If you want an optimistic view, look no further than Gary Leeman. He expects his company's sales to nearly double this year after a difficult 2003.  Leeman Architectural Woodwork, a maker of store fixtures and millwork, had its best sales year in 2002, and then one of its worst in 2003 as retail spending shrunk. Leeman's sales were $24 million in 2002, and about $19 million last year. In 2004, Leeman expects sales to reach $30 million.

"I think 2004 will be one of the best years we ever have, and we want to be ready for it," he says.

Leeman got ready for the expected good times in a big way, building a new 350,000-square-foot building in Powder Springs, Ga.

Constructing a new building was too good a deal to pass up. Cobb County provided incentives to move the business, including an industrial revenue bond for land, construction and tax incentives. J.W. Rooker & Associates completed the building in 10 months and even purchased Leeman's two existing buildings in Atlanta's Fulton Industrial area.  SCM Group USA and its distributor,  Southeastern Machinery Group, shipped new equipment directly to the new location while Leeman was still in operation in Fulton Industrial. Other suppliers moved materials from the old to the new location.

"We got more bang for our dollar by building during the rough times," Leeman says. "The cost of building and additional equipment worked out to $25 per square foot, which is pretty cheap. If we were to build in the good times, our $25 a square foot would have been $32 to $33. We would have spent an additional $2-1/2 to 3 million for what we have now."

Dust collection  

An important part of the new building is the is 40,000 cfm self-cleaning and computer-controlled DISA dust collection system.

"I like the central computer controls," says William Odom, vice president of operations. "Everything's done from the maintenance office, including startup, shutdown, cleaning, scheduling and programming.

"You can program how often you want it to clean. It has sections of baghouses with regeneration fans that reverse thrust for each section.

"While the whole system is running and collecting dust, one of those cells, via the computer program, will shut down. And the regeneration fan will come on and reverse flow through the bags and shake them to make the dust fall off the bag onto the conveyor belt."

When the regeneration is finished, that cell comes back on line and another cell goes down, shakes and regenerates. With self-cleaning, the system doesn't have to be shut down.

Odom also liked the ability to add to the system and make it bigger.

"If our capacity increases and I need more than 40,000 cfm, I can add four modules and have another 40,000 cfm and tie it all back into the same system,"

Odom says, "Southeastern Machinery did all of the dust collection and grinder work for us."

A silo stores wood waste from the dust collection system, and an auger carries waste into a Talbott's C7 wood waste combustion system. In addition, motorized conveyors set up between the saws and routers feed Weima Beaver grinders, which create small scrap pieces so all of the waste, including scrap, sawdust and pallet stock, can be burned for fuel. Leeman also has a Talbott's C6 model incinerator that was moved from the old location and is used for scrap that doesn't go through the dust system.

Leeman spent about $300,000 for the system. Previously, the company's weekly cost to haul away the waste was $3,000. The incinerator is helping to heat the building during the winter, cutting the heating bill from $4,000 to $800 a month. In the future, Leeman is looking at the possibility of using the furnace to generate electricity to run an air conditioner in the summer.

Transfer and staging  

Work flows from two saws and two routers to a transfer cart, then to a storage conveyor, then to four edgebanders. Edgebanded pieces go to another transfer cart for storage or transfer, then to three router/point-to-point machines, and finally to assembly.

"Every time we do something we put it on a transfer cart to move it to the next stage," Odom explains. "Those two storage aisles can hold product to give us a buffer."

Leeman uses a front-load SCMI Sigma 90 saw and a new Gabbiani Galaxy 140 specialized rear-load panel saw. The newest machine here is a Routech Erghon machining center, which can do two different jobs at the same time on twin 5 x 12 tables.

"This machine revolutionized everything that we do," Odom says. "It turned into a combination saw/router instead of just a router. You're not only cutting the parts out, you're also processing the parts while they're on the table. The fact that it can act as a saw changed our whole process." A second Routech Erghon has two 5 x 10 tables, with one set of working tooling.

Leeman has four edgebanders. Two IDM Activas are CNC-controlled via barcode and set up automatically. Leeman also has an IDM Idimatic 66/20 edgebander and an SCMI Selecta that is used for wood edgebanding only. Parts flow can also bypass the whole edgebanding operation.

Three Morbidelli point-to-point machines, a 0550, Author 504 and Author 800 with dual tool changers, are used mostly for boring, with some routing. A Routech Record 130 is used for horizontal boring.

Dirty assembly  

After boring and routing, components may go to "dirty" assembly, which involves cutting or some kind of adjustment, then post laminating. "On some fixtures, customers don't want seams," Odom says. "They want solid, and the only way to achieve that is post lam."

There are four paint booths, two for priming and two for staining and finishing. "Clean" assembly follows, with hardware installation but no cutting.

A smaller custom work area, separate from the main production lines, is used for one-of-a-kind jobs. Equipment here was moved from the older plant and includes a Morbidelli Author 700 machining center, SCMI Hydro 3200 sliding table saw, Holz-Her Express 1437 edgebander, SCMI Alpha 45 panel saw and SCMI Sandya 10 sander.

In addition, garden display racks are made in another area of the plant. Leeman also has space dedicated to putting locksets into pieces for display, a very labor-intensive operation.

When Leeman went into operation in the new building, it also implemented a Factory Edge ERP system, which includes order entry, tracking through the plant, inventory control and purchasing. The software package also generates shipping lists and invoices, and Odom says it represented a major change in the way the company works.

Retail focus  

Leeman serves primarily retail, institutional, hospital and restaurant customers.  Home DepotBlack & DeckerCooper Lighting and  Kohl's are important customers. The company has 140 employees overall, including 25 installers.

Leeman and Odom see home theater as a potential growth area for the company.

Odom says the price of projection equipment has fallen to an affordable level for many people. The company wants to offer pre-made MDF and wood veneer millwork packages that anyone can put the TVs into. "Guys like that," Odom says. "It's a guy thing."

Leeman primarily uses a particleboard-core melamine for most products. MDF is used for products to be painted. Mouldings are generally provided by outside suppliers.

Consolidation is an important service for fixture manufacturers. Leeman can take packages from other companies and combine them with its own products to create a single shipment that is delivered directly to the store. Retailers love this. Leeman stages finished fixtures, waits for metal parts that are made to order from outside, and can even place products on the display before shipment. The new building has 39 dock doors and can accommodate as many as 34 trucks at the same time, meaning that Leeman can supply three trucks to each of 10 stores a customer may be opening on the same day. There's also space for 30 truck trailers.

"Most millwork facilities can't consolidate," Leeman says. "They can't handle a customer sending them 50,000 square feet of product and putting products in their display and sending it out. We can."

Leeman believes growing companies will look to growing fixture manufacturers. "Customers are going to look at companies that are large enough to handle their growth," he says.

"The economy, in general, is going to be on an upswing this year for our customers. You can't just put product on the shelf. Displays help sell products. We used to make only plastic laminate, now we mix wood, metal, plastic, all medias together in order to make a fixture. The display draws the customer to the product." 

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.