Wolfgang Puck specialty coffees are served at this foodservice barrista counter wrap in mixed
materials. produced by Eyewood Design for Choice Hotel’s Cambria Suites in Traverse City, MI..

Running a custom woodworking business in Michigan these days means steeling yourself for a highly competitive bid process in an extremely depressed market. But Eyewood Design, Inc., an Interlochen, MI, architectural millwork and custom cabinetry manufacturer, has faced the downturn head on, reinventing itself in the process.

Eyewood Design retooled itself both literally and figuratively, adding a new Busellato Jet Optima CNC router (watch it run), an OMAL HBD 1300 bore and dowel machine and an IDM Idi 5300 edgebander with automated return, all knit together with integrated state-of-the-art computer management and machine automation systems.

But technology is only half the story. Restructuring its management processes, Eyewood Design revamped materials workflow, expanded its physical plant by 12,000 square feet, and even overhauled its go-to-market strategy. Eyewood tapped financial and technical resources, relying upon strong key partner suppliers, including Michigan’s Northwest Bank; equipment dealer JKL Machinery, Brighton, MI; machinery distributor Delmac Machinery Group, Greensboro, NC; and shop management software supplier TradeSoft Inc., Marietta, GA.
Resisting the temptation to diminish quality to lower bid prices to win contracts, 37-employee Eyewood Design instead cut costs by automating and adopting lean manufacturing — modeling after industry giants involved in large-scale wood interiors, projects on which it subcontracts.

“We did an overall evaluation of our business,” says Randy Howard, vice president (his wife Carol Howard is president.) “We did labor time studies throughout the plant, for example, how much edgebanding can we run per hour, or how many steps workers walk between work stations?” After implementing a 5S “lean manufacturing” production program, Eyewood Design improved efficiency 20 percent, and can meet exacting standards to achieve world-class performance high-end clients require. One 5S breakthrough was assigning a dedicated materials handler to stage raw materials for workers. “That way the machine operator doesn’t have to stop,” says Howard.

“When you are doing custom work it is hard to run things like Henry Ford would,” says Dan Hansen, general manager. “It requires a lot of cultural change.” Employees were key to the turnaround that has lead to a resumption of growth.

“We turned our 3 percent bid-to-get ratio to a 17% bid-to-get,” says Howard. In one technically complex architectural millwork bid, he says, “We were the only fabricator that could explain to the customer how we could build the component successfully.”

“What sets us apart is our ability to build anything,” notes Hansen. Frequent project partnerships with firms like Marlite or Case Systems help Eyewood in its bids. “These kinds of relationships are key to being competitive,” says Hansen.

Among key architectural projects in the works are a signature YMCA interior in Grand Rapids; the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek Intl Airport, Kalamazoo, MI, with 350 wood wall panels; and the Madison (WI) Public Library.

The IDM Idi 5300 PM edgebander provided a boost in
productivity when a return channel (foreground right)
was added, allowing non-stop production.

Eyewood entered a State of Michigan “Thriving to Surviving” program that helps small businesses grow. It funds roughly up to $35,000 in non-capital expansion costs — training, marketing, consulting. Stephanie Little, UM project manager, worked directly with Eyewood Design, which had done much of the spadework in analyzing operations.

“They had already identified they needed to become efficient,” says Little. “And with lean manufacturing, we are really into operational efficiencies. It was really impressive to see how proactive they are. . .the attitude is what is key.”

For Eyewood Design, says Little, the program led to “a complete reinvention. They took a risk. That’s what is so impressive. I’ve been into all shapes and size of companies and to see the level of automation in those volumes is amazing. It really is uplifting.”

Partners in Success
Eyewood Design singles out its partners as essential to its transformation, including:

Northwestern Bank Eyewood Design sought a Small Business Administration loan, and credits Northwestern Bank’s Mike Doherty, Lori Van Antwerp and Will Moss for support throughout the arduous application process.

Machinery partners: Delmac
, John Parks and JKL Machinery, Joe Leugers — key sources for automation technologies.

Software: TradeSoft
applications Project Pak and Shop Pak and application support expert Russ Wheelock and David Maish; and Top Solid CabinetVision.

Architectural Woodworking Institute:Completing AWI certification was critical to Eyewood’s business growth strategy.

PureBond: In March Eyewood joined the PureBond Fabricator Network, a partnership of Columbia Forest Products for wood fabricators who use PureBond formaldehyde-free technology.

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