Views from Both Sides of the Buyer and Seller Equation:
By Bernadette Freund
In 1982, Kimball International discovered it had a growing need to further its office case goods product line.
Enter Kimball’s Salem, IN, division or flexcel as it is now known. The Salem plant manufactures preassembled modular case goods including desks, credenzas and high backs on a 32mm platform. The plant, which is 300,000 square feet and has 370 employees, is a make-to-order operation.
Ten years ago the company started manufacturing one product line by making it to order and learned how to do quick changeovers. Four years ago it updated its equipment for even faster changeover times. Now the company manufactures all of its product lines on a make-to-order basis.
“Every unit coming through the line is unique in one way or another,” says John Barwe, senior buyer of flexcel. “We may have a cherry desk that is followed by an oak credenza and then a maple table.”
The company has three main customers it supplies office case goods to that each buys more than 450 SKUs of flexcel’s product lines. It also has many different hardware options and 17 standard finish colors with 550 special colors.
“If you calculate all of our SKUs and the different options we offer, it works out to 9.9 billion different items,” says Barwe. “Plus we are doing that on a short lead time of 12 days from order to ship.”
Flexcel’s drive to mass customization has come about to answer to competitors’ decreases in price and increases in quality.
“Five to ten years ago we did not have to worry about competing on price because we felt the quality sold our product,” says Barwe. “As the competition began coming down in price and gaining in quality, we realized we had to get products out to customers through decreased lead times, avoid costs and increase the efficiency of our production line.”
Outsourcing a Solution
After a short and less than satisfying relationship with a drawer component supplier a few years ago, flexcel now relies on BHK of America of South Boston, VA, to manufacture its drawer parts.
Outsourcing parts has allowed flexcel to focus more on manufacturing the special products that customers want, decrease lead times, save costs and free up plant capacity to produce all make-to-order pieces and to add future made-to-order product lines.
“Before creating a relationship with BHK we made all of our own drawer parts,” says Travis Williams, production manager. “We did everything from cut them out of stock to building them up and finishing them.
“A few years ago we realized in order to continue giving our customers the attention they deserve, we needed to focus more of our attention on producing a more diverse product line rather than on drawer parts,” Williams adds.
According to Barwe, flexcel used to make anywhere from 15 to 50 drawer styles at a time in many different styles and sizes. As an added problem, it did all of this in a room taking up about a quarter of the entire plant.
Wide Open Space
“When we eliminated drawer parts from our manufacturing equation here, 20 percent of our capacity was freed up,” says Barwe.
“The capacity has allowed us to run more product,” says Williams. “We have effectively converted the space where our component operations used to be to the manufacturing of our table top line.”
With the extra plant space and capacity, flexcel has redesigned its production line as well. The company looked to the car-making industry and a John Deere tractor factory in order to get ideas for its line.
“We brought automotive industry assembly line processes into the plant,” says Barwe. “Everything has become fine tuned. For instance we also looked at a John Deere factory which assembles an entire tractor on an 80-foot assembly line. After studying that we had to ask ourselves why we needed a 240-foot line to assemble a desk.”
The assembly process has been broken down into specific steps. Just as occurs in the car-making industry each product moves along a specific line and has pieces or finish added to it as it moves.
How the Drawer Boxes Come Together
After the furniture cases are fully assembled, they are moved along to the drawer assembly area on conveyors. Parts reach this staging area and are sorted into a shelving system according to size and drawer style. The drawer assembly workers determine what drawers need to be built and pull the parts off of the shelves.
The parts already have had holes bored and dowels inserted on BHK’s end so assemblers only have to glue the separate pieces together. Then they attach the metal brackets and slides and put them on the gravity feed tables.
The drawer boxes move on the gravity feed tables to the next workstation where the drawer fronts are attached. As soon as a worker pulls a drawer off the table or however many units he needs to insert into the outer body, it signals back to the drawer assemblers to build more of that particular drawer.
Once a front is attached, workers check the drawer to make sure it fits the carcass. They perform some final sanding on the drawers, install them in the cases and send the fully-assembled product to finishing.
Perfection Takes Time
Through close communication and team work, the two companies have come together to create a standardized drawer product that not only fits into every style of the Definition product but is also cost effective.
“We have been fortunate with BHK,” says Barwe. “There are probably 15 or 20 drawers that we run. We take a minimum-maximum approach. We keep a safety stock level and order components off what our averages have been because BHK’s lead time exceeds the lead time in our facility. With the lot size concept, they cannot set up and run one drawer each time we need it.”
In order to resolve this dilemma, flexcel’s engineers and purchasing department have worked with BHK. In turn, BHK has helped flexcel standardize its drawer program.
“Now we are down to one size drawer for each piece,” says Williams. “We can change the front in order to change a customer’s concept of the drawer. This allows BHK and other drawer suppliers to run the lot sizes they need to run to maintain their business.”
Teamwork and communication have also been key for both companies in terms of reducing costs. Both sides have had to define exactly what they want from a product standpoint in order to reduce waste.
Barwe says flexcel has brought people in from BHK to see how the product is made and how they operate as a company. BHK also has done the same for flexcel.
“You do not want them to over engineer their product or to over specify it because you are going to pay for that in one way or another,” says Barwe. “Both of us came together to determine what was critical from all angles for the product.
“At this point in time we have a good definition of what we have to have for our product. BHK is then able to look at their supply chain and determine how to avoid costs, which passes right on to us. Now our costs from a components end are well below where they were say two years ago,” says Barwe.
All Wrapped Up in a Nice Neat Box
“Right now we are just using BHK for all of our wood drawers,” says Barwe. “We are working with another company (Knape & Vogt) on our V-fold vinyl drawers for our mid-level product rather than glue and dowel construction. We are looking at BHK to see if they can supply us with that product as well. We are always exploring to find the best fit for all of our suppliers of parts.
“I think to move to an outside supplier you need to look at what you do well,” says Barwe. “There are some things you may think you do well, but until you start balancing it against what another company can do for you you do not really know. After you make your latest five year plan, you have to decide what your company should keep producing and send the rest somewhere else.”
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