Field Trip

Last October's WCMA Plant Tour Event showcased seven woodworking plants throughout North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, and W&WP went along for the ride. Among the plants toured, Catawissa Lumber Co. displayed some innovative thinking on rough mill productivity.

By Andy Jenkins
Tour attendees stop to observe the ripsaw assembly line at Vaughan-Bassett's plant in Atkins, VA - primarily producing solid wood panels of poplar. This year's event also included a tour of Vaughan-Bassett's plant

in Galax, VA.

 Every year, the Wood Component Manufacturers Assn. holds its version of an elementary school field trip. Complete with bus transportation, sack lunches and "please don't touch," the 2005 annual WCMA Plant Tour Event gave 190 people a first-hand view of seven different woodworking operations throughout North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

Along with his wife Kathy, Steve Lawser, WCMA's executive director, has organized his association's plant tour event for the past 23 years. This year the Lawsers helped lead the way through foggy mountain highways, making sure to get a head count before the event's two chartered buses continued to each new stop.

Lawser said the variety of different plant tours is what set this year's event apart from others in the past. The variety brought attendees to particleboard and flooring plants - firsts for the tour event.

The name of the game for these plant tour events, Lawser said, is learning how the other half does it. "We say if people can bring back at least one good idea from the event, something they can implement in their own plants - whether that be from an HR standpoint, employee training, new machinery or equipment - then it is worth the time and cost of attending the event," Lawser said.

The 2005 tour's attendees represented 62 WCMA member companies, including big and small shops alike. Ivan Good, owner of Goods Millwork in Versailles, MO, said the tour helps him get a better sense of how others get things done. "Compared to these big companies, I'm just the little guy," Good said. "This event shows you that there is more than one way to do everything."

Owner of a smaller shop, Good said it is interesting to see all of the newest technology, but for the price, he doesn't think some of the equipment is all it is cracked up to be. Instead, Good often spends his time on the tours looking at small things, like the shop carts each company uses to haul around materials.

Increasing Material and Energy Costs Call for Increasing Rough Mill Productivity

The 2005 WCMA Plant Tour Event began by stopping off for a visit at the Catawissa Lumber & Specialty Co.'s West Jefferson, NC plant. Dennis Wilcott, Catawissa's vice president of manufacturing, said that plant has done a great deal to improve rough mill operations in recent years.

"The obvious key in a rough mill is to maintain yield," Wilcott said. "We look at our yield and waste regularly - weekly and certainly on a monthly basis. We have trained our rough mill supervisors to monitor these things in real time. They are constantly making adjustments to ensure that yield is at its optimum throughout the course of the day."

One of the great strengths of the West Jefferson facility's rough mill, Wilcott said, has been its relationships with local lumber mills. The region surrounding the plant is full of small- and large-scale lumber mills alike, and Wilcott said that Catawissa has maintained solid working relationships to ensure that its supply in the yard is consistent with the company's needs.

"Having the right lumber sorted and available at the right time ensures that we can process lumber through the cutting and ripping operation most efficiently," Wilcott said. Only recently has Catawissa begun sorting lumber in its yard so that all wood entering the drying operation is sorted by grade and length.

Once the lumber is dried, Catawissa's Newman S382 planer takes a double surface cut and the wood is sorted by color and width right off of the planer line. Within the last year, Catawissa purchased the Cameron Automation Opti-Rip, a valued asset according to Wilcott.

"In addition to providing the operator with very quick and efficient choices, the Opti-Rip also has a great capability of keeping track of yield and lineal footage that is ripped. So, at the end of a production run, we have good record-keeping in place."

Catawissa incorporated a Cameron Opti-Match into its rough mill operations to help with the ripping process. With advances in technology, specifically in optimizing equipment, Wilcott said Catawissa's equipment has to ensure both productivity and the highest yield attainable. "You certainly don't want to invest in a piece of equipment that allows you to do your job a whole lot quicker, but at the same time is more wasteful."

And wasteful has become even more of a four-letter word as of late, with energy and lumber costs on the rise. Wilcott said that with these costs, it is becoming more and more difficult to pass increases on to customers, thus improving efficiency and reducing scrap to meet the bottom line is a key goal for Catawissa's rough mill. "It is just really important to buy the right equipment that helps maintain quality and increase market share."

Despite the variety of attendees and facilities visited, a single theme seemed to carry over from tour to tour: competition from overseas. "I was trying to build off the theme of what Vaughan-Bassett, Vaughan and Webb do, and that is maintain the North American manufacturing base for the furniture industry," Lawser said.

The event, steeped in tradition, always helped Lawser's members gain a competitive edge and be aware of updated equipment in order to compete in the global market. "The WCMA has done these tours since the 1930s," Lawser said. "There is not another association that I am aware of that has done plant tours as long as the WCMA has."

See the description of each stop on the tour below:

Catawissa Lumber & Specialty Co. Inc.

Catawissa served as the lone WCMA member in the area that opened its doors to this year's tour event. Bill Gittler, Jr. of Catawissa, and former WCMA president, welcomed visitors into the plant.

Catawissa has grown from its five-employee, 10,000-square-foot plant beginnings in 1957 to a four-plant operation. Combined, Catawissa's plants can process 25 million board feet of lumber into its specialized products: edge-glued panels, face laminated panels and squares, semi-machined components, drawer sides, drawer fronts, mouldings, butcherblock panels, stair treads and fully assembled bed ends and chair components.

The plant posts newly updated production statistics for each workstation in the breakroom, and also produces a weekly newsletter for employees. Catawissa has three of its plants, including the company headquarters, in Catawissa, PA, and one plant in North Carolina.

Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Co.

This year's tour included two of Vaughan-Bassett's facilities: one in Galax, VA, and the other in Atkins, VA. The company boasts that its production is 95 percent domestic, and its Vaughan-Bassett Express Program helps fend off foreign competition by promising 10-day delivery of its 16 most popular lines to dealers east of Denver.

President and CEO John Bassett said he tells his employees that he is willing to spend whatever is necessary and buy whatever machinery is needed to keep his company competitive with others around the world. Vaughan-Bassett's 1,600 employees mainly produce bedroom suites with some youth furniture, as well as dining room and occasional tables. The Galax, VA site stacks 60,000 board feet a day and purchases $20 million of lumber every year. The Galax plant is also vertically integrated with its own dry kilns, rough mill, assembly, finishing and veneer application.

Vaughan Furniture Co.

Two Vaughan brothers began a business in 1923, survived the Great Depression and established the furniture company that still operates today. Now in its third generation of family management, Vaughan Furniture employs a sales force of 60 people and maintains distribution to more than 5,000 dealers throughout the world. The company uses a 26,000-square-foot space in High Point, NC, as a showroom for its bedroom and occasional furniture lines.

Vaughan has two plants in Galax, VA, and the plant visited by the WCMA event uses four CNC routers in the machining department, six dry kilns, nine gang saws and one rip saw.

Webb Furniture Industries Inc.

President Lee Houston greeted tour attendees outside the Webb particleboard plant and informed them that his products are 100 percent American made. Webb operates its particleboard production out of the 20-year-old plant in Galax, VA. The plant manufactures cabinet-grade particleboard and supplies its industrial accounts throughout the Southeast.

Attendees look on as a Sure-Wood employee operates the Cameron Automation Opti-Match system. Sure-Wood specializes in the production of hardwood stair parts.

 Sure-Wood Dimension

Lawser said attendees were lucky to get a look at Sure-Wood's facility because the company typically does not grant access to its plant. Fortunately, a WCMA member had some contacts at Sure-Wood and helped to facilitate the tour. As a result, tour attendees were able to observe Sure-Wood's production of stair parts including newel posts, balusters, fittings, treads, risers and handrails, along with its S4S board program.

Tarkett Wood Inc.

Like Sure-Wood, Tarkett rarely grants tours of its facilities, Lawser said. However, the WCMA managed to arrange access for tour attendees in the company's highly-automated flooring production facility. In fact, Tarkett Wood is the second-largest wood flooring manufacturer in North America, employing more than 1,000 people. The Johnson City, TN, plant manufactures pre-finished solid, engineered longstrip, and engineered plank flooring as well as mosaic parquet and real wood mouldings.

In 2006

The WCMA event will visit Kentucky in 2006, Lawser said. The Lawsers actually begin planning the tours one year in advance, but they also know how to relax once the hectic event is all over. The couple enjoyed some much needed R&R in Cancun, Mexico, following the 2005 event. "It is kind of like our reward after it is all done," Lawser said.

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