Q: What have you seen in upholstery plants recently that really impressed you?

A: I am sure you will understand that I am unable to name specific companies or processes, as I certainly do not wish to betray confidences.

With the heavy use of CNC equipment for cutting covering, frame and filling material, in most profitable plants, I remain impressed by the exceptionally higher level of attention to detail in tailoring than I have seen before. The left arm looks like the right arm and they both look like the arms built six months ago. Even the padding materials are cut exactly in-house or by a vendor so everything fits and all decisions are removed from the individual line assembly person and remain with prototype and engineering people. Costs are more accurate also.

Going a bit further with this attention to detail, in a plant where the labor cost was in excess of the North American cost, I saw where each sewer had a flat panel touch screen in arm's reach where the sewing drawings were displayed. A quick scan of the barcode on the tote brought up the drawing. The operator could then zoom in for specific parts by touching the screen. In addition, all the work was transported by conveyor to the operator. Because of the high costs, the company was on a mission to eliminate all non-value labor. In addition, any change to the specification, no matter how minute, could be instantaneously instituted.

Use of automation

I am impressed with the automated box/tray equipment, as well as the automated packing lines I have seen. This non-value-added work is almost virtually eliminated, as well as the inventory of boxes is eliminated. I certainly hope you saw this at the recent IWF show in Atlanta!

Prototype areas continue to impress me, having grown up in the build-tear down, multiple rebuild, final tear down, then making patterns, frame parts, etc., then send to vendors methodology. Now, I see a design made on computer (most new designers only work with the computer), sent as an attachment to an e-mail to a customer, changed and approved. The frame and padding are then placed by software under the design. The software then unwraps the product to yield the CNC fabric and frame cutting patterns, with information sent to vendors electronically, and the product placed in production within days of approval by a customer. All paper patterns are gone, and any change can be made immediately.

In today's business climate for profitable plants, it is all about design, quality, service and speed of delivery. You can get containers of cheap junk in six weeks. Those foreign suppliers are now shipping direct to retailers, effectively bypassing their former American partners. It is an interesting study to look at the profitability before and after the "Let's import everything to get it cheaper" idea of some major former U.S. manufacturers. The losses now being racked up are astounding. Now we hear the "We made a mistake and want to return" latest mantra. Having observed how their brand has been trashed in the retail market, it will be interesting to see how this plays out. But, that will be another story.

Pricing products correctly

I did receive a recent call from the owner of a red, white and blue American manufacturer whom I have had the privilege of working with for more than 10 years. He was selling sofas for under $400 when I started beating him up about giving away his products. He advised that his average sofa was now more than $1,500 and he was making more units than ever. It is all about design, quality, service and on-time delivery! That impressed me.

I also am impressed by the ingenuity of American manufacturers who work around difficult situations and come up with better products. Poly cushions continue to climb in costs with the relationship to oil prices. The idea of lower-cost innerspring cushions is returning. Coil springs usually are consistent and, with the possibility of mixing gauges of wire, it is possible to eliminate the roll-to arm by using a heavier gauge wire on the arm side. These are placed over webbed decks that I have been touting for years.

I think the most impressive thing I have seen is the massive change being made in the former adversarial relationship between vendors and manufacturers and managers and employees. I believe that most professional managers now understand it is necessary for vendors to make a profit and the vendors understand it is important for their customer to be profitable. Many employees now understand that job security is aided by working for a profitable, growing company. I am impressed to see line employees meeting with vendors and plant engineers to solve problems on the lines.

Zero work-in-process  

And, finally, to walk into a plant and see virtually zero work-in-process. No cushions piled up days ahead, no sewing stacked in bundles a mile high, no mounds of frames ready to have a ton of non-value-added labor in stacking and unstacking applied, as well as having a major manufacturer tell me that they are working hard to eliminate piece work with profitable results, is impressive.

Given the times we live in, I'd like to paraphrase an old saw: "We, the American manufacturers, have done so much with so little for so long, we can now do anything with nothing." I applaud you. You are impressive!


George Koeninger can be reached by e-mail at george@bfcconsult.com .

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