Carolina Drawers Inc.  builds a simple product - drawers - for a limited number of clients. But varied production schedules with an almost limitless number of size permutations make growing in that competitive market far from simple.

Jeff Mast, owner of the Lexington, N.C., company along with his father Mack Mast and Bruce Byrd, has managed growth in this competitive market by communicating with customers and expanding to meet increased production demands.

"Our customers have been very communicative. They tell us what their growth rate is going to look like and they've asked us if we're going to be able to handle it," says Mast.

Because two very large customers comprise a large portion of the company's business, Mast says the company works hard to accommodate its customers' product needs and requests.

Big move

The company, launched in 1992 with seven employees and two customers, moved in August 1999 from a 25,000-square-foot plant to an 80,000-square-foot building. The company produces approximately 56,000 drawers a week with 80 employees. Drawers are produced from plywood and solid maple and birch.

Carolina Drawers has two distinct customer bases - kitchen cabinets and residential furniture - with large clients in each area. That affects lead times dramatically.

"The furniture industry runs with a three- to five-week lead time and the cabinet industry runs in a JIT mentality," says Mast. As a result, the solid dovetail drawers for the cabinet industry have to be delivered with a three- to five-day turnaround.

Luckily, the cabinet drawers are a little more standardized than furniture drawers, so meeting that turnaround time isn't an obstacle. "Cabinet customers typically run repetitive components, so we maintain an inventory of standard sizes for shipping," says Mast. "With the furniture industry, every customer has its own widths and specifications."

For drawer production Carolina Cabinets starts with Pattern Systems cut planner for optimization of raw materials. Plywood sheets are loaded on the Holzma EL 60 beam saw or the Tyler MBD 3700 rip saw to be ripped. Solid wood comes in already cut. Parts are cut to length on an automated Paul saw.

Parts then move to either a Weinig Profimat 23 moulder, where they are shaped and grooved or to a Fletcher FM-55 edge moulder and sander.

Dowel drawers are machined on a Koch SBD-B bore and dowel machine. French dovetails are machined on conventional smaller tenon machines.

If an English or conventional dovetail is required, parts go to several CNC Dodds dovetail machines. They include a Dodds DE-760 CNC and the DE-790 CNC to cut female dovetails with two SE-20 CNCs for short runs on male or female dovetails. With the addition of these dovetail machines, production improved seven-fold, according to Mast.

Although Mast says that there is a slightly higher learning curve on the CNC dovetail machines than conventional ones, he believes it's well worth it. "Dodds is someone we think a lot of, a company that developed the technology and supports what they developed. And most of what they've done, even though it's a very complicated manufacturing process on their part, is pretty user-friendly," he says.

Components are loaded in a stack in the front of the double-end machine, the correct program is inputted into the digital control panel, a button is pressed and the parts run through the machine. After the dovetails are cut, the parts travel on a conveyor belt back to the front of the machine where they can be unloaded. 

Making it work

It would take more than just new machines to make everything work. Before the move, the company had a few conveyor systems in place. Mast knew through experience that material handling would be a key element to the new mix and so he hired David Roach, a consultant, to help design a material flow process system that would work.

Holes were cut in doors to put the conveyor system in and allow everything to move easily through the plant. To keep a large section of the floor open, a transfer section is used to connect fixed systems, creating a great deal of flexibility in product movement throughout the plant.

Mast feels that the company's philosophy is part of its success. The setup of the plant needed to address those issues. All employees are required to wear safety glasses and ear protection. When a new employee comes in, safety is one of the first things he is taught.

"We're not concerned about how much value we are adding to the bottom line. We're concerned about our employees, doing a safe job, getting the quality right and delivering it on time. The rest can take care of itself," Mast says.

Looking ahead

Concentrating on the things that the company can control and focusing on keeping the manufacturing process smooth and efficient are critical to meeting customer demand, says Mast. "We're always trying to analyze and do things better."

Knowing when to get that extra machine is often a result of keeping the current production process in focus and seeing when the volume becomes so great that the machines being used are struggling to keep up.

Right now, for example, the company is looking to get a fourth Dodds CNC dovetail machine. There are two dovetail machines that make the female profile of the conventional dovetails and one machine that makes male dovetails.

Any male profiles that can't be processed by the big CNC dovetail machine are done on one of the smaller machines. Production and volume have increased to the point that the smaller machines just can't keep up and with more growth on the horizon, a second male CNC dovetail machine has become a necessity.

On the other hand, the decision to upgrade a Holzma EL60 beam saw to a newer model, a Holzma HPP22, was made primarily with an eye to the future.

Although the replacement machine, a 1994 model, is not new, it is vastly improved over the 1985 model the company has, says Mast. Because the newer beam saw is faster and bigger, has a rack-and-pinion mechanism instead of a chain setup and has a slightly higher book height, the company expects to increase cutting capacity by about 40 percent.

Opening new opportunities

Sometimes upgrading also entails creating new possibilities with the new machines. A Fletcher FM-55 edge moulder and sander replaced a conventional moulder. It creates a top and bottom bullnose and a groove in one step. It also sands the components.

Being able to do everything in one step opened up the door to making unfinished drawers easily, quickly and efficiently. After sanding, the components move on to the finishing step or are immediately packaged up as unfinished drawers.
Historically, Carolina Drawers made only finished drawers but "the Fletcher gave us the opportunity to do unfinished components, which is a market that we haven't really been in," says Mast.

Give them what they want

Carolina Drawers has become adept at giving customers what they want. When a customer came to Carolina Drawers wanting a certain look, for example, Mast says they had to figure out how to get it done.

So the company talked with its finishing suppliers seeking their recommendations on how to get the requested look. Collaboration with Dubois, the manufacturer of the rollcoating and oven equipment in the company's UV flat line, and the company's suppliers resulted in a solution that used the company's existing equipment.

"We just added to it, updated it a little bit," Mast says.

The company was happy with the help it received from Dubois and feels that UV flat line now in place does a very effective job.

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