Gunlocke Bends the Rules

With a core set of values, a knack for steam bending developed over 97-years and a high-tech vision of the future, Gunlocke has gone from the red to the black in a few short years.

By Larry Adams

Steam rises and a wave of heat emanates from the retorts, or steamers, as the operator removes the pliable wood and places it into the bender. The steam-softened wood bends, as if it were paper, into the shape of a U while the operator stands to the side waiting for the wood to reach its desired radius.

Nearby, in a temperature-controlled environment there is another story altogether. A bright, cool room in which operators push a button and, one at a time, desktops are conveyed along a 400-foot-long, state-of-the-art ultraviolet finishing line that includes a robotic sprayer. The raw tops are converted into high-sheen components.

This technological dichotomy is just one of the striking things about the Gunlocke Co.'s production facility in Wayland, NY, where wood is steam bent in an old-world manner before working its way into a high-tech, high-volume environment. Gunlocke, a subsidiary of office furniture giant Hon Ind., spent millions on machinery and infrastructure upgrades, yet still places great emphasis on a core set of values.

High-Tech Finishing

Over the last several years, Gunlocke has spent $10 million dollars on capital investments to produce a wider variety of high-end seating and case goods for its customers, according to the March 14, 1999 edition of the Democrat and Chronical newspaper in Rochester, NY. Throughout the facility can be found new computerized machinery, infrastructure upgrades and a new ultra-violet finishing system that produces what the company has dubbed its "ClearTech" finish.

Gunlocke promotes ClearTech as an environmentally friendly coating process that uses high-solids materials to produce a high-impact, mar-resistant finish. Emissions of volatile organic compounds have been reduced by 60 percent with this system, says Gunlocke President John Stevens.

"In our market, people value the finish," Stevens says. "It is what they respond to, but it is also the most functional. One reason that some people don't buy wood is that they worry about durability. This UV finish is two to three times more durable than ordinary finishes."

Gunlocke began installing the Giardina ultraviolet finishing line in 1997 and completed the job in June of 1998. After the company debugged some startup difficulties, including problems in which the finishing material did not react well with cherry, the finishing system has been up and running at more than 65 feet per minute.

The line is used to finish desktops where mar-resistance is especially important. Desk bases and components are hand sprayed using Devilbiss spray guns. The company constructs and assembles the desks and case goods to ensure a good fit and identical machining then removes the tops to be finished. The tops are attached to a "spreader," a bar that runs across the width of the base, that makes the top easy to remove and also provides stability to the base.

As the tops enter the line they are scanned by a sensor that tells the computer the part-dimension of each piece. The computer then adjusts all the equipment on the first half of the line, including three direct roll coaters, dryers and a widebelt sander.

Each top goes through a series of direct roll coaters that apply UV finishing materials to the tops of the parts. After each pass under a direct roll coater, the boards are partially cured by UV light just enough so that the next coat "meshes at a chemical level" with the previous coat, says Vice President of Operations John Peale.

The tops are then cured completely by UV light, a process which takes about four seconds, and are sanded on a DMC Topsand, a computer-controlled variable speed, widebelt sander from SCM GROUP USA. Then the pieces move directly to the robotic sprayer for its topcoat.

As the panels enter the environmentally controlled robotic finishing cabinet, they are hit with a burst of de-ionized air that removes impurities and any built-up static electricity. The desktops then pass under a sensor which determines the shapes of the parts. This allows panels of varying shapes and sizes to flow through the system.

The robotic sprayer, which sprays 46 percent solids material supplied by Akzo Nobel, applies the material to the tops and edges of the desktops. The application to the edges is important because, unlike the top, it has not had materials applied to it by the direct roll coaters.

"We decided to go with computer-controlled, robotic spraying because of the consistency of application," Stevens says. "Hand spraying could not match robotic spraying."

After spraying, tops go through a series of cabinets with 40 watt "TL" lights that begin to remove the solvents. Eventually, the desktops go through the final UV cabinet which completely cures the material and brings it to a high-gloss, high-sheen level.

"You need to flash solvents off before the UV light to get solvents out," says Peale. "If you don't get all the moisture out, you get blushing and all sorts of other problems."

Expanding Customer Options

While a beautiful finish is one of the most important ingredients to successful product sales, today's marketplace requires more. Gunlocke, whose office furniture is priced at the upper end of the market, found it needed to offer more options for its customers while still meeting turnaround times and upholding quality standards.

Gunlocke's response to the demand for more custom options is a program called Adjustable Component Solutions which

is currently in development. ACS uses common "core parts" which can be cut and machined, then melded with specified accessories.

"ACS is borne out by our end users who are lawyers and bankers," Stevens says. "We did research to find out what needs are being met and what needs are not being met."

In developing the new, customer-driven program, Gunlocke is reengineering an area of the plant into a workcell dedicated to the ACS process. Workcells are a key production element in Gunlocke's chair and case goods operations. The mostly U-shaped workcells vary from making component parts to making entire products.

The workcell being developed to test the ACS program will initially produce the company's Medley case goods line which incorporates a number of design options. Customers' can choose from eight edge details including square, ogee, cove, trioval and duostep. The components can be ordered in three species - maple, oak and cherry - and in 17 finishes including nine for cherry, two for maple and six for oak.

When completed, the cell area, roughly the size of a basketball court, will produce all the components for the Medley line. "We are trying to learn, so when we get into ACS we will have the bugs taken care of," says Peale.

Standardized parts are produced to sizes that can be easily cut down for multiple uses. For instance, to fill an order for a 30-inch side table, an operator can take a 60-inch panel that has already been edgebanded and cut it in half. A Morbidelli Author 504 machining center from SCM GROUP USA can then be used to bore construction holes, produce edge details and do any needed routing and grooving.

Flexible machinery, such as the Morbidelli, is an essential ingredient in the ACS plan, Peale says. "We have a huge customization program and so we rely tremendously on our CNC routers," Peale says. "Our average part run is four, that is why we have to go even more into CNC machining centers."

Between the chair and the case goods plant, Gunlocke has six "big" routers, including five Shodas, as well as a Routech machining center and two Morbidelli Author 504s machining centers from SCM Group USA, and a Nottmeyer point-to-point boring machine from IMA-America.

Steambending Sets Company Apart

Despite of all its new equipment and capabilities, steambending is the one thing that most sets Gunlocke apart from the pack. The company, which is looking ahead to its 100th anniversary in 2002, says it is one of the few remaining North American companies that does its own high-volume steam bending to curve wood legs, arms and backs.

"We bend wood versus traditional cutting, gluing and doweling," says Stevens. "It is something we are known for, and something we take pride in."



These three photos were taken in rapid succession and illustrate one of Gunlocke's steambending processes. The wood is pliable, but not dry, and after the wood is removes from the bending machine it is clamped and put in a dry kiln for up to 12 days to reduce moisture content.

Gunlocke has used steambent parts since it was founded in 1902 and has had its own dedicated steam bending department since 1912.

In the steam bending area, wood is steamed at approximately 330F to 340F until it becomes pliable. In general, the wood stays in the retort for about 1 hour per inch of wood.

More than 3,000 pieces of wood are "bent" per day with radius shapes ranging from "simple" bends of 15 degrees all the way to U-shapes.

Simple bends are created in one of 14 platen presses that have been designed to do different radii. The presses get up to about 240F to 260F, and, depending on the stock, the wood will stay in the press for up to 2 1/2 hours maximum. Thicker stock is warmed to about 240F because "thicker stock has more moisture, and if it gets too hot, it will boil the water inside the part and the water will blow the end out of it," says Kim Bowen, the first floor supervisor. Bowen says he "started bending wood when I was 12 years old with my grandfather."

For more complicated bends, the wood is put into a large former that takes just a few seconds to bend the wood to the desired radii. However, since moisture is not removed during the process, the wood must stay clamped and be dried in a kiln for up to 12 days.

Gearing Up for the 21st Century

The Gunlocke Co. has come along way since it was founded as a five-man shop in an abandoned warehouse in Wayland, NY. Wayland is a small village about an hour south of Rochester in the Finger Lakes region of New York. It is the kind of community where on one end of the town the welcome sign lists the churches in the community. On the other end of town, the welcome sign is sponsored by Gunlocke, Wayland's largest employer and the largest employer in a three-county area.

The company went through some hard times after being the target of several buyouts in the 1980s. Gunlocke had been unprofitable for seven to eight years, but that began to turn around three years ago and now the company has doubled its sales and reached a "high level of profit," Stevens says.

According to the Democrat and Chronical, Gunlocke's sales grew an estimated 47 percent last year to $80 million. This outpaced the industry which grew at 14 percent last year.

The strong economy during most of the 1990s has been key to this resurgence. Stevens, a former Herman Miller executive who came to Gunlocke about four years ago, also points to the company's commitment to Rapid Continuous Improvement, employment empowerment and a move to six core values as other reasons for this upsurge.

"In my opening speech when I got here, I told them (employees) we were in trouble and asked them what they do in their home life when they are in trouble," Stevens says. "I think you dig deep down in your heart and figure out what your core values are. That is what we did here. I think I had people scratching their heads at first."

Under Stevens' direction, Gunlocke initiated a casual dress code and, in an ongoing renovation plans, has gotten rid of corner and outside wall offices which monopolized outside light. In addition, all offices are now the same size, including Stevens'.

Under the RCI plan, monthly meetings bring together workers, or members as they are called, and management personnel in discussions about safety, productivity quality and other issues.

"The group meets for 4 1/2 days and then we get recommendations on Friday and implement them by Monday if we can," Stevens says.

The core values that Gunlocke has integrated into its corporate culture also play a vital role in day-to-day operations. "The world changes so fast," Stevens says, "that it is hard to keep up with everything with strict adherence to procedures. You need something else to keep up."

Not everyone likes this autonomy. Some members like having set rules and procedures. To help them adapt to this new corporate culture every new employee undergoes a 14-module orientation. The first module, Value Deployment, is conducted by Stevens himself.

The employee-empowerment concept is aptly demonstrated in the company's customer service area. If they get a call from a customer about freight damage, for example, the customer service representatives are "empowered to solve the problem," Stevens says. "They have a direct line to manufacturing and if they need to build a part then we will and we will ship it overnight. We do whatever it takes to satisfy the customer."


Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.