"Custom today doesn't mean what it meant 35 years ago," says Mark Goldman, chairman of  Pennville. "The market has shifted to even higher-end features, and the amount of engineering time that goes into a typical kitchen has tripled."

An understanding of current design trends helps the Portland, Ind., company deliver what customers want.

"I think we get both American and international trends better than most," Goldman says. "We often get around to see our dealers, and have made many trips to Europe to see cabinet factories, cabinet suppliers, machinery manufacturers, software suppliers, dealer showrooms, antique stores, famous architecture and the Eurocuccina trade show."

Being custom has other advantages. "Because we are custom, we are used to thinking around obstacles," Goldman says. "This seems to be helping us through the economic downturn."

Pennville was the first company featured in  Roger Shaw & Associates Lunch & Learn factory tour, in part because of its use of technology.

Pennville sells through kitchen dealers that are selling to end users. These companies specialize in designing kitchens and other rooms that require cabinetry. Pennville used to do 80 percent new construction and 20 percent remodels. Now, it's almost the opposite.

Pennville offers three lines. Pennville Custom Cabinetry is completely customizable wood face frame cabinetry with any door style (in any radius), any moulding and any wood species. Pennville can mimic any historical style, period finishes and curved carvings. Stanford Collection is a limited line of face frame cabinets that still allows customizable sizes and almost all of the company's special interior accessories. Europenn Frameless Cabinetry is the all-wood frameless version of Pennville with all of the latest European trends available.

All doors (except a few painted MDF doors) are solid wood, including center panels. Case construction is all plywood with matching veneers on exposed ends and birch or maple interiors. Drawers are 5/8-inch soft maple with 1/2-inch plywood bottoms, and Blumotion drawer glides are standard. Almost half of the doors offered are 5/4-inch thick.

Kitchen Pond is used for order entry, both for dealers and in-house engineers, and Pennville uses Pattern Systems to break down parts and communicate with CNC equipment.

Once the engineering department has broken down a page of orders (approximately 100 cabinets), an SCM Alfa panel saw cuts the parts. Then the parts are machined on either a Morbidelli 504 or X5 five-axis router. While this is happening, doors, face frames and drawers are assembled. Once the parts are cut, they either go to the normal or special building department.

General manager Eric Harrell's responsibility is to take a design and then build it. He's skilled in all aspects of woodworking and knows all the equipment. Robert Houston, engineering manager, has been converting abstract orders into cutlists for over 20 years. He translates what 100 kitchen designers around the country are trying to get into Pennville language.

Choosing cell-based

When the workload became too much for one 15-year-old machining center, Pennville opted to remain cell-based instead of switching to nested-based manufacturing, and a Morbidelli Author X5 five-axis CNC machining center was chosen.

"We thought we could use the machine to make unique items better than anyone," Goldman says. "We use it for curves in any door style or moulding in any radius. We do a lot of things where we're engraving on a curve. This fit into our core value of making products ourselves instead of purchasing them.

"And there really are some advantages to being able to cut panels on a saw. You can flip the pieces to get the better side and the cuts seem to be better."

The Author has a conveyor belt to get rid of dust, digital readout so the operator knows where to put the pods and lifters to lift up the panels. It has two routers and a 30-collet tool changer, 24 that are in a rear-mounted magazine and six that are carried beside the three-axis router.

A Morbidelli Author 504 was the first CNC machine. Goldman had to buy it himself in 1994 and lease it to the company. His father would not permit such a large purchase.

Also here are SCMI T-130 shaper, vacuum press used for curved layups, Doucet clamp table, Ballestrini dual table slot mortise, Vega lathe, two Alexander Dodds dovetailers and an Ingersoll Rand air compressor. A SawStop table saw was added, which Goldman says is a great investment in safety. Pennville just received a new SCM Superset XL five-head moulder.

Finishing big

Pennville has had a stain line for 35 years that has stain sealer, oven, hand sanding, top coat and final booth. A new 7,000-square-foot paint area includes two large paint booths that can handle any big sizes and brings the overall finishing space to 25,000 square feet. "We promote big sizes. It looks more custom to get one large piece than four small ones," Goldman says.

A separate specialty finish area handles crackle and distressed finishes. There is also a large sanding booth in between the paint booths.

A showroom in a house just outside the factory includes a wide range of door styles and finishes. Goldman also uses his fully equipped kitchen as a demonstration area.

"I'm not a big fan of selling features, I'd rather talk about benefits," he says. "Why does it make your life better to have certain items there? Servo drives are neat, but the goal is to improve the experience of cooking.

"We try to come up with a product that is better than what our competitors provide and then we sell that. We try to have items our competitors really can't build.

"Custom today doesn't mean the same as custom 35 years ago. Custom meant you could do any size of a cabinet. We used to have one inside door rail profile, now we probably have 20. Now we really duplicate European furniture that is 300 years old. Eric and I have done a lot of research in old castles and antique stores."

What's the outlook for 2009? Goldman believes this can still be a good year.

"We are not waiting for the economy to turn around or for the government to help us," he says. "Instead, we are being creative and working hard. I believe, in the long run, this will be one of those years that helped us become the company we've always wanted to be."

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