Hurricane recovery boosts lean, automation efforts
March 3, 2014 | 6:00 pm CST

There’s nothing like a hurricane to put a little wind in your sails. That’s what the folks at Wall Goldfinger found out when Hurricane Irene virtually wiped out their manufacturing plant in Vermont. They had already started an effort to go lean and add CNC automation, but recovering after severe storm damage accelerated the process.

Founded in 1971 Wall Goldfinger specializes in high end corporate furniture such as large conference tables made with spectacular veneers and complete with sophisticated built-in custom multi-media connections. Their conference tables are in use in top companies around the world and even in the White House Situation Room. Everything is custom, and as one company official puts it, “We really don’t make a standard product.”

That said, their success integrating lean manufacturing principles and CNC automation tosses out the contention that lean doesn’t work for businesses manufacturing custom products. Still, even though the storm gave them somewhat of a clean slate to work with, the company had some typical struggles in the early stages of their lean journey.

Hardware starts it

Will Francis, woodshop supervisor, enthusiastically embraces lean manufacturing, but he admits it was difficult to see positive results right away when Wall Goldfinger first started lean efforts. The company’s products incorporate both metal and wood and often have demanding requirements for turnaround time. “We started to realize what we needed to do was find a small thing we could have success with,” says Francis. That turned out to be hardware.

Some Wall Goldfinger employees had attended a lean workshop on 5S principles (Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize, Sustain). Working with lean coach Brian Warneke, they came back and took a good look at all the hardware they had on the shelves.

“There was hardware we didn’t use,” Francis recalls. “We couldn’t find what we needed, and we had to make room for stuff we didn’t use. Our history was to keep things just in case.”

They got rid of everything except what they really needed on an ongoing basis and set up a kanban (pull card) system for re-ordering. That meant all the hardware was sorted and labeled, and when one item ran low, a card was automatically generated to prompt replacement ordering. It simplified and automated the ordering process, saved time in locating needed supplies, and saved a lot of storage space.

That turned out to be the first big lean victory, and that was about a year before Hurricane Irene flooded the plant.

Storm surge

Before Hurricane Irene hit in August 2011, Wall Goldfinger was located in a classic brick riverside mill building in Northfield, Vt. During the storm, the White River rose and flooded the plant. The damage was extensive. It took eight weeks just to clean out the building afterwards. Owner John Wall decided this was the time to move facilities 30 minutes down the road to an old Ethan Allen building in Randolph, Vt.

Now, with 68,000 square feet to play with, the company could accelerate its modernizing plans. They had already planned to get a CNC router, and now they just went ahead and set it up in the new facility. Today, they have two CNC routers from C.R. Onsrud set up to handle both panel processing and specialty machining of solid wood and fixtures. They also have a state-of-the-art Tagliabue CNC panel sander to save time and improve quality on sanding flat veneered parts. Francis says it is one of only two like it in the United States.

Expanding the lean initiative

After the hardware success, lean continued to grow throughout the Wall Goldfinger plant. Everything in the plant is designed to be on a just-in-time schedule for maximum efficiency and minimum inventories. Even though final products are complete custom, processes are frequently standardized. Pedestal bases are a case in point.

Virtually all of the big conference tables Wall Goldfinger does require pedestal bases to support the tops and frequently to house electronics and other supporting equipment. By standardizing the basic design and construction, they greatly improved the efficiency of manufacturing pedestal bases. “We’ve taken all of the setup time out of the process,” says Francis. “We can build one base in 20 minutes.” That compares to the four hours it used to take.

One contributor to the increased efficiency is the lean-enabled assembly station. It has a rolling cart with all the tools and supplies necessary for assembly. The assembly table itself has features that allow the assembler to speed up the process.

Francis says they build with one-piece flow rather than in batches. That cuts the time it takes to put parts on carts and roll them around the plant. It also means that if somebody makes a mistake, it is caught in one part rather than multiplied in an entire batch. With one-piece flow, there is no bottleneck. As soon as a part is done, it’s ready for the next station.

Shadow boards

Another lean feature that is common throughout the Wall Goldfinger plant is shadow boards. One of the best examples is the big board that supports one of two Altendorf sliding table saws in the plant. All the tools and blades needed for the machine are mounted on one board. Each position is labeled and marked with a shadow in the shape of the tool that belongs there. That way all the tools are easy to find and replace. When one is missing from the board, it is obvious . Similar setups are used around the plant.

Just as the kanban pull cards helped solve the hardware order problems, they are also used in other places in the facility to automate re-ordering and make sure supplies are where they need to be when they are needed. “It’s almost magical how it works,” says Francis.

Start in the office

Although Francis is connected intimately with the shop production efficiency, he says the first place to start a lean initiative is in the front office. 

“You want to push down improvements,” he says. 

Lean starts in the office with increased planning and communication that helps eliminate confusion in manufacturing and speeds up flow. “You have to have a checklist for complete information,” says Francis. “Everybody knows what they are getting.”

To further increase communication, people from the shop floor are brought into early meetings with every project. Just as Wall Goldfinger has built the conference table used in the White House Situation Room, the woodworking company itself has its own situation room with a “Big Board” to track what needs to be done with every project going through the plant.

“Every day starts with a meeting in each department,” says Francis, explaining that the meetings make sure everyone knows what is required and who needs to do what.

That also helps to reinforce the team spirit in the plant. Of the 38 employees in the company, owner John Wall says the average length of employment with the company is 11 years.

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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.