When the U.S. furniture market began its downward spiral in 2003, Burns Wood Products Inc., a manufacturer of curved plywood, didn't spend any time lamenting its losses. Instead, it buckled down, got lean, increased its use of CNC technology and began producing new products. Its efforts paid off. At the end of 2006 Burns Wood logged over $5 million in sales, and is poised to gross over $6 million in 2007 more than its 2003 pre-downturn revenues.

And what makes that particularly sweet is that a considerable chunk of the company's current sales are from accounts that are returning to Burns Wood from overseas.

Long history

Bill Burns launched Burns Wood Products Inc., Granite Falls, N.C., in 1980 after spending a number of years working with curved plywood for several major furniture manufacturers. Starting at first with just a secretary, the company grew and Burns' sons David and Shannon eventually came on board in the roles of vice president, sales, and vice president, manufacturing, respectively.

"Our biggest market then was residential," David Burns says. "We made thousands upon thousands of table rims the rim underneath a dining room table. In the industry, if you needed a table rim, you went to Burns Wood Products."

Aside from table rims, the bulk of the company's production for a long time consisted of drawer fronts for dressers and doors for armoires. By the end of the 1990s, sales were running at around the $3 million mark, and work in the plant was being done with standard, non-computerized equipment.

Adding technology

In 1999, Burns Wood started its journey into the realm of computerized equipment. The first machine the company purchased was a Thermwood three-axis CNC router. It didn't take long to realize that the type of work Burns Wood did required a bigger machine, so a few months later, in 2000, the company purchased a Shoda three-axis CNC router, complete with four heads and four piggybacks. To program the routers, Burns Wood purchased Mastercam Mill CAD/CAM software.

By this time the company was seeing the benefits of CNC router technology, and one month after purchasing the Shoda, it purchased a Thermwood five-axis CNC router. "We used the five-axis router for about a year and a half to build up the type of business that goes on that kind of machine," David Burns says.

Armed with the Shoda and Thermwood CNC routers, Burns Wood began building up the volume of its business, ultimately hitting the $6 million mark. "We were able to land some pretty large accounts and our sales volume grew tremendously," Burns says. "Then the market started its downturn right at that same time and things started going overseas. Our volume started coming back down, so if we hadn't had those increases from new customers we'd have really been in trouble."

The downturn hurt, nonetheless. "We lost, from one customer, nearly a million dollars in sales in one year," David Burns says. "They basically shut down and went overseas, and that's a big blow to a small company."

Getting lean

When business began dropping in 2003, the company decided it was time to review its operations, tighten up processes and get lean.

However, since the company's product changed often, it made work cells a staple in lean manufacturing a challenge. Undaunted, the company came up with a unique solution. At several locations in the plant, notably near its routers and many of its sanders, quick connects and power couplings were added. Then many of its smaller machines were put on pallets or on wheels and stored in a corner. "When we're ready to run a particular part, we bring it over, plug it in, and when we're done, move it back," David Burns explains.

Borrowing an idea from one of its clients, Burns Wood also decided to start making task-specific custom machines, a process that involves purchasing a standard piece of equipment that Shannon Burns then re-engineers. "This way, we get exactly what we need done for one or two thousand dollars, as opposed to spending $50,000 for a machine that we don't need," David Burns explains.

Lastly, major pieces of equipment were moved within the shop to improve workflow, and individual procedures were reviewed and tweaked for maximum efficiency.

New products and markets

As the company worked to increase its efficiency, it also began looking at new products and markets outside of its traditional markets of residential furniture, contract and hospitality. "Curved plywood is such a great product. You can use it in such a number of different ways," David Burns says.

The company now builds parts for a diverse group of markets, including parts for massage tables, hot tubs, clocks, high-end speakers and even mountain boards for the toy industry. As business began picking up, the company expanded its equipment to include a C.R. Onsrud five-axis router in 2005. It added another C.R. Onsrud in 2006.

According to David Burns, it's a challenge to keep the sales force open to potential markets. "We're working to broaden their thinking in selling for us," he says.

Returning accounts

As Burns Wood continued its lean initiatives and push into new markets, an interesting thing happened accounts that had previously been lost to overseas companies began coming back. David Burns notes that a $400,000 account that had previously been lost to Canada has just returned to Burns Wood, as has a $125,000 account that had previously been lost to China. He cites the value of the U.S. dollar, freight costs, and in a number of instances, quality, as factors that are bringing accounts back. To date, he estimates about 40 percent of the accounts that Burns Wood lost to overseas competitors have returned.

Making curved plywood

In the plant, new jobs begin with the CAD/CAM programmer, who designs a form to press the item. If the item is going to be machined on the router, the programmer creates a program for the router jig and raw material is ordered. A sample is created and sent to the customer for approval. Raw material is ordered on a JIT basis, and the company does both small runs and large runs.

Poplar is a common request for the cores of most projects, followed by gum. Faces and backs are any number of species, though most are domestic. The bend of a particular part dictates the thickness of the core material, which can vary from 1/24 inch to 1/8 inch. However, Burns notes that the company has made parts as thin as 1/8 inch and as thick as 3-1/2 inches, though a standard thickness is about 3/4 inch.

Sanding of veneers is done on two widebelt sanders, configured in an "L" to allow for a sheet to be sanded, flipped, sanded on the reverse and moved along.

Burns Wood currently has seven radio frequency (RFS) presses in use. Three of the presses apply pressure from the top and the sides and are used for more complex bends. The remaining four presses apply pressure from above, and are used for pieces with lower angle curves.

"We basically have two areas of pressing," David Burns explains. "Up to two or three years ago, we used to have all our presses, eight of them, in one central location. Then we started looking at what we could do to get more product out, and we realized if we had two glue spreaders feeding fewer presses, we could get more production time per press. So we split up our presses, dropped to seven presses, and increased our production output by about 25 percent."

Panels can be ripped to width on a S.F. Kilde split saw and edges rounded on a S.F. Kilde milling machine. Depending on the component, additional work may be done on one of a number of customized machines created by Shannon Burns, such as a specially engineered automated shaper or a customized trim saw that is outfitted with boring heads.

Although Burns Wood can do a quick ship, most parts are done on a longer schedule, given the special nature of most jobs. The company machines about 90 percent of the parts it produces, leaving assembly for the client.

Moving forward

David Burns is optimistic about seeing even more business return from abroad. "I recently told my sales reps that if they saw someone four months ago and they said We're getting a part from abroad and you don't need to come back,' I told my reps Go back. It's a volatile market right now and things are changing. You need to get back into those companies immediately, and let them know we're still here, we're still available, and we can help them out.'"

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