Six years ago, Wellborn Forest Products faced the very real possibility of bankruptcy. Under the new leadership of Tim Wellborn, the company negotiated a loan extension and within a year paid off the bank. Since then, the company has taken a series of steps to ensure steady growth.

During a long holiday weekend in 2001, WFP, a manufacturer of kitchen cabinets, took a huge risk and completely reinvented itself, changing its focus, box construction and plant layout.

"We threw away the mold and started doing everything differently," says Wellborn.

The change caused the company to lose money in 2001. But since then, WFP of Alexander City, Ala., has experienced consistent growth, doubling its volume. "During a three-year period of tremendous transition, we were also able to grow the company 120 percent," says Blake Harmon, vice president of sales.

The new DISA Cattinair finishing system is the next stage in the company's growth and evolution. It's expected to increase production by as much as 40 percent. With this finishing system and the current plant setup, the company now believes it can reach $50 to $55 million in annual sales. The new paint room has the capacity to handle the needs of the company for the next several years, says Wellborn.

Why change finishing?

When WFP went from building primarily stock cabinets to semi-custom cabinets in 2001, Wellborn expected the changes to result in some difficulties, but he says revenue generated from product built today is far greater.

With that growth and the change to a more upscale product, the company realized it needed a better finishing system. With the old conventional paint system, everything was done by hand.

The newest bottleneck from a production and quality standpoint was the paint room, says Wellborn. Fourteen months and almost $5 million later, the system became fully operational within the company's standards.

WFP opted for a rotary spray finishing system rather than a reciprocating machine for the quality of finish it provided and for the versatility and redundancy it felt was built into the system. The computer-controlled system has rotating spray guns that spray precisely on the piece of wood being coated from all angles as a part moves on the conveyor.

Thinking ahead

The company wanted its stain, sealer and clear-coat finish stations to have the same system to provide redundancy. "Let's say our rotary stain system did go down," says Wellborn. "We're not totally dead. We can't run at full production, but since there are eight guns on the sealer rotary setting, 10 can be configured to spray stain."

WFP also built elements into the system that aren't yet in use an infrared drying machine, a buffing machine that can mimic a hand-rubbed finish and a line for glazing, WFP's niche in the market.

"It's a lot easier to design in certain things when you're building a system like this than to come back and retrofit it later," says Wellborn. His goal was to set up a line capable of using waterborne paints because the industry is moving that way, he says. The conveyor, paint, drying and dust systems, and all of the piping above was powder coated in Europe, and the lines are all stainless steel in anticipation of using waterborne products.

"We think the technology we have is on the cutting edge. It's almost taking a chance out there where we are, but it's worked," says Wellborn.

Wellborn, his wife, Pam, and James Fell, the plant manager, went to France, along with WFP's paint company, Chemcraft. The Wellborn group told Cattinair what they wanted the system to do and Chemcraft worked with the Cattinair engineers to create the best setup for the company. The system arrived in the United States in January 2004, with installation complete in April.

"Having the machine in place and running is just the start on a system like this," Wellborn says. "You have to make sure the system gives you the same color you've been providing your customer base for years."

It took six months to qualify every color of the standard, says Harmon, although most of the colors were done in two months. When a color was a little off, WFP had to go back to Chemcraft and it would reformulate the color and WFP would try it again.

Everything was just right, and then WFP changed to Kremlin spray guns because it felt the application was better. "So there we were at square one again, reformulating stains," says Wellborn.

The gun angle also had to be re-determined so it would fill in paint or stain with minimum bounce off. You have to find a happy medium that works with different door styles, says Harmon. To keep the product consistent, every station has a dedicated machine operator; others are cross-trained to step in if the need arises.

How it works

It all starts with the sanders, says Wellborn, because the fanciest paint room won't matter if the wood isn't prepared properly. Parts go through two DMC Unisand 2000 computerized sanders, a DiscMaster SlipCon finishing sander and touch-up hand sanding before they are finished.

After sanding, stain is applied. Parts then go through a flash-off oven and an infrared system, and are flipped over and sent down the return line. Parts go through the line again to stain the other side. Parts then go through a pre-cleaner, which is a brush that cleans off the parts, and a pre-heater. A clear sealer is then applied to both sides, using the same process in an adjacent line. Parts then move through the finishing sander and receive touch-up hand sanding.

When the glazing line is operational, parts will then be glazed. Finally, after another pre-cleaning, parts receive a topcoat. With the topcoat, parts also go through an ultraviolet light and a final high-intensity ultraviolet light to cure the topcoat. The topcoat and sealer react and bond together, says Harmon. At this point, parts can be stacked and handled.

The conventional paint line is still running, but it is only used for thick or oversized parts and glazes. Now that the new line is up and running, the conventional system will be updated and reduced in size. WFP will use the extra space to increase and redirect the assembly line.

"If you can sum up our success, it's clear vision and quick reaction time. We make a decision and we get on with it. And that's how we've grown," says Wellborn. s

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