Wood Manufacturers Give Equipment Suppliers an Earful
August 15, 2011 | 11:43 pm CDT
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Wood Manufacturers Give Equipment Suppliers an EarfulWow! What a WIC (Woodworking Industry Conference) that was.

Even though the sun shined brightly most of the time on Marco Island, FL, I once again managed to escape gaining any semblance of a tan. There was far too much going on indoors for that.

Believe me, leaving Florida as pale as I had arrived from Chicago cast me in a better position to serve up a few observations I made during my stay. Ranking among the top of the four days of highlights were a trio of wood manufacturing forums focusing on cabinets, millwork and furniture. Yours truly moderated the latter, which like the previous two programs provided unique insight into the status, hopes and wants of the executives that participated on the panels.

Because the bulk of the audience was made up of woodworking machinery representatives, plus a healthy dose of suppliers, the forums to a good extent focused on what forms of support, service and partnership wood products companies want from their vendors.

Here are some of the more telling desires that I jotted down:

* Mass production has given away to mass customization, meaning wood product manufacturers require machinery more flexible machinery that is capable of faster setup to help end-users cost-efficiently deal with lot sizes of one. As one cabinet manufacturer put it, having double-end equipment to churn out lots of product doesn't meet current instead of one-kitchen-at-a-time requirements.

* Mass customization for companies that need to support large volumes of small custom runs creates problems to track parts and orders.

* Flexible equipment and software is also key for achieving faster lead times of smaller runs.

* Flexible machining also entails faster tool set up and, depending on the process, better material handling.

* One of the best examples of the above came from a wood component manufacturer who noted the increased importance to know what raw materials are in inventory at any time, such as a high-end piece of walnut to produce one part.

* Flexible equipment is also highly valued by wood product manufacturers needing to shift markets. Several examples were cited by forum participants who either had to shift business from a handful of clients to multiple or from residential to commercial.  

* It's a heckuva lot harder to optimize materials in a mass customization manufacturing environment.  

* Wood product manufacturers would mostly prefer to buy new equipment but some have found prices of used equipment too appetizing to ignore.

* The crash-and-burn economy has forced most of the forum participants to reduce workforce and given them need to cross-train their most versatile employees to handle multiple operations while assigning skilled specialists to program and operate the most key or complex equipment.

* In some cases, down-sizing on the machinery vendor side has dampened customer relations.

* The majority of panelists will except requests for appointments from machinery vendors and in the cases of newbies, give them a guided tour of their plant. One stipulation: Don't bother calling if you don't have an idea or two, such as info on a new machine or process, that might provide a competitive edge.

* NAUF (no added urea formaldehyde) is in greater demand right now than FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified woods right now. This reflects the current greater need to meet California Air Resource Board requirements than consumer wood certification wants.

* The depreciation bonus is "the icing on the cake" for purchasing a new piece of woodworking equipment, but a wood products manufacturer must have a need for the equipment to justify buying it in the first place. 

* Skilled woodworkers remain in demand, especially now that business is trending upwards, even if slowly. Some panelists find it surprising that it is difficult to find qualified candidates considering the great number of woodworkers that have been laid off in their areas.
* The woodworking industry now more than ever lacks engineers; most wood product companies count on their machinery vendors to assist with training.

* Price of a new woodworking machine is important, but so it knowing what the cost of replacement parts are.

* A combination of most of the above bullet points are what our industry needs to bring home manufacturing from China and elsewhere.

Read more of Rich Christianson's blogs.

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