German cabinetry firms aiming at U.S. have their work cut out
Nolte cabinets on display at Küchenmeile A30 2016 show a German trend to glossy surfaces and muted colors combined with wood.

Visiting six of Germany's foremost kitchen cabinetmakers found an industry that provides excellent quality and super-efficient production. But most will have to change colors, designs, and market strategy if they intend, as some say, to make headway in the U.S. market.

The occasion of the visit was a press tour sponsored by cabinetry organizing hardware manufacturer Vauth-Sagel, and designed to coincide with the week-long Küchenmeile A30, a sort of KBIS for Germany but set at factory showrooms lined up along Highway A30 about three hours east of Frankfurt. Many of the 30 cabinetry firms participating are also customers of Vauth-Sagel, which used the occasion to launch an international design center at its headquarters nearby in Brakel-Erkeln, Germany.

First stop was Nobilia, Germany's largest kitchen cabinet manufacturer, with just over € 1 billion in revenue, and unquestionably one of the most automated cabinet factories in the world. Packed with robots, custom-built panel sizing lines, and massive, automated edgebanding systems, the factory is a paradigm of Batch One production.

Nobilia operates an identical pair of giant factories in Verl, Germany, among the world's most automated.

Nobilia, which sells throughout Europe and the world, aims at a strata of  households with brands ranging from affordable to luxury. By catering to buyers in price ranges from five percent of market average (below that it leaves to IKEA) to 95 percent (above that goes to companies like Poggenpohl and the Italian cabinetmakers), Nobilia has attained more than 30 percent market share. Unlike IKEA, Nobilia sells its kitchens fully assembled, not as flat packs.

Nobilia factory floor shows individual kitchen orders as they are accumulated on carts. Barcodes keep everything in order.

Adjacent to the factory was a showroom, and a dozen journalists from China, Turkey, Russia, Australia, India and the U.S. (including this writer) visited the busy center, which was bustling with kitchen (Küchen in German) designers from Germany and across Europe. Nobilia was a good place to begin a tour (we also stopped at Schuler Küchen, SieMatic, Express Küchen, Nolte Küchen, and Häcker Küchen), and not just because of its amazing automation

Three massive IMA Combima edgebanding systems each held 100 varieties of edgeband colors and styles, eliminating changeover stoppages. Kuka robots rapidly picked and moved panel to sizing lines. Automated Homag KFL 610 sizing and edgebanding systems sped panel production.

Cabinets are built to order, not to inventory, through frequently used components are pre-manufactured (or purchased, in the case of some acrylic coated laminates), stored in bins and hand-picked by employees - who are guided by bard code reader-scanners strapepd to their wrists. Larger component panels are pulled from a towering 10-story materials handling section of the plant, with 1,200 positions.


Nobilia and other German cabinetry manufacturers are adopting Industry 4.0 process automation, with many implications for how factories are laid out, systems integrated, employees managed, and customers engaged. One expression of lean manufacture approaches that come with Indsutry 4.0 are ubiquitous grey totes filled with hardware parts. 

Vauth-Sagel ships cabinet accessories to its automated customers like Nobilia in easily unloaded, returnable grey totes.

In addition to the automation at Nobilia, in its showroom we were able to identify major sign trends expressed on way or another at the other plants were visited. Nobilia produced 630,000 complete kitchens in 2015, with every third kitchen sold in Germany made by Nobilia, which typically incorporates sinks and appliances in each project. About 42 percent of production is exported.

But Nobilia also caters to the entire range of German and European design preferences. So it was possible to see in its showroom what is believed to be in style for the 2017 season. In low to media price ranges, Germans will buy kitchens and appliances in fully integrated packages - sold by Nobilia and its competitors. German consumers may also treat their kitchen more like furniture, and are likely to take it with them when they move. All this bespeaks a uniformity in Nobilia's domestic market that differs from other regions it serves.

Nobilia multi-level kitchen island with built-in Miehle cooktop.

Designs trends for Germany would have some familiarity even to U.S. designers, but is more IKEA-like in its esthetic. Glossy laminates are the order of the day (with matte just appearing), with a range of gray tones mixed with textured wood panels (mostly laminates, many of them embossed or coated in register).

Multi-level kitchen islands signal the same Universal and Open Plan Design trends seen in the U.S., where the kitchen is now an expression of lifestyle. Glass insets and cabinet interiors with LED interior lighting are prevalent. Grey kitchens might be punctuated with rust or wood tones to provide relief. The occasional glossy red kitchen was on view.

Clean, handle-less cabinet designs incorporated varieties of organizational schemes. But divergent trends of extremely large handles that act as trim for the entire edge of drawers were seen, a touch appearing elsewhere in Europe.

Küchenmeile A30 provided its own summary of kitchen design trends for the event, as follows:

Designing  any  kitchen goes hand in  hand  with  the  development of a completely original interpretation of space that can only be realized through the use and combination of different materials, surface textures, shapes and colors – from modern to classic,  from  outlandish  to minimalist  and  at the same time sustainable and durable.
Perhaps  it  is  due  to  the  current  desire  for  sustainability and durability  that  this  year  nature  is  again  the  driving inspiration for  the  new  design  variants  of  the  kitchen  furniture  industry.  
Colors such as grey, beige and brown in different shades, high gloss  or  super  matt  are  again  making  an  appearance  even  in  materials  such  as  glass,  ceramics,  stone  and  their  replicas.  
Furthermore,  the  new  metal  designs  are  slowly  but  surely making  an  exciting  name  for  themselves  in  the  kitchen.  The  whole  is  ideally  combined  with,  amongst  other  materials,  woods  and  wood  decors  with  an  oak,  walnut  or  cherry  wood  look or perhaps with light softwoods such as pine, for example.
It is made even more homely, so much can be revealed, through the use of darker wood designs, whose surface textures become ever more closer to their natural role models. Coupled with the innovative  pull out  systems  and  fitting  technologies,  the  new  generation  of  kitchen  furniture  is  possessed  of  a  functionality that is outstanding in convenience.
Incidentally, this applies equally to the new sinks and fixtures, and also to the very latest range of appliances from the home appliance  industry  which  are  also  presented  in  a  new  design. Colors such as grey and black are not used sparingly here.

Members of the Küchenmeile A30 Allmilmö, Alno, artego, Ballerina-Küchen, Bauformat, Beeck, Brigitte, Burger, Eggersmann, Express Küchen, Häcker, Impuls Küchen,
KH System Möbel, Leicht, Menke, Miele, Nieburg, Nobilia, Nolte Küchen, Jaka-BKL (Optifit&Marlin), Poggenpohl, Pronorm, Rational, Rotpunkt, RWK, Schröder, Schüller, Störmer, Warendorf und Zeyko.


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Bill Esler | ConfSenior Editor

Bill wrote for, FDMC and Closets & Organized Storage magazines. 

Bill's background includes more than 10 years in print manufacturing management, followed by more than 30 years in business reporting on industrial manufacturing in the forest products industries, including printing and packaging at American Printer (Features Editor) and Graphic Arts Monthly (Editor in Chief) magazines; and in secondary wood manufacturing for

Bill was deeply involved with the launches of the Woodworking Network Leadership Forum, and the 40 Under 40 Awards programs. He currently reports on technology and business trends and develops conference programs.

In addition to his work as a journalist, Bill supports efforts to expand and improve educational opportunities in the manufacturing sectors, including 10 years on the Print & Graphics Scholarship Foundation; six years with the U.S. WoodLinks; and currently on the Woodwork Career Alliance Education Committee. He is also supports the Greater West Town Training Partnership Woodworking Program, which has trained more than 950 adults for industrial wood manufacturing careers. 

Bill volunteers for Foinse Research Station, a biological field station staddling the border of Ireland and Northern Ireland, one of more than 200 members of the Organization of Biological Field Stations.