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Inside Western Cabinets' Visual Factory
This Dallas-area cabinet company's new finishing
By Rich Christianson
Western Cabinets Inc. kicked off its sixth decade in business with a bang.
The Cedar Hill, TX-based manufacturer, which celebrated its golden anniversary last year, recently revved up a new finishing and assembly plant in Dallas with the goal of dramatically increasing its annual sales and national presence. The 150,000-square-foot plant, which incorporates visual factory, lean manufacturing and continuous improvement concepts, currently has the capacity to assemble 1,600 cabinets a day. The plant's capacity could double as sales increase and more assembly stations are added to the four currently in place.
The plant also boasts a $2 million finishing department, new panel processing equipment and an automated sorting system that quickly moves cabinets out the door with minimum human intervention.
In a further effort to reduce costs and enhance Western Cabinets' ability to compete in the national marketplace, the company is purchasing decorative plywood panels and components from manufacturers in China and other Asian countries.
"We set this whole factory up with efficiency in mind," says Stanley Tidwell, president of Western Cabinets. "We took our 100,000-square-foot Cedar Hill (TX) plant, which was a fully integrated factory, and split up the processes. Now, Cedar Hill is our solid wood component plant and this is our finishing and assembly plant. We've taken a small company and suddenly have 250,000 square feet of manufacturing space. It's going to help us become a bigger national player."
"This factory was conceived with the idea of fighting back and somehow having manufacturing survive in America," Tidwell says. "The building is really a story in itself. It was owned by Pillowtex, which until 1995, was the No. 1 down-filled pillow manufacturer in the U.S. before it was blindsided by foreign competition. Five years later they filed for bankruptcy and closed the plant."
The plant stood idle for nearly three years before Tidwell purchased it two years ago. He says it had fallen into a sad state of repair.
"When Pillowtex filed for bankruptcy, the plant started going downhill fast. We had to remodel the building because it was in such terrible shape," Tidwell says. "We had to put a whole new roof on it and replace patches of the concrete floor that were water damaged."
"Setting up this factory was an emotional battle for a small company like ours," he adds. "The big cabinet companies have the money appropriated to hire an engineering firm, an architecture firm and a general contractor. We did most of that work ourselves. We were our own general contractor. We pulled our own permits from the city. We were out there with a crane to set up the dust collection tower."
Shawn Songer, operations manager, was instrumental in setting up and specifying equipment for the new factory. It consists of four major departments, including:
Milling, where panels are laminated, then sized on a Holzma rear-loading panel saw, processed on a Busellato Jet CNC router, and notched on a custom machine furnished by Howard S. Twichell Co. The milling department also features a laminating press and a one-of-a-kind, feed-through machine for processing end panels that was built to Western Cabinets' specifications by Dublin Machine. The machine can process 10 base panels or 20 wall ends per minute.
Finishing, where frames and other hardwood components are finished with coatings from Valspar on an overhead conveyor using Kremlin Air Mix spray guns. A color select system flushes each gun in mere seconds when changing colors. Flat parts are finished with a post-catalyzed varnish on a Giardina System that incorporates a SlipCon sanding system for sanding each part between coats.
Assembly, where four identical clamping stations are each manned by two operators. Each station is capable of assembling up to 400 cabinets in an eight-hour shift.
Shipping, where each assembled cabinet is placed onto a conveyor, protective packaged and put into a cardboard carton that is individually ink jet printed with a bar code. The bar code is scanned as it enters an automated sorting system from Cisco-Eagle that routes each cabinet to the appropriate loading dock for shipping to customers.
In addition to investing in the physical plant and big iron, the Dallas assembly plant strives to take advantage of leading manufacturing philosphies such as visual factory concepts and lean manufacturing.
"We implemented the visual factory concept to eliminate multi-layers of management," Songer says. "I also wanted to put in place as many visual controls as I could and developed standard operating procedures for every operation in the factory. Each specific job has its own set of instructions. Along with that, I developed efficiency standards based on my 25-year history in the industry of what you can accomplish by the minute or in an eight-hour shift for each job."
Visual controls are evident throughout the plant, from the SOP manuals at each workstation to the banners of the company's machinery and supply vendors decorating the walls.
"As you go through the factory, you see that everything is clearly signed and everything has a particular place," Songer says. "All of the racks are clearly marked. Even something as fine detailed as staple placement is accounted for. The staple boxes are positioned at the same place at each of the four assembly stations. Whoever is in charge of restocking them knows exactly where to look. It takes all of the guesswork out of it."
"The visual controls make each job more user friendly. They help answer questions," Songer continues. "If an employee needs to know how the sorter system works, the operating manuals are right there by the sorter, readily accessible to everyone.
"We put up the banners of our vendors to show them that we look at them as partners in what we do. I think it gives them a more vested interest to take care of us." In return for their help in training and service, Songer says vendors are allowed to bring potential customers, including Western Cabinets' competitors, into the plant. "We really have nothing to hide," he says.
Other visual aids include a production board that is updated several times a day to provide a running tally of how many cabinets each of the four assembly stations has completed. A system of "trouble" lights located throughout the plant, are used to signal any problems that occur in one of the four departments. A green light indicates that the respective department is running fine, a red light indicates there is a maintenance issue and if both lights are out, management assistance is requested.
"I can see that bank of lights from anywhere in the plant and know if there is a problem in any of the four departments," Songer says. "There is also a buzzer that sounds in the maintenance department if something goes wrong. It's all about attending to problems immediately and reducing downtime."
Songer says he constantly challenges his employees to come up with ideas to help make the plant run smoother.
"It's all about continuous improvement," Songer adds. "I'm only as strong as these people out here on the floor. They bring a lot of ideas to the table and we review every one of them."
Among other things, employee input has led to improvements in cabinet design, process flow and even hiring practices, Songer says.
"I truly believe that no idea is a bad idea," Songer says. "The only way we're going to grow is to change and to change for the better. We're not doing everything exactly like I want to do today, but it is better than we were doing yesterday. As long as we are constantly moving forward, that's our goal."
The Chinese Connection
About five years ago, Tidwell says he made his first trip to China in search of "potential trading partners." "I met with China's economic development group, which was very eager to help Americans come there and find the right partners. I visited a drawer slide factory, a plywood factory and a wood component factory."
Tidwell ultimately decided to focus on finding sources of finished and unfinished hardwood plywood panels and components.
The company currently sources slightly less than 20 percent of its component needs from China; most of it goes into the company's high-volume, entry-level-priced lines. Tidwell says that percentage could increase to as much as 50 percent as the company fulfills its goal to quadruple sales by 2010.
Because lead times for its Chinese-made products average 10 to 12 weeks, a large section of the plant is devoted to inventorying the plywood panels and parts. The company has about 70 racks, each 20 feet high by 100 feet long, for storing the components.
Tidwell says outsourcing is a key element of his company's growth aspirations. "I don't think we we'll ever be just an assembly plant using components from China," he says. "I think it's important that we maintain the ability to make any component that we buy. That's why we invested in all of this new equipment."
Change or Else
Tidwell says he found Jim Harris' book, "Blindsided: How to Spot the Next Breakthrough that Will Change Your Business Forever," as inspired reading. The book chronicles how rapid change can catch companies off guard, such as Polaroid being "blindsided" by digital photography.
Tidwell says, "There's a line in the book that goes something like this: GÃâ¡ÃÂ¿If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, then the end is in sight.' "We have taken that philosophy and realized that change is a part of doing business rather than being an exception. That's why we read, that's why we travel the world, and that's why we set up this plant. We want to be one of the most efficient factories in the world."
To be a world class manufacturer requires taking advantage of the best products and processes the world has to offer, Tidwell says. In the case of hardwood plywood, Tidwell says, "Today it's China, but tomorrow we might source from Vietnam or elsewhere. I'm going to India to explore that country's potential.
"I'm a little sensitive about being labeled as a manufacturer who is bringing components in from other parts of the world," Tidwell admits. "I would rather not have to go offshore for parts but the reality is that a lot of U.S. cabinet companies are doing the same thing.
"Using a blend of parts from China and elsewhere, combined with our new machining and assembly capabilities, makes us cost efficient," Tidwell says. "The hope is not to only pass these savings on to consumers. The hope is to retain earnings in our company so that manufacturing can survive in America."
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