Ralph's Frame Works provides high-end wood frames to some of the industry's top residential furniture brands including Baker, Henredon, Michael Thomas, and Stickley; as well as institutional leaders AC Furniture, OFS Brands (Carolina), and Southfield Furniture.
"We were able to diversify our business by expanding our capabilities beyond residential into frames for office, healthcare, and hospitality furniture", says owner Tommy Rice.
"This has allowed us to keep growing even as the residential business has slowed. Our current production mix is approximately 50 percent hospitality, 30 percent healthcare, and 20 percent residential."
This manufacturing flexibility helps the company better meet the needs of a wide range of clients. Patrician Furniture, the company's oldest customer, produces furniture for businesses, universities, hotels, hospitals and government facilities. Succeeding in these diverse market segments has required Ralph's management and production teams to learn, develop, and manage a wide range of capabilities and business processes.
Contract vs. furniture
"One of the hardest lessons I had to learn was how to work in the contract furniture business," added Rice.
"We like the fact that there is greater volume of orders upfront, but we often don't see the repeat business like we do with residential. The pressure of working in this model is that we must do much more engineering and development work on a product that we may only produce once. With contract furniture, we may get a single order for 300 pieces and then never see it again. But even with reorders, some residential orders may add up to only 300 pieces over the entire lifetime of the product."
An important key to the modern day success of Ralphs' Frame Works is the product development expertise that they have honed over the years. Rice leverages these skills and supporting technology as a competitive advantage to win new business and strengthen existing relationships.
"Our product development capabilities are our best form of advertisement," Rice says.
"These days, we don't often get a complete design spec for new products. Customers no longer rely on us just to cut the frame. They want us to engineer it, make approval samples, and ensure that the end result is a quality frame that lasts.
"We put our knowledge of top quality frames into the design, materials, and construction of every piece", adds Rice.
"We also realized that we had to stay current with technology in order to produce quality frames on time and at competitive prices."
Smaller order sizes
Three Shoda routers demonstrate the company's commitment to advanced technology. "My dad taught me the importance of buying quality equipment to the business. In his day, it was ripsaws; now it's software to make the machines more efficient and productive."
As Ralph's customers embraced just-in-time assembly to minimize inventories, the order size has decreased dramatically. "The routers enable us to produce small order quantities more efficiently," Rice says.
"We recently bought our third machine because we know that we simply cannot compete as a manual operation. We actually receive more business because of the capabilities these machines give us. They attract more business to us because they allow us to better serve our customers.
Rice says the benefits Ralph's achieved with the routers opened their eyes to other technology investments that save time and reduce manual setups. Looking to improve on the standard router software, which required considerable time to program, Rice invested in Plataine's Nesterwood software last year.
"At first I was hesitant to spend money on a software program," he says.
"But then we realized that Nesterwood would not only eliminate the router programming time, but allow us to do an even better job of optimizing wood use."
Nesterwood takes a different approach to utilizing plywood for furniture frames. Rather than creating static programs designed to fit as many frame parts as possible on a specific size sheet, the software places only the exact number of parts needed while drawing from multiple orders to best utilize the actual sheets available in inventory.
"Nesterwood does a great job of utilizing material because it is able to mix and match orders right on the same sheet of plywood. It took all the excess plywood off the floor, saving us floor space and turning excess inventory into cash."
Router department manager Philip Gibson concurs with the benefits of the new software.
"Our process is at least five times faster than before. We don't have to manually move the router heads or change drill bits anymore. Nesterwood saves us up to two hours per day in setup time and has improved our plywood yields by 15 to 25 percent in just a few months."
Of special significance to Ralph's, the elimination of router programming has freed up considerable time that is now being used to do AutoCAD part design and development of more new products. For Ralph's, this is a strategic time savings because engineering and product development have become essential to gaining new business.
According to Rice, "With these technology investments, we are much more efficient and we can react a whole lot faster than in the old days when we whittled frames out."
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