Brandrud, a company that manufactures a range of upholstered seating and casegoods for the healthcare and education markets, is gaining a reputation as a company at the forefront of innovation.


The company engineers its products for assembly, focuses on manufacturability and relies on the Toyota Production System to get things done.


During my recent visit to the Auburn, Wash.-based company, Mandy Johnson, director of operations, and Renee Gervasi, director of business development, explained that Harold Brandrud founded the company in 1955 as a residential upholstery operation. In 1962, it began a transition into commercial seating and provided the furnishings for the Seattle Space Needle at the 1962 World's Fair.


Larry Green bought the company in the 1970s and added healthcare upholstered seating to the product mix, while continuing to produce commercial products. In 2001, entrepreneurial visionaries Lee Falck and Bobby Holt purchased Brandrud. Their vision was to make the company a leading innovator in product, manufacturing, sales, service and administration.


The design process

Brandrud uses a blend of in-house and contract designers in new product development. The company doesn't add just another look on a product by modifying, for example, an arm. It studies the workspace where the product will be used and asks questions to determine what's needed to make that work space more productive, who and how the product will be used, why the product is needed and what makes the product innovative. Only then will the company begin work on a design that fulfills the requirements that the research revealed.


Manufacturability is one key area for design. I was shown the Revive guest center for a hospital room that converts to a bed with storage space underneath and in back. Clearly a sizeable amount of thought and engineering had gone into the product.


Growth and the influx of imports have affected the business. Gervasi explains that imports have impacted office and residential furniture producers, which has forced them to try to reposition themselves into healthcare. However, she says, many office and residential manufacturers have underestimated the amount of engineering, research and knowledge required to design and manufacture healthcare products.


"In order to position our organization for growth, we designed manufacturing to embrace methods and processes that are scalable and reliable," Johnson says. "Because of this direction, we're one of the first companies in the upholstery business to adopt the Toyota Production System (TPS). We started this journey about four years ago."


TPS benefits

The TPS involves goal setting, problem solving, rapid implementation of solutions, simplification, visual shop floor controls, kanban, pull production, one-piece flow and just-in-time vendor delivery. "Using this system, we've doubled production, halved throughput time, substantially reduced WIP (work in process), remained on one shift, improved quality," Johnson says. "And we have about the same number of employees as we did when we started this journey."


Last May, Brandrud designed a new line using the TPS. "More than half the employees on that line have been with the company two months or less," Johnson says, "and are assembling 50 percent of our product demand, on time, meeting our goals, while producing product that is virtually flawless as measured by our quality control manager and as reported by our customers."


Engineered for assembly

What about the ability to find and keep employees? Brandrud engineers its products for assembly, which enables new employees to be productive rapidly. "We look for people who are smart, want to learn and grow with us," Johnson says. "During the time they spend working, we want to create an atmosphere where an employee can be creative and have input into their job not just respond to the job at hand."


According to Johnson, the company has found that these employees are content with their work, which has meaning to them because their input has an impact on their job. "We teach them the assembly techniques as necessary," she says.


Quality and reliability

Brandrud's design innovation emphasis requires vendors who can consistently deliver what the company needs when it needs it.


"Our vendors are partners with our industrial designers and production," Johnson says. "We do use some offshore vendors, but prefer local vendors if they can demonstrate competencies in two areas quality and reliability. We remain open to an ongoing search for vendors that meet those criteria."


What about cost controls? "Cost is a factor as we must be competitive," Johnson says, "but we will pay a little more for quality and reliability."


During the plant tour, I saw the visual information centers. One was an hourly visual representation of where the line was in relation to goal. If behind, the problem that created the situation was noted at that hour.


How are these reports used? Johnson showed me members of the team having a quick meeting on a production problem and said that at the end of the day, the quality control manager, line team members, engineers and managers would discuss the report at a daily process improvement meeting. The problems would be presented, solutions found and implemented, if possible, for the next day's production.


Raw materials

In the small raw materials warehouse, many inventoried items were located in clear containers. A photo and full description of the item, along with a yellow kanban card located behind the picture, was attached to the shelves by magnets to allow easy relocation of inventory.


The yellow kanban card would go to purchasing when the inventory fell below a visual mark, determined by the vendor lead time.


This area, along with the rest of the plant (including the rough mill), was clean. Not a scrap of trash was evident anywhere. Everything was in perfect order and identified, with a specific location.


There was little fabric inventory. Most fabrics used are Crypton or Teflon solution-dyed nylons or vinyl. Fabric is purchased for specific orders through jobbers responsible for the inventory and specific fabric treatments, such as vapor barriers, as required.


The photos and graphic drawings located by the work teams allowed employees to look at the visual, know the job and how assembly is to be done. Tribal knowledge isn't part of this company's culture.


Quality control

Having observed the excellent finished goods, I asked about the function of the quality control manager. The quality control role was one of statistical control and reporting variances to specifications as problems to be investigated and solved. Quality rejects were almost nil.


Because of the focus on engineering going into the product, coupled with visuals in the plant, the quality control becomes the attention to specifications. Each product has a checklist that was developed during the engineering process. It's a matter of using the list to certify that the product meets specifications.


All warrantied claims and customer communications regarding products go through QC. From this information, data is developed as to what specific things in design or engineering are important to a customer.


This knowledge ensures that products are designed and the focus is on specific items expected or desired by the end user, not as in most plants what "we think" is desired or important. This assists in not over- or under-designing a product.


Johnson attended the IWF show in Atlanta and says she continues to look for more productive machinery in the mill that would allow the cut or carved wood to be taken directly to finishing without sanding, extra production or handling steps. She's in the process of hiring an engineer to focus in this area.


Brandrud is committed to manufacturing innovation. Lee Falck and Bobby Holt, co-presidents, have created an environment of innovation and forward thinking in the upholstery industry. And Mandy Johnson, Renee Gervasi and their teams have executed a conversion of a great older company to a new era of excellence.

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