September 2005

Small Size, Big Business

High-tech machinery enables Colorado-based General Casework to produce more than $2 million in cabinets annually with a workforce of just four employees.

By Karen M. Koenig
General Casework Inc.

Denver, CO

The two-year-old company manufactures laminated custom cabinetry for sale to other cabinetmakers.

Three Keys:

1. General Casework's four employees manufacture hundreds of cabinets each week with the aid of high-tech machinery, including a CNC panel saw, case clamp and point-to-point boring machine.

2. Employees are cross-trained on the machines to avoid possible bottlenecks. The company also performs regular maintenance on its machines to reduce downtime.

3. The company looks to expand its capabilities even more through the purchase of robotics next year.

General Casework President Steven Johnson is successfully bucking the "supersize" trend when it comes to his 13,000-square-foot shop.

Johnson combines a dedicated workforce of just four employees, with highly productive technology to produce hundreds of cabinets each week. This year - the company's second full year of business - General Casework is on pace to break the $2 million mark for sales revenues.

"We produce a basic, frameless, fully-assembled laminate cabinet, with a very fast turnaround," Johnson says. What makes this Denver-based company unique, however, is its business model - General Casework's customers are other cabinet shops, both local and in surrounding states.

Customers range from one-man cabinet shops to those with 100 or more employees, serving the commercial, residential and institutional markets. General Casework relies on referrals and repeat business for all of its sales.

"Our consistency in price, quality and lead times - that's what gets us the repeat business," Johnson says.

Machine Technology

Cabinet companies submit their specifications to Johnson, who programs the information and downloads it to the machines on the shop floor. "Everything is made to order to the customer's specification, not off-the-shelf," Johnson says.

General Casework specializes in manufacturing laminated custom cabinetry, which it sells to other cabinet companies. Approximately 80 percent of the cabinets manufactured are for commercial applications, such as this company lunchroom. The remaining 20 percent of sales are evenly divided between institutional and residential applications.

The average job size is 12 cabinets, although orders have run as high as 2,000 cabinets. "No job is too small, though," Johnson adds. "We'll do single cabinets as well."

General Casework orders its thermofused melamine, high-pressure laminate and rigid thermofoil panels on a just-in-time basis from nearby Ro++cke Inc. Once a job hits the shop floor, the standard turnaround time is four days. Typically, 15 to 20 jobs are in progress at any given time.

The machining process begins at the panel sizing operation. Econo-Lift material handling equipment, which is networked into General Casework's computer system, automatically selects the correct number of panels for cutting on a Holzma HPP 82 CNC panel saw.

Using information generated by a Holzma Cut-Rite optimization program, panels are cut to size and a label is generated and applied onto the individual panels. The label includes all pertinent job information, including customer ID and types of machining processes to be performed.

Material is transferred via a two-system conveyor from the panel saw to a staging area, where it is tagged for further operations. For example, items in the red section are sent to the boring area, black is for edgebanding and gold indicates jobs to be expedited. The color-coded work-in-process area also acts as a visual reminder of work to be done that day, Johnson says, thus enabling employees to plan their time accordingly.

"Being organized and having a schedule everyone can see at a glance helps drive the employees," Johnson says.

Advice for New Owners

General Casework President Steven Johnson offers the following advice to new owners of wood products companies.

1. Empower employees. Each of General Casework's four employees is responsible for maintaining quality control of the parts and products they fabricate. In addition, the four men were given input into the shop's working hours (6 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.) and have had opportunities made available for job advancement.

2. Provide a good employee benefits package. Employee retention is one of the top concerns of most managers. For a small company, Johnson offers full-range of benefits, including 90 percent coverage of insurance premiums, bonuses, and vacation and retirement packages.

3. Be honest with customers in terms of deadlines and quality. "We don't use any short cuts. We're selling cabinets to other cabinet shops, so their expectations are very high," Johnson adds.

4. Perform regular maintenance on the machines to avoid unplanned downtime. "We do preventive maintenance work on a daily, weekly and monthly basis," Johnson says. In addition, extensive maintenance checks are performed quarterly, with the machinery manufacturer also coming to the shop for preventive service checks.

Because the company only has four employees, there is a lot of cross-training on the machines. Currently, three of the men can work on all the machines, with the fourth having been trained on half. Two of the men can also program the CNC equipment, with another capable of programming half of the machines.

In addition to the panel saw, other CNC equipment in the shop includes a Weeke BP 100 point-to-point boring machine for drilling cabinet end panels and a Ligmatech Profiline MPH 500 case clamp with precise pressure adjustment for a wide variety of cabinet sizes. Plans call for the Ligmatech to be "linked" to a motorized conveyor, enabling a cabinet to be loaded and offloaded at waist height for better ergonomics. The machines are programmed using Stiles Machinery's WoodWOP software.

General Casework also relies on a number of other automated machines to keep its productivity at peak levels. For example, a CNC Weeke BEK 100 performs horizontal drilling and dowel insertion on tops and bottoms. The company also has a single-sided CNC Brandt KDF 78 edgebander that mills edges before banding PVC, ABS, acrylic or veneer tape onto shelving and cabinet edges. The edgebander is used in conjunction with a Ligmatech Boomerang ZHR 01 return conveyor, thus enabling a single operator to load and offload components. General Casework sources its edgebandings from Frama-Tech, Doellken Woodtape and Edgebanding Services Inc.

"Everything in the shop has a flow to it and every conveyor has a purpose," Johnson says. "Every [operation] in the shop has been geared for a single operator."

General Casework offers a variety of drawer sizes and styles.

While it is unusual for a small shop to have a dedicated drawer line, Johnson says it is just one more example where General Casework has streamlined its operation for maximum efficiency. The company has dedicated a Tritec Gannomat Elite 25 machine for mirror imaging of the drilling, glue application and dowel insertion applications. A Ritter case clamp is dedicated for drawer assembly, and there is a small work area nearby for hardware insertion.

Additional equipment includes: a Torit dust collector, a manual Ligmatech clamp for specialized boxes and diagonal corners, an Altendorf sliding saw, and Shopcarts, Q-Systems transfer carts and conveyors, and Presto lifts for material handling. A recent purchase that has greatly improved the company's handling in the packaging area is a Schmalz Jumbo vacuum lift, Johnson says. The range of the Schmalz's overhead bridge system is 24 feet by 80 feet, thus enabling a single operator to transfer a full-size cabinet to the shrink wrapping machine, package it, then move the item to the shipping dock.

The Schmalz vacuum lift, Ligmatech CNC case clamp, Holzma Econo-Lift and Weeke Optimat CNC boring machine were all purchased from Stiles Machinery last year.

Future Plans

With two successful years under its belt, General Casework is already looking at ways to further expand capacity, without adding people.

"Our next step will be robotics at the CNC [machines]," Johnson says. "The robot will be able to scan the bar code, pick up the parts and place them on the [various] machines - without human intervention. It's how we can grow, without adding a lot of people. Our goal will be to have a robot in operation by the end of 2006 or beginning of 2007."

Practice What You Preach

In a "previous life," Steven Johnson was a regional sales manager for Stiles Machinery. That changed a couple of years ago when Johnson, a woodworker at heart, decided to practice what he preached - that a shop would be successful if it had the right mix of manpower, machines and market.

General Casework President Steven Johnson (center) attributes the company's success to his four employees.

Today, Johnson is president of General Casework, a Denver-based high-production manufacturer of laminated cabinets, which are sold to other cabinetmakers.

"I had quite an education, watching other people run their business for 11 years while I was a sales manager. I figured, why not do what I was telling other people...what I really believed. If you have good machines, a good system in place, a good customer base, and most importantly - good people - then you could really make [your business] work," Johnson says.

It was friend and former customer Andy Wilzoch, owner of Denver-based Premier EuroCase, who steered Johnson on his present course.

"With some [of the cabinet companies] it initially took awhile for them to believe we weren't in competition with them. But for this to work, we had to stay focused to the plan," Johnson says.

General Casework has been successful in maintaining its niche market. Hundreds of jobs go through the shop each month and the company is on track to break $2 million in sales this year.

"With our capabilities - drilling, doors, assembling, cleaning and packaging - our customers know we can meet or beat their expectations," Johnson says.


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