Changing to meet consumer demand
By Rick Ludolph

Since Furniture Brands International announced last year that it would combine the operations of Henredon, Drexel Heritage and Maitland-Smith into HDM Furniture Industries (HDM), their North Carolina upholstery manufacturing operations have undergone considerable change.

Consolidation of some Henredon and Drexel Heritage upholstery operations, for example, has helped the company better leverage the combined resources and best practices of the independently successful companies. While each company continues to develop and drive its own products and brands, the HDM management team, led by Jeff Young, president and CEO, has been strengthened by some of the most talented and experienced people in the industry.

"Every member of our management team including Thad Monroe, senior vice president of upholstery has deep experience in the furniture business," says David Lewis, HDM's vice president of upholstery manufacturing. "This gives us a tremendous advantage as we know what can be done, and together can find the best way to achieve it."

Successful change

Change can present challenges, but it also can yield positive results. An example is Drexel Heritage's recently relocated Upholstery Plant #7. Housed for many years in a three-story, 150,000-square-foot building in Morganton, N.C., the company is now in final stages of moving the operation to a much larger facility in Longview, near the Hickory Regional Airport.

Drexel Heritage has converted the 319,000-square-foot facility, originally a WestPoint Stevens bedding accessories plant, into a state-of-the-industry upholstery manufacturing facility that now also houses the company's upholstery operations offices.

The plant performs CNC frame cutting and production, fabric and leather cutting and sewing, assembly, finishing and packing of the Drexel upholstery line, as well as the upholstery of Drexel/Henredon dining room chairs on frames produced in one of the company's casegoods plants.

Typical production levels are about 450 units per day, with a sofa counting as two seating units. Other HDM upholstery lines, such as Heritage and Henredon, are produced at Plant #37 in High Point.

Meeting consumer demand

The move gave Drexel Heritage the space it needed to increase production to meet consumer demand for its Drexel line, which includes the Postobello Home collection that features light, airy fabrics against dark walnut finishes.

"Our business has been growing particularly fast over the past year," Lewis says. "The Drexel customer looks to customize her home with unique furnishings. This demand for greater selection requires that we develop and deliver new products at a faster pace than ever before. To do this, our manufacturing teams must be skilled at jumping through more hoops faster."

Strong sales at Drexel Heritage accelerated the move to the new facility. Once a suitable location was found and floor plans and layouts were verified, Lewis, who is also Plant #7's plant manager, began the relocation in January. Although the CNC cutting and finishing departments took a bit longer, most of the other equipment was moved over a weekend and production continued with only minor interruption.

The entire management team rolled up its sleeves to do whatever was needed to get the job done. This hands-on management style is well received by employees, many of whom have been with the company for 30 or more years and often have other family members working there, too.

Increased productivity

"Since the move, we have doubled the size of our production department," Lewis says. "Productivity has also doubled and it is still ramping up." The company has added 125 new employees to bring the plant total to nearly 350, including 25 in operations staff, product development, engineering and other support functions.

Drexel Heritage continues to shrink its upholstery order cycle of 10 days. In addition to order processing, fabric delivery and just-in-time supplier delivery times, actual manufacturing time comprises about 50 percent of the cycle time.

"Process tracking is very important for coordinating customer deliveries, finding and expediting specific orders and managing work-in-process inventories in the lean, make-to-order process at Drexel Heritage," says Lewis.

The company implemented Oracle's JD Edwards order processing software with available to process (ATP) capabilities throughout its operations. It enables the High Point headquarters to check availability of fabric, frames and other required components before downloading manufacturing orders to the plants each night. New orders are routinely placed into work at the factory by the following day.

Fabric, leather processing

With upholstery fabrics centrally inventoried in High Point, the release of a manufacturing order also triggers the daily delivery of required materials to the Longview facility. As fabrics and leather are received, they are scanned into WIP and moved into the automated cutting process. Two Gerber DCS-3500 single-ply match cutting systems and a single Gerber Taurus leather cutting system cut roll goods and hides into the precise shapes needed for each order.

After all parts are cut, they're inspected and readied for the sewing department. At the cutting inspection station, as with every other manufacturing step, order sheets are scanned to update process status and to automatically trigger orders for the frame, poly and cushioning components that will be needed.

While the in-house frame department and external suppliers prepare and deliver these components, fabrics and leather are delivered step-by-step through the 60-person sewing department via an addressable Speedway belt conveyor. As the color-coded plastic tubs reach the programmed destination, the container drops into a convenient position for the operator.

Movement of the tubs in and out of the sewing workstation also signals the support person when operators are open to receive more work. Stitching is performed on a variety of sewing machinery, but the most recent investments have been in Pfaff sewing equipment from Wilson Sewing Machine. These machines are equipped with needle-coolers for leather sewing and have quick-change stitch count capabilities.

Heartbeat of the plant

In the staging area, which Lewis refers to as the "heartbeat of our upholstery plant," experienced coordinators ensure that everything aligns with the production schedule. "Everything has to come together at staging the right frame, finish, cushions, poly and the right fabrics. We see this as the critical point from which to manage the upholstery operation. We have great jigsaw puzzle' people there to ensure our success in this fast-paced environment."

Component suppliers also play a critical role in this success. Drexel Heritage counts on its supplier partners such as Hickory Springs (cushioning) and Premium (back and throw pillows) to deliver production-ready components just-in-time.

Lewis stresses the benefits of building long-term partnerships with suppliers in every aspect of the business. "After working with a supplier over time, we believe that we get the best combination of price and service available. With the new synergy of HDM businesses, we also look for possibilities to utilize common components across the different lines in order to build even stronger relationships with our suppliers."

Lewis also led the conversion from stick frames to plywood nearly 10 years ago. While Lewis was busy purchasing their first Shoda router and setting up the new business processes, he relied on now 20-year employee and CNC program manager T.J. Lunsford to execute plywood frame engineering.

Both men are graduates of CVCC's furniture program. Leveraging his education and background in product development and costing, Lunsford utilized AutoCAD to design the plywood frame while collecting feedback from everyone involved in frame production in order to achieve the best possible design, manufacturability and performance. A second Shoda router is now being installed in the new plant.

Last year, the same team implemented Nesterwood software to advance their process to a true cut-to-order frame process. They decided that the software could play a significant role in supporting their lean WIP and process coordination initiatives.

Nesterwood cuts only the exact number of frames needed for production, with the frames positioned back-to-back across multiple sheets. The CNC frame scheduling and programming are done automatically by the software, allowing the company to increase productivity in this area without increasing staffing.

"We have seen a 17 to 18 percent increase in wood yield with Nesterwood," says Lewis, "and our $1 million cut frame inventory has been reduced to a mere fraction of its size, as we no longer create CNC frame inventory."

Moving forward

What does Lewis see as the most significant challenges going forward? "In manufacturing, finding and retaining top notch people is a constant concern," he says. "We can only continue to grow if we have the right people that will not only do the job, but innovate for the future. Now that we are in a more competitive Hickory job market, we know that we have to keep our people happy and motivated to stay competitive."

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