Modern technology makes millwork shop competitive

The fast track is too slow for Walter Price. As president of Wright Architectural Millwork, Northampton, MA, Price says his company prides itself on using well- developed communication skills and high-technology solutions to deliver top-quality work in a minimum amount of time. Price calls it putting a job on the "flash track."

To illustrate what Price means, take a look at one of Wright Architectural Millwork's recent jobs. The $850,000 project for Nokia, the cell phone company, involved incredibly complex specifications with curved and sloping veneered panels all with precise reveals that extend all the way up a two-story interior wall and mate with similar reveals in a custom metal ceiling system. Because of the curves and slopes, not a single panel used in the job had a right angle, Price says. But the timetable was less than four months.

To succeed with that kind of timetable requires good communication, says Price. "How effectively you communicate will drive your success," he says. At Wright, that communication begins in the bidding process, where extra effort is made to answer as many questions as quickly as possible as early as possible.

To avoid costly surprises and make sure all questions are raised and answered, a system of checks and balances is put into effect. The estimator, project manager, purchasing agent, plant manager and drafting department all review the drawings for each new job. Working closely together, that team "makes sure we give customers what they paid for," says Price, adding that the same checks and balances assure that his company is making its fair profit on every job, as well.

Because so much rests on the quality of drawings, Wright Architectural Millwork puts a particular emphasis on that. It has been doing CAD drawings since 1988 and currently uses AutoCAD, Release 14. That allows it to import architect's drawings directly into its system. The company has also installed a DDS2 line for rapid Internet access, which allows not only speedy data transfer, but facilitates the company's access to instant information on products and specifications that may be necessary to answer questions in conjunction with a bid or ongoing work.

"Our ability to rapidly obtain, transmit and manage large amounts of project-related information is key to high performance and meeting our customers' needs," says Price.

As proof of the success of all the effort put into drawings, Price says he routinely hears architects tell him that Wright's drawings are the best they see.

High tech doesn't end in the front office. Wright employees use Pattern Systems software for cut listing and optimization. Cutlists can be downloaded directly to their Schelling beam saw in the shop. Shop drawings are run through a translator to provide information for the Busellato Super Junior point-to-point machining center. The company has not gone to bar coding yet, but is working toward that. "We're not seamless yet, but we're getting there," says Price.

Going to the point-to-point and beam saw to handle the bulk of machining has increased the capacity of the plant 30 percent without adding employees or square footage, says Price. Before the Schelling was added in 1996, the shop cut most of its panels on a Martin sliding table saw and did specialty cuts on a number of Delta Unisaws. The Martin and Unisaws still get use, but Price classes them as "variety" saws, with the Schelling taking the lead panel-cutting role.

While Price constantly praises the advances in technology in the industry, he is quick to add, "Technology needs to be paired with quality." That message is clearly part of the shop philosophy - highly productive workers show diligent attention to detail. Price is proud to say that his plant personnel deliver roughly $195,000 per man per year in direct sales revenue.

Other key equipment in the shop that helps boost production or capacity includes a Brandt Optimat KD 78-CF edgebander with Ligmatech Boomerang return. That makes for efficient one-man operation while not taking up as much space as a conventional return system, Price says.

Blum Metaboxes are the standard drawer system. When dovetailed wooden drawers are called for, the company outsources them.

Wright does its own finishing, usually conversion varnish, using an automotive-style spray booth. As projects have gotten larger, that has increased the demand for rack space in the finishing area, says Price.

Another secret to Wright's success is in choosing not just the work the company does, but who the company works with. The company emphasizes high-end work for lots of high-visibility corporate clients.

Its project/client list includes corporate giants such as A.C. Neilsen, Arthur Anderson, Aetna, Amica Mutual Insurance, Sun Microsystems, Price Waterhouse, Smith Barney and the Bank of Boston, as well as prestigious private academic institutions such as both Harvard and Yale.

But, surprisingly, Price says it isn't the jobs and clients that he looks for first when marketing his company.

Early on, Price says he made it a policy to ask architects who they thought were the best contractors.

Then he asked contractors who they thought were the best architects. Over the years, he's developed a short list of the architects and contractors that he likes to work with best. Developing ongoing relationships with those firms improves communication, efficiency and Wright's bottom line. "It's more choosing people we want to work with than choosing the projects," he says. "If you've got the wrong architect or the wrong GC, it can be difficult."

Price's networking also extends to his longtime active involvement in the Architectural Woodworking Institute, including his service as a director for AWI. He notes that New England has the largest number of AWI certified plants in the country, and he describes membership in the organization as equivalent to tuition in an academic institution. "It's a great organization," he says.

Looking to the future, Price says he's heard concerns voiced in the industry that shops his size might lose out to larger and smaller operations driven by new technology. But Price doesn't see it that way. He sees the new technology as an asset and aid in better competition.

Having embraced the Internet and installed a high-speed data line, Price is anxious to make full use of it. Already, his company's high-speed data capability has helped in cross-country communication with architects, clients and contractors, he says. But he sees even bigger things on the horizon. "I see a time when we will hold job meetings on line," he says. "Jobs will have their own web site."

He says new jobs are typically coming in with less information in the beginning. Architect's drawings are not as complete. That puts more pressure on his people to address those questions. Adding to the pressure, Price notes that jobs are required to be completed in much less time. In 1985, he says, a typical job might require 16 weeks to complete. Today, that same job must be done in eight or nine weeks.

Still, all this talk of cutting-edge technology is paired to a fairly conservative business ethic at Wright Architectural Millwork. Price says he doesn't like to take a job that exceeds 20 percent of his company's annual sales volume. He's just now bidding on some $1 million jobs that will touch the edge of that envelope. He acknowledges that he would "rather do one $500,000 job than 10 $50,000 jobs." But as the jobs get larger, he and his staff are careful to evaluate them.

"If you're not investing in new technology, you're not standing still, you're losing ground," he says.

Technology changes affect hiring

As more emphasis goes to drawings and the front end of projects, the ratio of office staff to shop personnel has increased. Price says his company's 30 employees are split almost 50/50 between the shop and office.

But that office staff is not heavy on the clerical end. Price remembers the days when he would use a Dictaphone and a secretary to handle business correspondence. Now everyone in the office does their own letters on word processing programs.

When it comes to hiring help, Price has the same concerns that many in the woodworking industry have: He's finding it increasingly difficult to find skilled personnel. To address that issue, he says he wants to get more involved in outreach to area trade schools. But Wright adds that there remains a reliance on highly skilled bench people to produce the level of quality required by Wright's projects.

However, he says, "With the advances in equipment technology, the challenge of finding large numbers of skilled craftsmen can be mitigated somewhat." In fact, he used to think that good draftsmen needed to have a background of bench skills in order to do their job well. But today he's finding people that have a good knowledge of AutoCAD can be very successful draftsmen even without the bench skills.


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William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.