Office seating manufacturing is undergoing dramatic change. Following the prolonged economic downturn of 2001-2003, market demand for office furniture has improved in the past two years, but global competition has increased significantly and is expected to continue growing.

Growing imports

According to BIFMA International, the share of office furniture imports in the United States has grown from 7 to 19 percent in the past decade. China's share of these imports has grown from 13 to 35 percent in the past five years alone.

China and other low-cost exporting regions continue to increase their share of mass-produced, standard office chairs. For these pieces, Chinese imported models provide buyers with a combination of quality and price. But office seating manufacturers in the United States and Europe are clearly not out of the game. Companies in these regions still remain strong in the production of high-end, customized and mass-customized furniture pieces.

To sustain their competitiveness, traditional office seating manufacturers are rethinking virtually every aspect of their business processes to cut costs, reduce throughput time and improve customer service. Many of these companies are forced to implement these changes while also making a fundamental shift from mass production to build-to-order programs that are driven by customer demand. The changes are part of the global trend toward demand-driven manufacturing; that is, pulling from the retailer rather than pushing from the supplier. One way manufacturers have been able to achieve this is through the use of unit production systems (UPS) from Eton Systems.

Unit production processes

Forward-thinking European office seating companies are achieving exceptional results through the implementation of Eton's UPS.

These systems, most often associated with the time and cost-sensitive fashion industries, consist of a custom-designed overhead conveyor system that physically moves individual products through the production process. They eliminate manual transportation time as well as non-productive handling time by ergonomically positioning the product, resulting in less strain and fatigue for the operators. As products progress through the process, the UPS also automatically collects shop-floor data that supports sophisticated process control management.

Office chair production

RBM Group, one of northern Europe's most influential office furniture manufacturers, has implemented the Eton UPS for office chair production in its Fjerritslev, Denmark, facility. Employing approximately 190 people, RBM produces 100,000 office chairs and 150,000 break and conference room units per year. Along with their direct input on product design, RBM customers can choose the fabrics, wood and metal components used in their product orders.

The UPS automatically moves and tracks individual chairs through the manufacturing process using specially designed, bar-coded carriers that hold all component parts of the chair except the steel chair base. The parts are presented in ergonomic fashion for each operator in the line, saving handling time and reducing fatigue from lifting and moving.

Rather than managing stacks of work-in-process, operators focus their energy on the single unit at their workstation. After completing the task at hand, a press of a button speeds the chair on its way to the next step, just as a new item arrives as directed by the production schedule.

Individual chairs are tracked through the entire process with the system's integrated software, which also records and reports on line and individual productivity.

"The Eton system ensures that we are always working on the right products," says John Severinsen, RBM production manager. "You could say that it helps us force the discipline that we need to stay ahead."

Automatic sorting

At the end of the production line, the system automatically sorts the chairs by model types into special stations where they're matched with the steel frames. Products are then labeled and packaged for customer delivery.

Due to the reduction of handling and WIP levels, RBM has slashed its total throughput time for most products from eight days to as little as one day, depending on the chair's style and complexity.

Actual manufacturing process time, from cutting table to packing table, is often four hours or less. "This reduces the amount of raw materials tied up in the manufacturing process (WIP) and also enables RBM to deliver the finished customized products to its customers more quickly," Severinsen says.

"It's our ability to manage our processes to handle small orders in a cost-effective and efficient way," he says, "while maintaining the highest standards of quality, that allows RBM to remain competitive and flourish."

Kinnarps, the third-largest supplier of office furniture in Europe, has also implemented Eton's UPS in its office chair manufacturing production. A 63-year-old family-owned business, Kinnarps employs 1,665 people in its three facilities in Sweden and markets a range of office furniture products in 27 countries.

Producing more than 200,000 office chairs per year, the company sees continuous improvement of its production processes as a key part of its strategy not just to speed up production and shorten delivery lead times, but also to further improve product quality.

Improved delivery

"The Eton system has helped us to structure our manufacturing process to match the requirements that go with a demand-driven business concept," says Hakan Carlsson, former manager of production technology. "A major requirement is to be able to manufacture and sort our products in the required delivery sequence. We need to load the delivery trucks so it matches the delivery route deliver the right products at the right time."

Kinnarps also has experienced improvement on an individual operator level. "Today every workstation and task is organized in a much better way, taking ergonomics into account. The Eton system's positive impact on cost reduction is a reason why we've been able to maintain our production in Sweden. We've continued to invest in additional systems through several growth phases."

Competitive advantage

For the companies noted here, unit production systems not only helped increase productivity, accelerate throughput and reduce costs, they also supported the discipline required to turn these into a sustainable competitive advantage.

By implementing unit production systems, they dramatically increased production without adding resources, resulting in a significantly lower cost per unit produced.

As office seating manufacturers continue their efforts to increase efficiency and improve customer service, they may indeed change the competitive landscape of the marketplace. The competitive opportunity for domestic manufacturers lies in their ability to meet their customers' needs.

Value-added services

While price will always be an important factor, customers are also increasingly seeking value-added services such as faster delivery times, product differentiation and customization.

By embracing demand-driven manufacturing and implementing supporting technologies such as unit production systems, office seating manufacturers may better position themselves to compete in today's global economy.

For more information, call Eton Systems at 770/475-8022 or visit www.etonsystems.com.

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