W&WP May 2004
Amid a tough market, this leading laminate casework supplier to schools and hospitals stays competitive with fully integrated software and increased production.
By Susan Lorimor
Despite a tough market, TMI Systems Design Corp. of Dickinson, ND, is holding its own. The company touts itself as the nation's largest manufacturer of institutional casework.
TMI is nestled in a rural town of 16,500 people, an hour and a half west of Bismarck. It is at the top of its industry with $40.2 million in sales last year.
The large majority of TMI's business is laminate casework, followed by countertops and architectural woodwork. TMI's status has come with hard work and increased productivity through fully integrated software and equipment investments. Dennis Johnson, TMI's CEO, acknowledges the company's challenges.
"A high percentage of sales are in schools," says Johnson, who also serves as the mayor of Dickinson. "We went through a year or so where we didn't have as many jobs to bid."
Because of the lengthy process of putting a school project out to bid, which could include bond issues and months of public hearings before a bid is awarded, TMI is slower to feel the effects of the economy than other businesses.
When 9/11 hit and a downturn in the economy came, TMI did not immediately feel the effects. It was working on projects that had been awarded many months earlier. A project for TMI could take 18 to 36 months to finish.
"Even if the economy picks up, our (industry) is one of the last to feel it," says Tom Krank, information technology team leader.
Krank says that other businesses have tried to take some of TMI's niche business because of a tightening in their own markets. However, TMI has remained strong. Dean Rummel, president and chief operating officer, points to the company's employees for a source of that strength.
As president of the local school board, Rummel says the high school graduation rate is about 92 percent. Many graduates do attend college.
When TMI looks to hire, it has a good pool of high school graduates from which to choose. Most of the town's residents, of Norwegian and German ancestry, have agricultural backgrounds, to which Rummel attributes their strong work ethic.
Rummel says there is no shortage of good employees. He says a turnover rate of more than 7 percent a year would be high for the company, which has about 400 employees.
At quotation time, several alternatives can be priced to give customers various options and prices. Custom cabinets and countertops can be created and priced accordingly, by modifying compartments and specifications.
The configurator program calculates the amount of materials and labor needed to build each cabinet. "Our history shows the system is 99.9 percent accurate on labor," Krank says.
All the details, including the amount of labor time that should be spent on a cabinet, help get an accurate price for a work order.
The company's Intranet site allows employees to look up the casework schedule. They can do so on computers in the office, factory and break room. "You can click on a project for details, to see when it was cut, assembled, loaded or invoiced," Krank says.
A similar thing can be done to look at recut statistics. "We have a recut management program," Krank adds. "Anyone can go into the system and look at (the number of) recuts. It allows us time to look to see the cause of a defect. If a particular machine or process is causing a significant number of errors, we look for a solution."
TMI has had an integrated software system for decades. "Through the late '70s, '80s and '90s, we had internally developed configurator software on an AS400," Krank says. "It gave us an edge over a lot of competitors."
TMI's First System Was Developed
"In 1994, we hitched up with a German software developer who had a software that seemed compatible with our way of doing things. The first version was DOS-based. We knew it would have to be upgraded to Windows soon. This software brought us to the next level because it allowed us to draw from the data, and more easily tie to other software packages," Krank says.
Today, all aspects of the business are tied together, including a database that holds purchasing and finance data.
"We are also tied to Ardis," Krank adds. The software, distributed by Eurosoft Inc., helps eliminate bottlenecks. It creates patterns automatically instead of waiting for someone to manually edit them.
Krank says Ardis is a key component to the production software.
Strand had started another plant in Dickinson, and ventured into the hotel/motel furniture market, even making movable partition doors. "We made an error," Rummel says. "By 1978, we were technically bankrupt again. A decision was made to sell off the plant and focus on laminate casework, and a turnaround came quickly."
Strand died in an airplane crash, and a group of his employees bought TMI in 1985. They have helped the company prosper. Today TMI's casework, architectural woodwork and countertops can be found throughout the United States.
The company has a direct sales operation, which handles sales in parts of the country where there are no dealers. It has independent dealers in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Canada.
Once orders are taken and products engineered and manufactured, 23 semi tractor-trailers are on hand to deliver them. They are part of TMI Transport, which is also operated out of the Dickinson plant.
"Ninety-five percent of our product is shipped out of state," Rummel says. "We can service all areas. Trailers can also bring back raw materials."
TMI uses CAD to visualize reception desks, conference tables and cabinets and countertops, then makes them in its two Dickinson plants. Combined, the two plants total 175,000 square feet, including two floors of office space. In one building, casework is completed. In the other, reception desks are made and countertops are laminated and edgebanded.
If a panel is to receive plastic laminate edgebanding, it goes through a Homag 7400 edgebander. Laminate is applied to the top and bottom of the panel, and a Kuper laminate trimmer removes excess material. The two-year-old feed-through laminate trimmer is one of the newest pieces in the countertop area.
"Kuper custom-made it for us," says Marv Barth, supervisor of the countertop area. "Before, we were hand routing and trimming. You can run a top through it (the laminate trimmer) in two minutes. "
The old manual method, which included unstacking the panels, took close to 10 minutes, he adds.
A Homag 7800 is used for PVC edgebanding. "The Homag 7800 has two more stations," Barth says. "It has profilers that put a radius on the PVC, and another stage that involves a cutter."
Next, the panels go through an Edgetech miter saw, "which routs for draw bolts when two (panels) have to go together," Barth says.
He says 61 percent of the panels receive 3mm PVC edgebanding; 28.5 percent plastic laminate; 2.2 percent wood edge; and the rest is post-formed.
"We promote (PVC edged panels) more to dealers," Barth says. He adds it is durable, and colored all the way through, so if it gets a ding, it can be taken out. "(It also) is not as sharp as those with a plastic radius."
Creating Reception Desks and Casework
"They work on one project from start to finish," Krank says.
Blueprints of the project are fed to groups at the beginning of a new reception desk. They detail the desks' designs, which vary from simple to complex.
A couple of men worked on a tall reception desk that will be used at the control center of Dickinson's new West River Community Center, a gym/recreation facility. Several materials were used to make the desk, including a strip of polished silver metal on the sides to reflect Dickinson's agricultural past. The metal is reminiscent of grain bins.
Many of the reception desks TMI produces have rounded fronts, and a variety of woods can be used. "(We'll do) anything the customer desires," Krank says, rattling off a list of woods that includes oak and maple.
Casework projects, on the other hand, are assembled in stages by various workers. First, "every project is cut one job at a time," Krank adds.
Casework components are cut and optimized, go to a sorting area and are edgebanded with an IMA banding cell. Holes are machined into doors and parts go to a boring center. Two lines can be run at once, with smaller parts going to an IMA boring machine and larger ones to a Comil, from Biesse America, which was put in last year.
Drawer boxes are assembled, dowel boring is completed and drawer slides are installed. Sub bases are built, and completed products have barcodes adhered to their tops. They are scanned as they are loaded to track which products have been shipped.
Thus, the cycle comes full circle. Technology, which helped create drawings and plans for a project, also keeps track of a product as it leaves the plant. The software system has helped ensure what Rummel calls "one seamless system."
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