Dominating a veneer niche
October 19, 2009 | 7:00 pm CDT

If you've had the opportunity to fly in a private aircraft during the past 32 years, chances are the wood interior was supplied by Carl F. Booth Veneers, Division of DeCrane Aerospace, in New Albany, Ind.

"We probably have 98 percent of the world market in aviation interiors," says Carl Booth, general manager. "That is very difficult to obtain, but I started the industry and I've nurtured it from then to now."

When Booth opened his business in 1976, he solved the problem of producing veneered plywood that passed Federal Aviation Administration burn tests. Soon thereafter his 1.8 mm-thick, three-ply veneered plywood made its first appearance in Sikorsky helicopters. Since then, private, corporate and head-of-state aircraft ranging from Pipers to 747s have featured wood interiors produced by Booth Veneers.

Booth believes a company can't compete on all three elements of quality, delivery and price. "You can only compete in two," he says. "Quality and delivery is where we compete, and that has been the cornerstone of everything that we've done."

Booth says he "only deals with the Rembrandts of veneer. I only buy the very best wood in the world, literally, the highest priced, the highest quality." Booth Veneers completes about 98.6 percent of orders in five days, with the flexibility to hit tighter deadlines. The company once received a rush order for an aircraft interior at 4 p.m. on a Friday. "We delivered, by noon Saturday in Little Rock, Ark., the plywood, all blueprint matched to a location in that interior," Booth says.

Because business remains vigorous and expansion isn't possible at the 57,000-square-foot building it has occupied since 1988, Booth Veneers plans to move to a new, 94,000-square-foot facility, located in the River Ridge Commerce Center in nearby Jeffersonville, Ind., later this year.

Business approach

The product and market require an atypical business approach. "You can't create a niche without a lot of custom (capability)," Booth says, "and you surely can't be the major supplier in the marketplace without being extremely unique."

Booth Veneers stocks all veneers it sells. In inventory are 10 million square feet of 2,500 logs in more than 150 species. "Inventory to us is good," Booth says. "If you're selling fine art, art only goes up in value. If I don't sell it, in a year's time that pile of wood will be worth more then than now, provided I take care of it."

Booth says "flitch" is more accurate than "log." When veneer is sliced or peeled from a specific log, that cumulative veneer is called a flitch. "One tree's production of veneer is what we buy," he says.

Images, dimensions and characteristics of the entire inventory are entered into a database, from which customers make their choices. The company sells a specific tree, not a species, and the database indicates what flitches are sufficient to meet the requirements of about 50 types of aircraft.

Unlike most companies, Booth functions without managers. "I don't manage people," Booth says. "The computer tells everyone what they have to do today, and who is doing what now. Any individual in our plant who is in production can look at the computer, know what's coming, know what they must do and when it must be done by." The system is built on flexibility. "We change our production schedule every 20 minutes," he says.

Education emphasis

Customer and employee education is a high priority for Booth. "We have an entire education division that does nothing but educate our customers," Booth says. "We present seminars to all of our customers on how to use our products."

All employees receive comprehensive training. "We believe the vocabulary is so foreign to everyone that until you understand the production vocabulary, you can't even be a receptionist," Booth says. In production, cross-training is essential. "I believe that multiple expertise is a requirement," he says.

All employees are trained in lean manufacturing. "The new plant is completely designed around lean total flexibility, total adaptability, flow everything is there," Booth says.

Because of its specific requirements, the company needs outside-the-box specifications and/or modifies or re-builds the equipment it purchases. "There is no other industry like ours, so our requirements are like no one else," Booth says. "Machinery is usually sold on how fast and how much a machine can produce in a given eight-hour day. Neither is important to me."

Key equipment includes an Accurpress hydraulic shear, Costa & Grissom widebelt sanders, Dantherm dust collectors, Hofer presses, Josting single-knife trimmer, Kuper FL veneer splicer, Levee Lift scissor lift, Southworth Products lift tables, Toyota fork lifts and Unarco T-Bolt pallet racking. Booth says all the new equipment for the new facility "is contracted for and already ordered."

The process

To start the ordering process, a designer consults with one of four program managers on the type of veneer desired for a specific aircraft. The program manager narrows the choices and orders samples for the selected veneers, which are produced and shipped overnight the same day.

The sampled flitches are put on hold until the customer makes the final choice. "About 60 percent of my inventory is on hold at any given moment," Booth says. When the customer decides, the selected flitch is permanently reserved and the others are released back to inventory.

The customer provides a blueprint and cutlist. Veneer is run through a press to smooth ripples and to dry to the correct moisture content, cut and put together in sheets, fire treated and tested, inspected, glued to one of at least 28 cores, sanded, crated and shipped, with meticulous documentation at each step and all within five days. "We do that about 1,500 times a year," Booth says.

"The aviation industry is expanding like mad in the world," Booth says. "As the third world becomes second and the second becomes first, airplanes are going to be more and more in demand."

Expanding market

"We know how many aircraft of every style are projected to be built over the next five years," he says. "So we are trying to make certain we keep up with the industry." The new facility will not only enable Booth Veneers to accommodate increased aerospace industry growth, it also will allow for expansion into other markets.

"We expect to create a plywood manufacturer that will in fact produce plywood in every form, any form," Booth adds.

Click here to see Booth Veneers'  new facility (Part I) and a part of the  veneering process (Part II).

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About the author

George Lausch was a staff writer and editor for FDM and CabinetMaker magazines. He wrote feature and news stories for the magazines.