Northern Contours manufactures a variety of door and drawer front styles. The above was made using quarter-sawn white oak.

For Northern Contours, a Minnesota-based component manufacturer, the recent economic downturn has been a mixed blessing.

“We have maintained and increased our customer base and created a number of new products that have expanded our footprint in the market, “ says National Sales Manager Lary Skow. “We have also focused on a number of specific markets that are generating new sales and new customers, such as refacing and healthcare.”

Though the company has been impacted by the downturn, including having to trim its workforce and seeing some reductions in sales to large OEM accounts, Northern Contours has used the downtime to focus on things like product development.

“While the effort has always been fairly substantial with Northern Contours, we hit a period of time in the last 18 months where we just had a lot of stuff that was in the pipeline, ideas from a couple years back that just came to fruition, and we were ready to get it out to our reps and to the market,” says Skow. “We saw the economic downturn as an opportunity to get a number of product development projects finished.”

In addition to its veneer-based Spectrum Series, the company has added to its offerings of high-gloss thermofoil, including a number of new foils and door styles. Its most recent innovation is a flat laminated acrylic high-gloss line called LEVEL. The company also launched a campaign a little over two years ago that it calls FUZE, which takes different components of Northern Contours’ product lines and uses them in combination to create new looks for customers.

“Part of the strategy has been diversification,” says Skow. “If we stay selling the commodity with all our eggs in that basket, we would not be positioned to really go anyplace else. As a testament to that, during the recent economic downturn we felt it, but not nearly as bad as many of our competitors, because we had this diversity of product lines and diversity of markets.”

The company makes products for large kitchen cabinet companies like MASCO, MBCI and Norcraft, as well as many smaller cabinet companies and custom shops. It also has large and small clients in a range of markets such as office furniture, RVs, store fixtures, home organization, cabinet refacing, hospitality and healthcare. Recent projects have varied from cash wrap components for Super Target stores to high gloss curved components for luxury yachts.

The Logic of Location
Northern Contours’ corporate headquarters is in Mendota Heights, MN, and the company has five manufacturing facilities: a 70,000-square-foot RTF plant and a 50,000-square-foot veneer plant in Fergus Falls, MN; a 100,000-square-foot RTF plant in Corbin, KY; and a 50,000-square-foot veneer plant and a 50,000-square-foot custom wood door plant in Vanceburg, KY.

“There are several reasons that the company has chosen to have multiple plants,” Skow says. “For example, we have a thermofoil plant in Corbin, KY, and one in Fergus Falls, MN. First and foremost, it is geographic accessibility to our customer base. We think anytime you are getting beyond that two-day shipping point, you are not servicing that customer base as well as you would like to.

“The second thing is that we prefer to have smaller operating plants,” Skow continues. “What we have found is that if you can get a plant that is set up with the appropriate equipment and a labor force between 75 and 150 people, that is a good-sized plant for us. If you have a large plant with 300 or 400 people or more working there, it gets harder to manage and harder to control. It becomes a larger manufacturing and management challenge than having smaller plants. Plus, it’s always nice to have back-up and it provides us with needed flexibility.”

Making a Quality Product
Skow says the company’s manufacturing processes are fairly simple. “Most of the time we start with sheet stock for our thermofoil and veneer slab doors,” he says. “The order entry process feeds the information to our router software programs.

“Once the core stock is cut, it either goes on to gluing or edgebanding,” Skow continues. “The final stage for thermofoil is pressing and trimming. For veneer, we press and then send the parts through a series of sanding operations. Complicated parts requiring back side drilling, hinge boring or other additional machining may get done before or after being fabricated into a drawer front or door. Depending upon the product, there may be ancillary machining operations that happen before or after the pressing process. We do a significant amount of specialized machining for customers who buy horizontal surface product from us such as desktops. In addition, our custom wood door plant manufactures five-piece wood doors in a variety of mortise-and-tenon and mitered styles that feature
membrane-pressed veneer center panels.”

Northern Contours uses a number of machines in the manufacturing process, including Wemhoner (Stiles Machinery) membrane presses, routers by Komo and Northwood, Heesemann (Stiles) widebelt sanders and edgebanders by Biesse, Holz-Her and Fletcher.

The company also is mindful of quality control and performs inspections at various points of operation. “We do a lot of in-plant testing on our adhesions and some of our other operations to make sure — on an ongoing basis — the materials we are using are working the way they should be working,” says Skow. “For example, we randomly pull product from production and test it for heat resistance and adhesion. We want to make sure that the components that we are using to make that product are on par with our quality standards.

“We also do testing on the front end,” he continues, “checking incoming shipments of new thermofoil for color match to an established standard and checking for UV stability.”

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