The tour provided a mix of technology and tourism for the participants, including a visit to the
panda zoo and Lamma island.

China is considered to have the fastest growing economy in the world, and its manufacturing — which has exploded over the last 10 years — continues to rapidly advance.

In addition to producing product for a domestic population of 1.34 billion people, China also is the world’s largest exporter of goods. The United States alone, in 2010, imported $364.9 billion in goods from China, an increase of approximately 23 percent over 2009 figures, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Of that amount, foreign trade statistics show $13.6 billion was furniture and household items.

One of the ways China has grown its exports has been by improving the standards of its industrial manufacturing, through a combination of technology and labor productivity. And while owners of Chinese wood products companies have the advantage of lower labor costs than their U.S. counterparts — though wages are increasing steadily due to recent labor laws and a shortage of qualified labor in large cities — the factory owners also have the financial responsibility for supplying dormitory housing for employees, plus having available weekly meals as well as other subsidies.

All this became apparent on a recent tour of seven major players in China’s furniture manufacturing industry: Kinwai Furniture, Oppein, Sogal Furniture/Sofia Furniture, Royal Furniture, Fortune, Decca and MingZhu. Along with a U.S. contingent of woodworking industry executives, I had the opportunity to visit these factories as part of the Tour of Technology sponsored by Stiles Machinery, in conjunction with Homag China Golden Field Ltd. (See sidebar)
 

About the Technology Tour to China 
The inaugural Tour of Technology to China took place
Feb. 26 through March 5, 2011. Among the companies
toured were: Kinwai Furniture, Oppein, Sogal, Royal
Furniture, Fortune, Decca and MingZhu. Stiles
Machinery sponsored the tour, in conjunction with
Homag China Golden Field Ltd.

In addition to myself, those on the tour included:
Craig Elias - executive vice president, AWI Quality
Certification Corp.; Fari Vakili – president,
Cabinets by Design; Jay Streu - president & CEO,
Mary Streu – vice president of operations, and
Ann Duebner – vice president of sales & marketing,
Eggers Industries; Peter Funder – president,
Funder America Inc.; Tim Schad – chairman & CEO,
and Mike Fedrigo - vice president of operations,
Nucraft; Dan Sauder - vice president product &
process engineering, and Steve Jones – vice president
of manufacturing, Sauder Woodworking; Todd Wegman
– president, Stevens Industries; Eric Wolff – president &
CEO, the Stow Co.; Doug Clausen – president, and
Jason Farver – vice president/architectural wood doors,
VT Industries; Jim Elliker – owner, Victory Woodworks;
and Ricardo Villarreal – vice president of engineering,
WoodCrafters Home Products LLC.

Participating from Stiles Machinery were:
Dave Rothwell – executive vice president, Steve Waltman
 – vice president/sales & marketing, Russ Suor –
vice president/technology, and
Doug Maat – Homag product manager. Those from
Homag China Golden Field include Addie Kwan -
managing director, Sandy Ho – director, and
Alan Ho - CEO.

Business & Technology
The tour not only offered a chance to view the technology at the seven companies, but also to understand some of the business considerations affecting Chinese manufacturing. For example, the lack of access to qualified labor has forced many owners to instead invest in high-tech machinery in order to control the quality and throughput of their production, with the average payback period being approximately five years.

Of the factories visited, most produced parts for domestic consumption, primarily targeted for China’s growing middle class. A few also manufactured for export, primarily to Europe.

Below is a recap of the seven companies visited on the tour, as well as comments by some of the participants. More is available online at WoodworkingNetwork.com.

Founded in 1993, Kinwai is located in Jiangmen, Guangdong, with subsidiaries in the United States and Europe. Kinwai employs approximately 2,000 people at its 5-million-square-foot manufacturing plant and posted sales of $120 million in 2010.

Kinwai is undergoing FSC certification and has invested millions of dollars in technology to improve its manufacturing of residential and office furniture products, both OEM and ODM. Among the equipment purchased were: Holzma panel saws, Weeke machining centers, Bargstedt material handling equipment, Homag CNC machining centers and Homag edgebanders.

Founded in 1994, Oppein is considered Asia’s largest cabinetmaker. In 2010, it produced 230,000 sets of kitchen cabinetry and 110,000 wardrobes, posting sales of more than $300 million; sales are expected to hit $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion by 2014.

Based in Guangzhou, Guandong, Oppein employs approximately 6,000 people and has more than 3 million square feet of manufacturing space. Bar coding tracks the work in process as it moves from the Holzma saws, to the Optimat edgebanders and Homag CNC routers and boring machines, including the small-footprint Weeke Optimat BHX.

Based in Xaincu, Zengcheng, Guangzhou, Hong Kong Royal Furniture is the largest domestic provider of residential furniture. It posted sales of more than $100 million in 2010 and employs between 4,000 and 6,000 people in five production facilities, spanning 3 million square feet of space.

Royal was the exclusive supplier of home furniture for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Its products cover the spectrum of styles, from the intricately carved, high-end to veneered and laminated furniture targeted for the mid-range price point. With 5 to 8 percent of the company’s sales from exports, Royal is looking for growth in that area, said Michael Chan, export and project director.

Panel-based furniture is the line targeted to help grow exports. For this, Royal uses CNC machinery, including Holzma saws, Homag edgebanders and Weeke machining centers, in combination with its handcraftsmanship.

Founded in 1981, Guangzhou City, Guangzhou-based Sogal Furniture produces both laminate flooring and custom closets/wardrobes at its facility; it is in the process of building another facility at the site. The company employs 1,600, with 1,300 producing the custom wardrobes and 300 manufacturing EFloor.

Sofia Furniture was established approximately 10 years ago as a joint venture between Sogal and Sofia, based in France. Sofia custom closets/wardrobes can be found in 7 percent of all Chinese homes, the company said, and the majority of the product is for domestic consumption, with less than 5 percent of sales — $90 million in 2010 — from exports.

The company uses Holzma saws, including an HKL that will cut to size both the length and widths of books of MDF for standard parts. Straight-edged parts are edgebanded on Homag and Brandt single-sided edgebanders, while drilling of holes and other machining is performed on a variety of Weeke CNC machining centers, including a BHX.
 

With a factory in Dongguan City, Guangdong, Fortune Furniture has, literally, made its fortune as an IKEA supplier. At the 645,000-square-foot plant, more than 500 Fortune employees produce veneered Billy bookcases. According to Chan Oi Man, Fortune chairman, sales of the bookcases were 1.3 million units in 2010; he anticipates that figure increasing to 1.5 million for 2011. Annual sales for the entire company were $100 million.

The bookcases constitute 50 percent of the company’s products; the remaining production is divided equally between OEM products and Fortune’s own brand of furniture, which is sold in 100 retail stores around China. The three plants combined constitute 645,800 square feet of manufacturing capability.

Fortune uses a Holzma angular saw system in conjunction with a Liftomat stacker/sorter to move the panels to another Holzma front loader — this is reportedly the largest angular cutting line for a furniture factory in China. The panels are veneered on one of four press lines and edges are finished using a sequence of Homag double-sided edgebanders with turners in order to band all four sides in a single flow. A sequence of Homag Optimat BST 500 machines drill holes and route for the baseboard before sending the panels to be split into two by a Homag throughfeed. According to Chan, the company has the capacity to produce 300 sets of bookcases per hour.

Founded in 1973, Dongguan City, Guangdong-based Decca produces office and hospitality furniture for the U.S. market, as well as residential furniture for the United States, Europe and Asian markets. At the 1.5 million-square-foot facility, Decca produces more than 19,000 pieces per month. Decca employs 1,500 people at its factory and posted sales in excess of $100 million last year.

Approximately 16 percent of sales are from exports, mostly to the United States, where it has three offices: Minneapolis, High Point and Atlanta.

What stands out about Decca is its merging of handcraftsmanship with technology. Near a bank of CNC programmers, are employees hand carving intricate designs. Decca uses a combination of Homag and other CNC machines for routing. It also uses Holzma saws, Brandt and Homag edgebanders, Heesemann sanders and Venjakob finishing systems among its equipment.
 

MingZhu Furniture Group is the third largest furniture manufacturer in China, and when its new factories are complete, it will only be bigger. Already a multi-million giant, MingZhu produces roughly 5,000 sets of RTA furniture a day for the Chinese domestic market. It employs approximately 4,000 people and has five production bases spread over a combined 3,000 acres of land.

MingZhu is building a new showroom, offices and manufacturing facility. It already plans to add more cells within the next two years, giving it more than 4 million square feet of total manufacturing space combined.

At the new cutting facility, plans call for four Holzma angular systems along with three Holzma CNC panel saws. “This is a completely new investment,” says Wang Jian Bin, president. According to Wang Yu, vice president, it will have a cutting capacity of 500 cubic meters, per two shifts. Rows of roller conveyors will move the parts to the next facility, where they will be edgebanded, bored and routed. MingZhu is in the process of installing 10 Homag BAZ CNC machining centers and has on order another seven Homag production lines.

Tour Participants Comment
Many of the tour participants commented favorably on the diversity and overall level of automation seen at the various woodworking plants. A few also expressed surprise at the number of Chinese companies that manufactured primarily for domestic usage, rather than for export.

“I was very impressed by the wide variety of manufacturing. There were the traditional high labor content facilities doing high-volume, low-end products, all the way up to very low labor, highly automated factories,” said Jason Farver, vice president/architectural wood doors for VT Industries. “I was also surprised that we saw some very custom, high-end products being produced in China. Before the trip, I perceived the manufacturing in China as high-volume, low-end products. That myth was dispelled,” he added.

Dan Sauder, vice president product and process engineering at Sauder Woodworking, also noted the improved level of technology seen in plants visited. “I was surprised how much they are investing in larger factories and better equipment,” he said. “They clearly are starting to really look towards growth by selling into China instead of exporting to North America.”

“I was most impressed by the size of these companies, and the volume of products that they manufacture,” said Fari Vakili, president of Cabinets by Design Inc. Although automation was used throughout the companies, it was noted that in some cases it could have been used more effectively. “I saw some facilities that were highly automated and a lot of investment in facilities and equipment to provide more capacity,” said Ann Duebner, vice president of sales and marketing for Eggers Industries. However, she also noted a number of people “standing around” at some facilities, as well as a lack of material handling equipment.

Along with Farver, Steve Jones, vice president of manufacturing at Sauder, commented on the “evidence of lean being deployed” in many of the plants, though not at the level found in the United States. “There was a lot of WIP inventory for what was being produced. There were also a lot of people not really adding value to the product being produced,” Jones commented.

However, Jones and others were quick to add, they did come away from the trip with a new perspective on Chinese manufacturing.

“When I was in China five years ago, it was not even close to being advanced in regards to production lines and equipment,” said Jim Elliker, owner of Victory Woodworks. “Fast forward five years and they are as modern as any plant in the USA. They are still behind the times as far as ‘leaning’ everything out, but the improvement is still unbelievable.”

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