Lots of successful woodworking companies talk about having a great team, referring to employees and management staff. But at CedarWorks in Rockport, Me., membership in their winning team extends well beyond the boundaries of their offices and production plant. The team includes a select group of mostly regional suppliers and partners who all have found shared success in meeting each other’s individual supply and production needs in a mass customization environment.

CedarWorks uses mass customization, lean manufacturing and sophisticated direct marketing techniques to produce wooden playsets and youth furniture. Their products successfully hold their own against offshore competition by selling upscale quality and custom options that cheap mass production just can’t achieve, says owner Barrett Brown.

Manufacturer or marketer? 

When Brown’s father bought CedarWorks in 1988, he was coming out of the textile industry. And although it was clear that CedarWorks was a manufacturer, Brown says his father viewed it more as a marketing company.
“We love being a manufacturer,” says Brown. “But we like not being beholden to manufacturing.”

CedarWorks sells direct to customers, providing personalized design services online and by telephone to construct just what the customer wants from a huge battery of custom options. “We were never a custom shop,” says Brown, explaining how mass customization techniques deliver individualized packages for each customer while still allowing manufacturing efficiency in production.

Customizing the way CedarWorks does, requires a lot of handholding and individual attention by the five members of the sales staff when they deal with customers. Typically, the sales staff touches a customer seven times before a sale. But that helps the company capture more affluent customers in what typically is a once-in-a-lifetime purchase. That also puts the company’s products in a different league than low-end imported playsets that have taken over much of the market. Asian manufacturers have captured 80 percent of the outdoor playset market, Brown says, noting that there was not one Asian manufacturer building playsets as recently as 2000.

Design and sales 

Almost all of CedarWorks sales are online now. Brown says the company does Google pay-for-click ads and other efforts to build traffic for the company’s website, which is its primary marketing tool. “We have to be there when people are looking,” he says.

When customers call in to discuss their needs, a member of the sales staff uses design software to quickly work up a 2D design that can then be shown to the customer as a 3D model. There is no pricing online, so customers have to request a quotation, and the discussion might go back and forth many times before the deal is done.

Information integration 

As soon as a sale is made, the CedarWorks information technology system is designed to automatically communicate with production. It outputs a parts list for the factory. But despite all the give and take between sales and the customer, there is no give and take between sales and production.

“We separate sales and production,” says Brown. “It’s sales’ job to sell, not to worry about production.”
So, production staff access parts orders daily and adjust production to meet the demand in what amounts to a pull order system. Shipments go out on Fridays, and it is typically two to three weeks from the time the customer orders to the time the playset is shipped.

To keep such a tight schedule with such a broad range of customized products takes some special skills and techniques, says Don Protheroe, manufacturing manager. “We needed to get good at short runs of a lot of little things,” he says. “Information technology and information flow is the key to the whole thing.”
Daily information on orders is coordinated with the inventory system. All parts are tracked by barcodes from manufacturing to shipping to keep the 1,000 to 2,000 boxes shipped each week all straight. Color codes on labels differentiate different shippers, and boxes are coordinated to make life easier for customers.
Ensuring customer satisfaction 

CedarWorks is proud of its 98-percent customer satisfaction rating, which is certainly important in generating essential referrals that account for about a third of business. But customer satisfaction is no accident. “We have a quality incentive program,” explains Protheroe. “For every set that goes out the door, money is set aside for a reward for no customer complaints.”

He says the company also works hard to eliminate what he describes as “controllable errors.” For example, they noticed regular problems with customers complaining that they were missing certain washers. When they investigated the situation more closely, CedarWorks staff realized customers were getting confused about three different sizes of washers and using the wrong washers in the wrong places, thus not having the correct washer when it came to a certain point in the assembly. To solve the problem, the products were redesigned to use the same washers to eliminate potential for confusion.

“You have to get into the mind of the customer,” says Protheroe. “You have to solve it from the customer standpoint.”

Regional consortium 

Protheroe notes that the company has adopted lean manufacturing methods and CNC machining where applicable. There are two Biesse CNC routers, one a flat table unit and the other pod-and-rail. And CNC technology has facilitated custom features such as decorative cutouts and a whole new indoor playset and furniture line. But the real secret to the huge output at CedarWorks is the successful integration of regional suppliers for many of the parts the company uses. CedarWorks relies so much on regional outside suppliers that Protheroe characterizes the factory as “more fulfillment than production.”

CedarWorks has been able to take advantage of collaboration between Sustainable Forest Futures and the wood products industry in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and northern New York. The Consortium conducts workshops and connects decision-makers at companies that might not normally work together.

For example, CedarWorks uses graceful curves in its play slides, which helps distinguish it from cheaper competitors with straight slides. But those curved slides need bent laminations. Rather than tooling up to make them at CedarWorks, the company connected with Mystic Woodworks in Warren, Me. Mystic specializes in making cutting boards that are glued up laminations, so they know a bit about such constructions and could supplement their cutting board business by supplying CedarWorks. It was a mutually beneficial relationship.

“The Consortium is creating strong networks involving multiple states, various industry sectors and leading experts in the field to address and overcome challenges facing wood product manufacturing operations,” says Collin Miller, director of wood products initiatives for Sustainable Forest Futures.

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