Every year we ask influential members of the woodworking industry to look into their crystal balls and offer a forecast for the coming year.
This year’s report comes amid a generally positive performance for the industry in 2023, but many of the people we talked to tempered their overall optimism looking ahead to note concerns about workforce economic issues as we enter 2024.
A lot of the predictions and concerns come with trends that could help mitigate negative impacts.
Growing use of automation and technology could help make up for continuing problems in finding skilled workers, for example.
Similarly, new technology can improve productivity, efficiency, and sustainability to increase profitability regardless of what the economy or political instability could do.
Changes in the industry are also a factor. Big news in the machinery sector came recently with the merger of the Wood Machinery Manufacturers of America with the Woodworking Machinery Industry Association to create the unified Wood Industry Association.
The group, which owns the International Woodworking Fair in Atlanta, the biggest industry show of 2024, looks to better coordination and communication as they move forward together.
James Scarlett is the owner of Scarlett Inc., a machinery supplier, and the chair of the executive committee of the new WIA organization.
“As I’ve spent most of my time focusing on this merger over the past year, I can say we are excited about the future of a unified association advocating for the growth of our industry,” said Scarlett. “In my small sample size of my geography, my observation is that my customer base is in a very positive growth stage and optimistic about the coming year.”
With 2024 being an election year, Scarlett said he is concerned how politics will affect the business climate in 2024, but he’s making no real predictions, instead deferring to prognostications from professional economists and the like.
Joe Trave, owner of Village Handcrafted Cabinetry, a Pennsylvania-based cabinet manufacturer, reflects the generally optimistic outlook of lots of woodworking manufacturers as 2023 draws to a close, but he raises concerns about inflation and interest rates.
“We are budgeting for an overall increase over 2023 of 10 percent by increasing our marketing efforts and expanding our region to the entire East Coast,” Trave said. “2023 was stagnant over 2022 after a 20 percent growth in gross revenue year-over-year. Profit margins have been very challenging with the overall rates of inflation. Also, interest rates hovering around 8 percent puts downward pressure on pricing.”
Still, Trave is looking on the bright side. “I feel positive with our high-end market niche of bespoke custom cabinetry,” he said. “Many of our customers don’t use financing for their projects. They are continuing their spending habits.”
On the negative side, Trave is concerned about the stock cabinet market. “I am seeing the stock cabinet market really struggle,” he said. “Semi-custom has been flat and those manufacturers are moving into the higher-end market to stay competitive. This will lead to increased competition from lower-priced, mass-produced manufacturers.”
But on the positive side, Trave said he still sees plenty of customers in the market for what he sells. “High net worth individuals are still spending,” he said. “They want what they want. The stock market has not struggled like inflation has, so if that holds, I see our clientele continuing their spending habits.”
From machinery manufacturers and woodworking industry suppliers, the focus continues to be on increasing automation and new technologies to help woodworking manufacturers do more with fewer employees.
Federico Broccoli, CEO of Biesse America, said no matter what goes on with the economy in 2024, woodworking manufacturers need to explore automation.
“Where we are investing and pushing our customers is to open their minds and look at the [material] handling, automation, and integrated machines,” he said. “We believe strongly in this. The need for automation and integrated machines, especially in the North American market where we operate, is even more of a necessity because of the lack of people.”
Broccoli is optimistic that consumers will continue to invest in woodworking products.
“I see that they are truly evolving, and they are investing more budgets to improve their houses, the quality of their furniture, the quality of life inside the house or inside the offices,” he said. “This is a strong opportunity for us because there will be launchings [of new products and new/advanced/engineered materials].”
Still, Broccoli recognizes that woodworking manufacturers face serious challenges in the year ahead, particularly when it comes to the workforce.
“Right now if I talk with thousands of customers, the number one challenge is skilled labor,” he said. “That’s why we need to try to use the few skilled people that every company can keep to do things that are more to evolve the company than to operate a machine, because 70-80 percent of the operations that machines do can be taken care of from automation.”
Peter Tuenker, managing director at IMA Schelling Group U.S., echoes Broccoli’s comments. “Labor, labor, labor, labor,” Tuenker said. “That’s all everybody is talking about and for a good reason because that is the, I would say, the number one, two, and three issue, and it will be for a long time coming.”
He said the problem runs across all industries, not just woodworking, and it affects all sizes of companies.
“We have to come up with solutions to make it possible for even especially small and medium-sized companies to be able to survive this,” he said. “The big guys, they can afford automation, they can replace human labor with automation, but we have to make it affordable also to the small and medium-sized companies. When you look around here [at the show], that’s what you see everywhere. That’s what everybody is trying to do.”
Tuenker also thinks concerns about sustainability will grow in the coming year. He relates it to energy as well as environment.
“It really comes down to using the least amount of energy to produce the most output,” he said. “You only use the energy necessary to produce something and you turn everything else off, and you use highly sophisticated drive systems and control systems that make sure those drives run at optimal RPMs, these kind of things.”
Jens Schulz, president of Leuco Tool Corp., says sustainability also can be addressed by doing things to enhance tool life.
“We’re talking about not just material consumption, like reducing material consumption,” he said. “We’re talking about increasing tool lives for the customers and having better sustainability. We work on sound optimization. We do a lot of noise reduction features in our tools.”
Schulz is positive about the coming year.
“I still think there’s a lot of opportunities coming up,” he said. “We’re very optimistic — it’s been a great year so far, which is an indicator, especially on the service side. When we see customers sending more tools in for service that means that they’re producing more.”
Brett Reid, president at Weinig Holz-Her USA, notes that the kinds of machinery that are increasingly popular reflect increased interest in sustainability.
“From a sustainability standpoint, just talk about our fingerjoint lines [for example]; they’re taking offcuts in and creating new boards,” he said. “You fingerjoint the material, press it together with various glues, and you can use it for structural materials, you can use it for construction, you can use it for furniture and fixtures, so that adds to the sustainability of getting the most out of the tree.”
But he is also concerned about workforce challenges.
“What we’re seeing is, for our own company and also for our customers, is a lack of workforce,” he said. “That is an advantage for us as machinery manufacturers, because what that allows us to offer is automated solutions, so the customer doesn’t need to hire as many people. We’re seeing that all across the board now in every application, from our panel processing customers to our solid wood customers and everything in between.”
John Park, vice president engineering at SCM North America, also raised some of the same workforce and skilled labor concerns that others have mentioned. On the bright side, he sees continued efforts to bring manufacturing back to North America.
“We talked about inshoring years ago, and we’re still talking about inshoring. We’re still bringing manufacturing back to the U.S.,” he said. “One of our biggest things is if you want to run batch one or flexible production, it’s not suffering in volume. We can run super high rates of speed and still give you a high level of flexibility, and the only way to get inshoring to work is to be able to deliver to customers at a higher velocity than we have in the past — to increase that velocity through the factory or the product.”
Jurgen Koppel, CEO of Leitz, a tooling company, sees the biggest trend ahead is the increase in automation.
“In North America, I think the increase of automation is one very important aspect,” he said. “Labor force is expensive. Labor force is getting rare, and also skilled labor force is a big challenge. Therefore, it goes without saying, it is automation that is the thing.”
Koppel sees the increased use of wood products as a “mega trend” in support of sustainability efforts.
He also sees a trend toward increased digitalization that attaches data to everything, including individual tooling using things like QR codes and RFID chips to help automate processes. In addition, he sees a growth in factory-based fabrication of homes, trending away from site-built processes.
Karen Koenig and Larry Adams contributed to this report.
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