady during the hectic market periods. When the run rate can be maintained despite the introduction of new products, Conley says, “Then these guys (at the technical center) are heroes in everyone’s eyes.”
Before the 55-employee tech center was established and removed the manufacture of prototypes from the regular production process, “The samples would keep getting pushed to the back of the stack,” recalls 12-year employee Scott Furr. Furr directs the tech center’s robot and CNC programming for the chair and case goods plants.
Furr recalls that prior to the center, as the start of the market neared, Century would halt regular production on one line for a couple of weeks to make the sample pieces for the showroom. Today, there are no more shutdowns for sample-making, and production proceeds at a much more even pace, he says. That’s a good thing, Conley notes, considering that Century introduces more than 200 new case goods and chair products each year.
Conley and Furr credit the success of the technical center not only to its employees, but to the precision CAD drawings, the speed and accuracy of the computerized machinery and cooperative involvement of factory employees in the planning process.
Tougher Than It Looks
For example, a china cabinet required the fitting of 24 curved-glass panes into curved-metal door frames, which in turn were fitted into the maple case. Everything had to fit within 1/16 inch. Furr made CAD drawings from which Plexiglas templates were made and given to the company’s glass and metal suppliers to produce parts.
Copies of the CAD drawings were given to Century’s quality control inspectors to compare with the parts received from the glass and metal suppliers. The result, Conley says, is that all the parts fit on the first try. That says a lot about the precision of the CAD drawings, the ability of suppliers to follow precise orders and the skills of tech center employees, 20 of whom were recruited in past years from Century’s factories. When it comes to making curved parts fit, Conley adds, “That’s where these guys shine.”
Another Omni piece required making a set of rounded, convex shapes for drawer fronts. “A compound curve with a veneer is pretty difficult,” Conley says, adding that how Century accomplished it is a “secret.”
Yet another product, a table for the Silk Road Collection, required that legs for a small table remain square while tapering in size and curving all the while. The piece was originally subcontracted to a carver, who could not duplicate it. Then one of Century’s CAD specialists figured out how to make it work.
The 20 former factory employees who work in the tech center under its factory manager, Bobby Barger, bring a different set of experiences to the sample-making process than engineers.
“They can say, `Mr. Product Engineer, you’ve got to build it this way, not that way,’” Furr says. Details, particularly process refinements, are the tech center’s employees’ stock in trade.
The tech center works directly with the factory personnel for help after samples are assembled for the first time. Some 10 line supervisors from the case goods plant are invited to the tech center to take the new whitewood samples apart.
“I spend a lot of money on pizza and lunches,” Conley says. “We take the doors off and the drawers out.”
The supervisors’ minds begin working immediately. Furr says they begin to wonder, “How am I going to make it? Bobby, how did you do that? Why did you do it that way?”
“They learn where the little pitfalls are before it gets out there” in the factory, Furr says. Also, the supervisors may know of factory limitations that the design engineers are unaware of.
“Generally, there are quite a few changes suggested,” Conley says. “If we have the luxury of time, we’re happy to do it. They’re the ones who are going to be building it.”
Conley and Furr says they think that high degree of shop personnel involvement in product design and development is unusual in the furniture industry. Conley says he expected debate and bruised egos when the liaison started two years ago, but it hasn’t happened. “It’s been a very productive time,” he says.
In Praise of Technology
The shop at Century’s 80,000-square-foot tech center is a microcosm of the company’s 780,000-square-foot case goods plant. It has the same kinds of CNC equipment.
“We’ve been very fortunate that Century allowed us to make the investments,” says Furr.
On a typical day in the case goods plant, a Shoda twin-table CNC router with an automatic tool changer rapidly turns wood blanks into footboard posts for a sleigh bed. It’s one of four such routers Century uses.
In each case, the wood is fed in two stacks of two pieces each on to one router table while the other table is routing offsets to radiuses, smoothing edges and boring holes into four other posts. The operator has access to eight tools in all.
In another part of the plant, two Kitako CNC carvers electronically trace and replicate hand-carved models of table legs, rails and drawer fronts. A lot of carving is done. While synthetics may be used in some decorative details, the company sticks to wood for parts that get the heaviest use.
“If it’s going to get beat up, it better be wood,” Conley says.
Furr says the CNC carving machines have helped provide better and more consistent quality than Century used to get from duplicators using a manual process. The equipment is so stable in its operation, he says, that there’s no backlash of the tooling to mar workpieces.
The CNC carvers are considerably faster, Furr says. With the old method, he says, “You’re talking about three or four hours to cut out a set of parts” versus 30 minutes with the CNC carvers.
The five five-axis routers in the chair plant are likewise invaluable, Furr says.
Robots Answer Distress Call
The tech center came up with two tools now being used with the company’s three Motoman robot arms. An operator programs the robots with a keypad, then walks them manually through their routine once before setting them into motion to beat the heck out of the workpieces placed before them.
One patented tool has three heads — the worm, the hatchet and the rock. Once the robot is programmed, it will drill, nick and slice the wood in a predetermined, repeatable fashion.
The two knitting-needle-like appendages of the worm can be made to stutter around in a small radius, creating a wormhole, or attack a wider area to mimic rotten wood. The worm is adapted from a descaler used to scrape rust.
The hatchet can be programmed to eat away only at the ends of boards, to duplicate extended, heavy wear. The rock, of course, thumps and bangs, causing dents. The “eaten-away” look of driftwood can also be achieved, Furr says.
Another of the robots holds a workpiece up against a circular saw purposely positioned off-center to “chatter” down a board, creating circular gouges in a straight line. It’s used extensively for accent pieces in Century’s Complements line, where an unusual effect is desired, Conley says.
Finishes Are Vital
Century’s finishes, which typically involve 20 steps, are developed by Greg Wike, an Akzo Nobel finishing specialist working on-site in the case goods plant. The finishes can range from antique gold leaf accents for chests in the Complements line to a smooth, rich-colored Sable for the cluster-maple Omni Collection.
When Century decided to open the center there were no models to go by and no manuals to follow, Furr says. Now, other companies have queried Century employees about the center.
Looking ahead, Century managers realize they are far from done in turning to technology to stay ahead of the game through eye-catching design and manufacturing innovation. Thus, throughout Century’s plants and processes, reliance on high-tech methods and machinery is likely to grow. A third CNC carver has been ordered for the case goods plant. The tech center continues to fine-tune processes toward the goal of achieving a completely level production load year-round.
There is no time to rest on laurels. After all, Tashjian says. “We are designing the most exceptional furniture for the high-end market.”
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