When Italian cabinet door manufacturer 3B SpA decided to open a thermofoil door plant in the United States, it recognized that the needs of its North American and European customers were dramatically different.

European companies order larger quantities of standard or semi-custom doors for inventory and immediate use while North American manufacturers require smaller, more frequent quantities of standard and custom products shipped just-in-time.

"Although we had done some significant business here in the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was an evolution going on in terms of what our customers were looking for," says Donn Wilber, director of sales and marketing. "They were no longer as interested in buying larger quantities of cabinetry doors and working from inventory.

"Ultimately, they ended up with large inventories and, in spite of this, there were still items missing, which kept them from completing orders," he says. "They ended up losing interest in commitments to large, static inventories because the relatively large number of sizes made it hard to have every item in stock at all times. They wanted to purchase on a more dynamic basis, and that would be a kitchen at a time."

3B's complex in Salgareda, Italy, near Venice, encompasses 2.5 million square feet of manufacturing space and produces 100,000 doors daily. This standard and semi-custom division employs 1,000 people, who work in four six-hour shifts six days a week. It also produces a range of RTA furniture.

Three members of the Bergamo family started 3B in the 1950s and gave the company its name: Giovanni, a master carpenter known for his architectural millwork, and his sons Guglielmo and Luciano.

The company is credited with making significant advances in the development of membrane-pressed product. "3B SpA pioneered the use of rigid thermofoil for furniture components, typically on MDF substrates, in the early 1980s," Wilber says.

American opportunity

New technologies and rapid expansion during the 1990s kept 3B busy with its Italian operation. By the early 2000s, it was ready to venture into North America again, but this time making a commitment to market.

After visiting more than 50 sites in Tennessee, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, it chose a former warehouse, only a few years old, in Danville, Ky., about 35 miles southwest of Lexington.

"Kentucky was chosen because it is centrally located in respect to some of our strategic customers and offers a favorable business environment," Wilber says. The 150,000-square-foot building also met other requirements: it was long and had a well-designed floor to support the equipment.

Custom-built doors

The plant primarily produces custom-built doors in Italian styles and colors, using an MDF or similar substrate in 3/4, 5/8 or 7/8 inch thicknesses. Standard lead times are eight work days, with optional expedited programs. It serves the kitchen and bath, home organization, office furniture and store fixture markets, and has customers in Canada, the United States and Mexico.

3B's production line is computer-controlled and approximately 700 feet long, with robotic material loading and integrated mass customization capabilities. (The company would not disclose any specifics about the plant's equipment, layout or methods.)

The key, Wilber says, is mass customization. "We came up with a line that can produce almost anything, and is completely flexible from a dimensional, model and foil standpoint," he says. The company can run large quantities with repetitive sizes, as well as small orders with different sizes, models and foils, all in succession.

The right product

3B's original marketing strategy for the Danville plant was to bring in products that are edgy and European in terms of colors, finishes and high glosses. "What we found was that in the United States we needed to have these products, but also products that Americans were comfortable purchasing now, maybe with a slight twist, a little bit extra, something a little different," Wilber says.

The U.S. market tends to be traditional and wood-oriented. Some of the colors and high glosses that are popular in Europe are limited to U.S. niche markets, such as metropolitan areas where you see a lot of contemporary designs and mixed-media applications. In response, 3B recently introduced its Core Program, which focuses on traditional American looks and wood grains.

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