Stanley Boots Up New Home Office Plant

The Martinsville, VA, facility is dedicated to tripling the company’s computer furniture sales.

By Hannah Miller

  

Initially caught napping by the tidal wave of home personal computer popularity, Stanley Furniture Co. is making up for lost time with a new 300,000-square-foot plant in Martinsville, VA, devoted entirely to manufacturing home office furniture.

Stanley Furniture invested $17 million on its new facility, including flexible production equipment that helps lower inventories and labor costs. Stanley officials expect the new plant to help nearly double the company’s home office furniture sales to $25 million in its first year of operation.

 

     
     
   
  “Casual chic” is the term Stanley uses to describe its Canyon Loft Collection, which draws on the simplicity of the Arts and Crafts style. The collection was introduced at the April 2000 home furnishings market and features oak solids and veneers with a honey finish and hammered brass hardware.  

Home office is a market in which “the customer got there before the manufacturer did,” says Albert L. Prillaman, chairman, president and CEO of Stanley Furniture. He notes that traditional furniture manufacturers like Stanley, which makes bedroom, dining room and occasional furniture in the upper-medium price range, were slow to react to consumer demand for furniture to support their home computers. The opposite was the case for ready-to-assemble furniture manufacturers, who enjoyed a virtual captive market throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s.

Playing Catch Up
“The RTA people were so good to adapt to it (PC usage) right away,” Prillaman says. Meanwhile, Stanley only started testing the waters with a few pieces seven or eight years ago to find out if there was “a customer out there who wanted a residential look versus the RTA pure functional look,” Prillaman adds. Satisfied that such a market did exist, Stanley started making office furniture to match its collections of bedroom, living room and occasional pieces.

“The last two or three years is when we really made a commitment to it,” Prillaman says. “We’re trying to carve out a niche for somebody who wants office furniture that looks like the rest of their home.”

Stanley now offers 189 different home office products divided among nine of its furniture collections. “They share the same finish and the same design,” says John Johnson, senior vice president of manufacturing. “A lot of people are converting bedrooms and living rooms into offices”, Johnson said. Many consumers want to use the same grade of furniture they use in the rest of their house, he adds.

$50 Million Goal
Stanley Furniture, which now has five plants in Virginia and North Carolina, did $276.5 million in sales last year. Home office and the Young America line for children and youths are Stanley Furniture’s fastest-growing product categories. But to really make a big run at home office, Stanley officials knew they needed more room to grow.

Before the dedicated plant was built, Johnson says, Stanley was like the four-sport athlete who comes to the realization that he can’t be a standout in all of them. “We weren’t able to put the people power and all the effort toward the home office,” he says.

Stanley officials believe that will all change with the move into the new plant. They expect to ship $25 million of product out of Martinsville this year, compared to the $14 million worth of office furniture that was manufactured in the company’s Stanleytown, VA, case goods plant last year. If all goes according to plan, the dedicated facility will be doing about $50 million by 2002, Johnson says.

“I think home office will be around for a long, long time and will continue to grow,” Prillaman says. “I think the computer will continue to become more and more a part of entertainment for the family.”

One of the biggest challenges posed by serving the home office market, as opposed to making bedroom and living room furniture, Prillaman says, is keeping abreast of the rapidly changing computer industry and its impact on furniture functionality.

To this end, Stanley has a product manager who attends electronics shows and is responsible for knowing “what changes are taking place in computers, from the size of the tower to the size of the screen to the type of audio,” Prillaman says.

A Hurry-Up Mentality
In order to compete with off- the-shelf RTA computer desks and modules and help customers more quickly get their computers off their kitchen tables, Stanley officials have made speedy delivery one of the driving forces behind the new plant’s design.

Robin Campbell, manager of marketing and advertising services, says customers can have a computer custom-built for them in as little as three days. To facilitate this custom service, Stanley has added a design page on its Web site — www.stanleyfurniture.com — that lets consumers map out their home office and choose furniture to fit its dimensions. In its first three months, nearly half the people visiting Stanley’s Web site clicked on the design page, Campbell says.

Stanley is working toward a goal of bringing delivery time down to an average of two weeks, from its former 20 to 40 days. So far, the average time is two-and-a-half weeks, from the time the order is received at Martinsville until the product is on the dock ready to ship.

New labor- and time-saving equipment helps, say Johnson, plant manager Gary Bocock, and Terry Carter, who as head of the Stanleytown case goods plant also oversees the home office plant located six miles away. Among the flexible, high-tech equipment in the office furniture plant is a GreCon Dimter computerized cut-off system from Weinig that is used to optimize the rough milling of lumber, a Balestrini CNC tenoning machine from Solid Wood Systems and four relatively small, but fast Shoda CNC routers.

Computer Simulation Pinpoints Needs
Stanley used a computer simulation program of its entire home office production to help plan the plant’s layout and equipment needs. “Every part that went into every single piece of furniture” was studied in the simulation, Bocock says. “Here’s the part; here are the operations it goes through.”

The results of the simulation modeling process were compared to raw production data collected at the case goods plant. Thus, Stanley officials knew how long each operation took in the existing plant, but had to figure out, with a consultant’s help, how much additional production could be gained using new equipment in the new plant.

“It’s real easy to do it on a piece of paper,” Bocock says. “But we needed some validation of what we were doing,” which is what was gained from the simulation.

The real-time and simulated data were closely analyzed, and between April and November of last year, Stanley officials drew up their plans and placed their equipment orders. In most cases, the equipment selected is capable of multiple operations. Time and effort was also invested in hiring and training employees. Only about 50 of the 258 Martinsville employees came over from the Stanleytown plant.

Lumber Gets a Close Look
Computerization is evident at the very beginning of the manufacturing flow when raw lumber is assessed for quality and defects. At the Grecon Dimter optimizing cut-off saw, one operator sets the parameters of what degree of warp will be acceptable in a board. He also sets the width of the rips before loading a board into the machine.

If a board does not meet acceptable standards, “it will kick it out,” Carter says. Stanley saves time and lumber with the saw because it can usually find a place to use rejected boards, Carter adds, rather than have it be cut, then discovered and consigned to scrap.

Formerly, board defecting was performed by eye-power. An employee looked at each piece up and down as it was conveyed by his or her station one after the other. “As good as the lumber inspectors were, mistakes were made because they’re having to look at each piece in a second,” says Johnson.

The new system has a video camera that scans each piece of lumber and identifies defects so that they can be hand marked by a crew of employees. The system uses 10 people instead of the 13 required by the conventional method, Carter says, an important savings considering the scarcity of qualified labor.

Only 20 feet away from the rough mill is the machining department. Here the Balestrini tenoner cuts oval tenons quicker and more accurately than the former equipment that machined rectangular tenons. “Before, we had a guy running a piece through there and checking it with his ruler,” Johnson says to emphasize the improvement in the process.

Closer to the assembly area, veneered panels trucked in from the Stanleytown plant have their edges shaped and slot mortises bored by the Shoda routers, with a variance of only 0.002 inch, Carter says.

The dual-table Shodas, smaller and faster than some others used in Stanley plants, fit the needs of home office for versatility and quick changeover, Carter says, noting that the routers do not have to be as large as those used for cutting headboards. “We’re not doing a whole lot of shaping and hogging on those machines. We’re basically doing boring and a little bit of routing,” he says.

Each of the dual tables has a router head and a piggyback head. Each can do horizontal and vertical boring.

Other equipment used in the plant includes Weinig moulders, Timesavers widebelt sanders, Bell 424 miter saws, a Greenlee tenoning machine, and Fletcher banders and shapers.

Rails and panels arrive in assembly at the same time, thanks to scheduling, which is checked by a buffer schedule. But before they go to the assembly line, a sample case is assembled. Carter calls a casegoods sample a “setup.”

“We use the setup to make sure the measurements on the rails are correct, that it’s been sanded and that the doors fit,” he says. From there, the parts go on to assembly. A case is assembled every 10 minutes and then heads to the finishing room.

Graco and DeVilbiss equipment are used to spray Akzo Nobel coatings. The finishing booths were supplied by Production Systems. The cure oven is 150 feet away from the spray booths to keep temperatures more comfortable for employees. A 150-foot-long “clean tunnel” keeps dust away from freshly finished furniture.

From the point that lumber goes to the optimizing cut-off system until the finished piece comes out of the oven for the last time, the plant works in small batches, making 30 to 75 of an item at a time. Limiting production is a long-held philosophy at Stanley, which would rather react quickly to customer demand rather than maintain warehouse inventories at plants or at retailer operations, Prillaman says.

“It’s hard.” Prillaman adds. “You’ve got to involve all your people with the system” to speed delivery. He adds that fast turnaround is particularly important with home office, because, he says, “instant delivery is extremely important.”

While there is room to build an addition, there are no immediate plans to expand the Martinsville plant. Prillaman says the next round of capital investment will be on equipment instead of structure.

“Our first goal is to fill up the facility” with $50 million of annual production, he says. “Right now, we are right where we expected it to be.”

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