Producing quality inlays isn't for everyone. The detailed process requires specialized equipment and a highly trained staff.

Inlaid Woodcraft Co., Sycamore, Ill., provides detailed inlays to high-end furniture manufacturers, architectural firms and custom plywood producers.

"Making inlays requires a large capital investment, which speeds up the process, but there is still handwork and a lot of assembly time involved," says Jeff Stollard, general manager, Inlaid Woodcraft Co. "We have the know-how and it's more cost-effective for manufacturers to outsource inlays to companies like ours."

However, as manufacturers focus on improving their core activities, many are leaning on their outsourcing partners to provide more.

"We have some customers who would like us to add finishing capabilities," says Stollard. "However, we have to be careful to not go too far from our core capability, which is inlays."

Striking a balance hasn't been easy. Customers are asking for more finished products, comments owner Dale Johnson. One of the shop's clients, a high-end furniture manufacturer, is now requesting prefinished sanded panels.

"We supply this customer with single-ply inlays up to a totally machined tabletop that's ready for finishing," says Sharon Nicklaus, vice president of manufacturing. "The customer is moving toward becoming an assembly facility, which changes our role."

Customers also are requesting faster turnaround times and, depending on the market, inlays need to be sent on a just-in-time basis.

Investing in technology

To keep up with market trends, IWC has consistently invested in technology to streamline the veneering process. All inlay jobs are first programmed into CAD software. If the job requires laser cutting, the files are individually programmed by the piece and the proper veneers are cut. Currently the shop has three Preco Laser CO2 systems and two Coherent CO2 laser systems, which have helped reduce assembly times.

"Before laser technology, everything was cut by hand with a jigsaw and the quality wasn't consistent," says Nicklaus. "If the sawyers had a bad day, all the pieces would be thrown out. Lasers create a consistently accurate piece and reduce waste. If we need to produce the piece 10 years from now, it will be the same."

If the cut pieces need shading, they are hand dipped into hot sand. From there, the pieces are hand assembled. The shop also depends on a Diehl veneer splicer, Josting veneer clipper and Holz-Her panel saw.

If a project requires two- or three-ply veneers, they are sent through a 5 x 10 foot Hofer hot press. "If it's plywood, we sand everything and the veneer is put on the core," says Nicklaus. "Sometimes we do some machining to cut the piece to size or put an edge on it before it's packed and shipped."

All employees are cross trained, which eases any bottlenecks that may occur. "We're a job shop and accustomed to reacting quickly," says Stollard. "We normally work with a three- to four-week lead time, but if a customer needs something quickly we juggle projects to get it done. Flexibility is important in what we do."

Sanding smarter

As veneer producers try to get more out of every log, the shop found its sanding technology outdated. "Everybody is trying to get a better yield," says Stollard. "Instead of 32 sheets per inch the industry standard is now 50 sheets per inch. The sanding machine we had wasn't designed to sand veneers that thin."

Because veneers come in different thicknesses even on one sheet, the shop needed a sander it could calibrate. IWC purchased a Costa & Grissom three-head sander six months ago. "We're putting so much money and detail into the top ply that when we sand off the veneer tape we don't want to ruin the face veneer," says Stollard.

The Costa sander not only sands quality veneers, but it also took care of a production bottleneck. "The new sander takes a few seconds as opposed to someone spending 15 minutes on a piece," says Stollard. "You have to embrace newer technologies as material requirements change."

Before investing in the sander, pieces were sanded using a single-head sander. Because a veneer requires different grits, the operator would have to stop sanding, change grits and continue sanding. For one panel, an operator would have to change belts three times.

After purchasing the sander, Stollard contacted other companies to see if they needed to outsource any of their sanding. "We've been talking with a company about calibrating its veneer," he says. "I'm pursuing any new revenue streams that come along."

Opportunities are everywhere

The decline of furniture and clock manufacturing in the United States forced IWC to pursue untapped markets. "Twenty years ago furniture was 95 percent of our business and it was spread over many companies," says Stollard. "Furniture still makes up a good portion of our business because of a few high-end manufacturers."

Because IWC doesn't produce an end product, marketing to existing and emerging markets has been a challenge. To compete in the new economy, the company joined different associations such as the Architectural Woodwork Institute to gain access and insights into new markets.

"We're looking to expand into markets that fit our capabilities, such as supplying inlay strips to furniture manufacturers," says Stollard. "However, the markets have to be consistent in where we want to grow."

In 2007 IWC had $1.5 million in sales and is projecting $1.7 million in 2008 because of strategic growth. The company is expanding in the architectural plywood market, even though it's more time sensitive than what they're accustomed to. IWC also is pursuing leads in the store fixture market and the custom cabinet industry.

The 58-year-old company also is using the Web to generate business. Its Web site, www.inlaidwoodcraft.com, has been instrumental in marketing the shop's abilities. "Recently a designer found our Web site and we're working on creating 60 to 70 pieces of custom furniture with detailed inlays and marquetry for a client in the L.A. area," says Stollard.

The shop's work ranges from single-ply veneers to machined panels. Project materials include domestic and exotic veneers, solid wood, paper-backed materials, high-pressure laminates and plywood.

Recently IWC supplied all the laminate work for the casino pit stand furniture at the Wynn casino in Las Vegas. "We're in the process of quoting the same project for Steve Wynn's next casino," says Stollard. The shop also has supplied custom veneer work for celebrities, such as Hugh Hefner and the Emir of Kuwait.

As customers' outsourcing needs evolve, IWC is looking into purchasing new technology to expand its capabilities. The shop currently outsources machining work but is considering investing in a CNC router and edgebander. "If we add these capabilities, we can provide customers with a more finished product," says Stollard. "This equipment would allow us to take panel production one step further, which makes us more competitive."

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