"We created a science of making a cabinet,” says Walter Cisowski, chief operating officer of acpi Cabinets, Thompsontown, PA. The formula is one part technology, one part systems, and a large part people — both the management team and very highly energized union workforce.

The operational numbers, gathered from an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, shows the plant makes, on average, a finished cabinet in under an hour. The initial box comes off the line as fast as 30 seconds. But perhaps even more startling: All 450 plant workers watch ERP data too, translated real-time into an hourly bonus based on quality and volume of production.

“We’re the fastest in the industry,” says Mac McMacken, plant manager. McMacken speaks from firsthand knowledge: His resume includes operations management stints at two other cabinetry giants, Elkay Wood Products and MasterBrand Cabinets, with expertise in lean manufacturing, Kaizen, Theory of Constraints, and manufacturing turnaround.

Cisowski, who came on board in April 2013 as COO, brought on McMacken as part of the strategic turnaround, along with another key player, Sourcing Director Kreig Rugh, whose resume includes VP supply chain at Masco Cabinetry and operations director for 3PD logistics. Rugh’s background comes in handy: Between 16 and 20 semi trailers depart the plant daily. Rugh also oversees massive volumes of incoming material, from plywood to hardware, to 100 drums of coating stored in a central Graco pump room.

“We were sourcing finished frames and doors overseas. Now we’re bringing that work back to the U.S.,” Rugh says. “We also went through plywood sourcing changes; now we have a good mix of Asian and domestic.”

Insourcing “shortens the supply chain, so you don’t have to hold inventory,” Rugh adds. “And you can react to market changes.”

A neighboring Conestoga Wood Specialties plant delivers doors kitted for the cabinet projects.

Spun from Armstrong Industries in a 2012 acquisition by investment group American Industrial Partners (AIP), acpi has transformed its factory operations, in response to the changes in the market also faced by all its competitors.

For acpi, this means refashioning manufacturing from mass production to individualized orders tailored to its two major markets: multi-unit residential construction and single-family home builders.

While Armstrong Cabinets could generate 4,000 cabinets daily in a campus of plants totalling 300,000 square feet, acpi has condensed its operations, while growing capacity to 6,000 face frame cabinets. A recent peak day delivered 5,500 cabinets.

“We gutted, restructured, and rebuilt, and we have become very nimble,” says Cisowski. “AIP enabled us with a $7 million investment in Information Technology, and in equipment that is state of the art.” acpi also made a significant investment in finding out what the market wanted. This set the tone for everything that followed.

A movement from mass produced cabinets to “a kitchen at a time” required a rethink of the manufacturing approach. Doweled frames that had been sourced in Asia were insourced to the plant, converted to pocket screw joints following a $350,000 investment in Castle Machinery pocket machine lines.

Another change driven by market research: a significant trend to painted cabinets, and away from wood stains. As a result, a separate finishing line was established just for painted cabinets. “We now have the largest capacity for paint — about 25 percent of our line can be painted,” says McMacken.

In a rethink of white wood coating, acpi combats variances in sealer receptivity by heating doors in infrared ovens to a uniform 90 degrees. Hand sanding between coats was eliminated, with automated orbital sanders incorporated for between-coat roughing.

Production Centered

High up near the ceiling, above a giant American flag and the ductwork for the compressed air and the dust collection system, is a big digital display registering a four-figure number. Data from all aspects of the operation are fed into the system, then get translated into real time schedule boards, including work in progress and expected delivery status reports.

Production personnel track both that big daily production volume on one screen; and on another set of screens at ground level, see that figure translated — also in real time — into an hourly bonus that can hit $1.50 an hour, depending on how fast they work, and how well.

At a noontime walk-through one Tuesday that number was hovering at 2,500, the number of kitchen cabinets that had been produced so far that day. The figure suggests the plant was headed toward a much larger number, perhaps exceeding 5,000 for the day, and nearing a record recently set.

American flags fly in the plant. And the acpi team is proud their plant is thriving. But insourcing cabinet frame production from Asia was a pure dollars and sense decision, says Cisowski.

Previously, when an old bore and dowel machine couldn’t keep pace producing cabinet frames, “instead of buying technology, they invested in a foreign supply chain,” Cisowski says. A $1.7 million investment of hardwood cabinet frames was bought in Asia.

After review, the decision was made to insource frame production, and three Castle pocket screw machines were added, a $350,000 investment. While the earlier bore and dowel frame production output 2,000 frames with 35 employees, the pocket screw lines allow 17 people to produce 3,000 frames a day.

Marketing Research

acpi’s market is split 80-20 between multi-unit residential and single-family home builders and remodelers. Following research, the company simplified its lineup, “de-SKU-ing,” by reducing its brands to just two — Echelon Cabinetry and Advanta Cabinets — while cutting offerings that were rarely ordered. This opened capacity.

Echelon Trevino(View finished projects from acpi Cabinets' Echelon and Advanta brands.)

Research found that there was a shortage of firms that could supply the high-volume multi-unit residential cabinet delivery consistently and on time, the market for Advanta Cabinets. Meanwhile builders and remodelers of single family homes - the market for Echelon - had trouble finding cabinet suppliers.

“There have been over the last 6 to 12 months an acute shortage in certain markets — most specifically in the single-family builder side where companies have either exited a geographic part of the country, or quit altogether,” says Steve Stephens, VP of marketing.

“Lots of companies, ourselves included, used to have multiple manufacturing facilities all over the country. For us it was a much quicker, much better solution to maximize the Thompsontown, PA, facility. Now we have 40 percent more capacity without having to build a new factory. That’s the exciting part,” he adds.

Visualizing the Order

Stephens says the research also revealed insights into end user experiences. “About 44 percent of the people felt like they had actually picked a finish that was too dark,” he says. “And then we found simultaneously that 42 percent felt they would have made different decisions, that it was too light. We thought we have to do something better to help.”

So acpi developed the Echelon Cabinetry Visualizer, a digital design tool available via the builder’s web site, which lets home buyers and remodelers see their cabinetry options including style, wood, color and even accessories through a digital rendition of a kitchen setting chosen to match their layout. “We also found 73 percent of the people said they wished they’d ordered more accessories,” Stephens says. “ And accessories has a big impact on a manufacturing facility.”

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.