Watson Furniture’s manufacturing process is designed for continuous improvement, while benefitting the environment and its employees. Watson is a Pacific Northwest manufacturer making workplace furniture for some of the biggest and most well-known companies in the world.
“From a design standpoint we’re heavily European influenced, says Ken Baker, director of manufacturing engineering. “From a manufacturing standpoint we’re good at making long-term decisions that are healthy and balanced for the environment, for the health of the company, employees, and Kitsap County. We try to look at the big picture, and grow intelligently.”
Watson Furniture employs 150 people in Poulsbo, Wash., across Puget Sound from Seattle, and recorded $38 million in sales in 2012.
Watson has three brands. Watson Dispatch console furniture for public safety communications, Watson Desking for European-inspired freestanding and height-adjustable furniture, and Magna Design modular casegoods.
Clif McKenzie and a partnership group bought the company from Graham Watson more than 20 years ago. McKenzie has been the primary managing partner, and is proud of creating jobs in Kitsap County.
The company has often done the “right thing,” even if that costs a little more, such as reducing carton packaging and installing a briquette maker for wood waste – not common in North America. “He’ll make decisions that other companies wouldn’t because the ROI is too long,” Baker says. “He’ll go forward with something because it’s the right thing to do.”
The manufacturing plant itself is set in a 30-acre site, in a field of tall grass surrounded by trees. The Olympic Mountains can be seen in the distance. The fields are only mown twice a year, which is healthy for the grass. The building has no floor drains and the company pursues practices to reduce its environmental impact. Watson is a recipient of the GSA Evergreen Award and Washington Governor's Award for sustainable leadership.
Though Watson Furniture is a large operation, it can handle small quantities.
"We don’t shy away from custom orders at all,” Baker says. “If a customer needs something a half-inch taller, we embrace that. We don’t have minimum order sizes. We’ll take a two- and three-piece order. Our average order size is eight to 10 pieces.
The company has several large, well-known customers such as a major aircraft manufacturer and footwear maker, which purchase a lot of workplace furniture.
"(Working for these larger customers) has made us better, because their demands and requirements have pushed us to be a better manufacturer, with better quality and better delivery,” Baker says.
Tops and components
Most wood products manufacturing for office and contract furniture in Poulsbo flows through two value streams: table tops and components. Parts are made to order in a batch-size-one flow so the company can handle large and small orders.
Watson Furniture has had its IMA BIMA 400V CNC machining center, centerpiece of the tops area, for six months. It uses a pod setup, with saw, router, 18-tool changer (including a large aggregate), and contour edgebanding. On one common piece made for a large customer, a single blank is set up on the left-hand area of the machining center.
“You load a blank on and you get two finished parts from it,” Baker says. “It cuts the blank into two pieces. We reposition the large top in that left-handed field, and move the smaller top to the right field to do the final trim and benchwork. By feeding blanks into that machine, the way those two parts fit together optimized our yield.”
Baker says the BIMA has the capability to do everything in the woodshop. He compares it with a large linear edgebander also in the shop, a massive piece of equipment. “IMA took all that capability and mounted it on one-half of this machine, and they gave it the ability to go around corners. We bought that and calculated a two- or three-year ROI, and I think we’ve paid for 25 percent of it in the first six months, based on some large orders that we ran through it.”
Before, the pieces going through the IMA machine may have had as many as 12 different people touching them in five operations. Now there are three people touching them in two operations, and it has reduced the throughput time by over half, compared to doing the operations on separate machines. (Automated contour edgebanding is something they could only do manually previously.)
He said that IMA’s service has been very good. “They’ve overcome issue after issue. They’ve been right on top of it, and provided a high level of support.”
Last year, Baker was part of an IMA-Schelling technology tour of Europe. “It was eye opening,” he says. “The biggest thing I learned was the differences between the European and American mindset, starting with ROI. The Europeans have a 20-year vision plan. They’re accepting of 10- and 12-year ROIs. In America, we think a five-year vision plan is too long, and we’re not willing to commit to that.”
European manufacturers also tend to specialize in one thing. “Here we try to be everything to everyone. We don’t partner as much with our competition as they do. They create real alliances with their businesses.”
A Holzma HPP22/38 CNC panel saw, Anderson Exxact Plus CNC router and Homag SE9800/S2 edgebander are also in the “tops” portion of the plant. A Weeke point-to-point and a Komo flatbed VR 512 router are in between the tabletop and component areas.
Watson is also high pressure laminating 4 x 8 to 5 x 12 sheets in a lamination cell. They can offer a customer a single piece, if needed, and have an inventory of solid wood edges. T-molding is applied to table edges in a separate area.
The components line makes other parts for the office and contract furniture, such as wood edges being prepared for conference tables. An older Shoda New-163 router is used to cut out components. A Morbidelli edge boring machine is in the shop, and a Homag Ambition is used for 1.5mm edgebanding.
New carts were designed in house to better accommodate large and varied piece sizes. Next is the prep area, where the hardware is installed. Components usually leave the factory complete, while the tops would generally not be assembled. In addition, a fabric area makes fabric-covered panels with water-based glues. Some are made on tackboard material. Wood finishing here is limited. Watson provides a hand-wiped stain on a wood edge, and a spray booth can apply water-based finishes.
Previously, Watson was a wood company, outsourcing metal fabrication. The company brought that capability in house to add jobs and capability here after purchasing a steel cabinet company. Now, the company has a large metal shop in Poulsbo. Watson works with sheet steel and steel tubing, has an Amada punch and several older “World War II-era” punches, Trumpf laser table, old and new press brakes, and a welding area.
Metal parts go through a phosphate steam wash and are powder coated. Watson goes the extra step by collecting overspray and recycling it to be used on drawer sides and other non-visible surfaces. This gives customers a green story to tell.
Watson Furniture used to put most finished products in cartons for shipment. Now, most things are blanket wrapped. Baker says that this costs a little more but reduces what would be a large amount of material going into a landfill. The company is also creative about reducing packaging waste. Table legs, for example, were seen screwed directly to a pallet for shipment.
For the future, Baker plans to convert the component line to dowel assembly in three to five years, and to go from a nested-based to a cut-to-net system, with cutting, edgebanding, machining and delivery to assembly. (They are using Modular Systems Mod-eez fasteners now.) Watson is oriented toward a European operation, and dowels are commonly used in Europe.
“The biggest thing for me is instilling a culture of continuous improvement,” he says. “We never want to be satisfied with the status quo, or say that ‘We’re good enough.’”
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