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Irwin Seating earns top billing.

Grand Rapids-based Irwin Seating is in the front row of the auditorium and theater seating industry. Take a seat and find out why.

If you wanted to play musical chairs on a worldwide, whirlwind tour you could dash from Carnegie Hall in New York City to the new Comiskey Park in Chicago, to Mile High Stadium in Denver and then on to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in Beverly Hills. From there you might skip over the Pacific ocean to Festival Hall, Osaka, Japan; to Pacific Cinemas in Canberra, Australia; then zip down to theaters too numerous to name in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Iceland, the islands of the Caribbean and Venezuela. You would have had your choice of thousands of seats with one thing in common. Irwin Seating Co., an industry leader, manufactured each and every one.

Founded in 1907 by the Irwin brothers, Robert, Eber and Earle, the Grand Rapids company's sole business is manufacturing public seating. With subsidiaries in Canada and Illinois, Irwin claims to have more than 70 percent of the market for major public seating projects.

Exports to 31 foreign countries account for about 10 percent of sales and the international market is increasing at full tilt. Auditorium seating represents 85 percent of the company's annual sales and school furniture the remaining 15 percent.

Irwin Seating has remained a family-owned corporation. Earle's grandson, Earle ("Win") Irwin II, has been president since 1984, leading the company through a period of phenomenal growth - from $16 million in 1985 to $50 million in 1991.

Custom seating for the masses

Factors in this success include the establishment in 1984 of Irwin Telescopic Platform Co. which manufactures removable bleacher seating (now part of its Folding Bleacher Co. division), the purchase in 1986 of American Seating Co.'s line of classroom furniture, and the introduction in 1988 of the ergonomic Marquee chair, the company's first new line of upholstered auditorium seating in 20 years.

Another clue to the company's growth is the fact that it can mass produce a custom chair - something many firms will not tackle. "Whatever the customer wants, we provide," said Jeff Klooster, supervisor of the wood manufacturing department. Custom orders are generally for 1,000 to 2,000 units, Klooster said. "We're not going to make them one at a time."

Although Irwin will produce orders as large as the 60,000 stadium seats it manufactured for B.C. Place Stadium, Vancouver, its forte is a Project like Carnegie Hall's 2,800 reproduction mahogany chairs in special colors. In all, Irwin produces about 250,000 seats annually.

Shipped as components

The production of auditorium seating must first take into account the interior dimensions of the building in which it will be located. Seating is installed by rows, usually on a radius that follows the building's dimensions.

Each auditorium or theater chair has a narrow center arm, and the aisle seat has an end standard with a larger arm. Backs, seats, armrests, end standards and center standards are shipped as components and assembled on site. The floor is drilled and standards are installed first, then the seats and backs are put in place. Riser mounts, where chairs are mounted to the face of a step, have their own set of problems for the installer.

Irwin's best-seller, the Marquee theater chair, has a padded upholstered 36-inch high back, 18- to 26-degree back angle range, and a seat with 15-degree angle, softer padding and a waterfall front contour. Extension seat-lifting springs are used for precision alignment and quiet fold-up operation. An alternate seat features gravity lift-up. The hinge assembly is completely enclosed and operates on self-lubricating bushings.

Wood is a common factor in all auditorium seating, although it is not always visible. Upholstered backs and seat panels have wood cores, armrests are solid wood and decorative panels on seat backs and end standards also may be wood and face veneers - usually maple.

Cutting the scrap factor

Wood fabrication takes place in a 50,000-square-foot shop self-contained within Irwin Seating's 500,000-square-foot manufacturing and warehousing facility. Other major departments are steel fabrication, metal assembly, metal finishing and upholstery.

Most of the chair backs are gum veneer core from South Carolina in standard five or seven plies for 7/8-inch or 7/16-inch thicknesses. After adhesive is applied, the panels are loaded into three high-frequency laminating machines that operate on the same principle as a microwave. One hundred pounds of pressure per square inch is applied while radio frequency waves heat the glue to 180-degrees in two-minute cycles.

Until a few years ago, the company used urea formaldehyde glue, but with inconsistent results, Klooster said. "The temperature had to be so high that steam was created and that blew the-panels apart. We were having a scrap factor of 15 to 20 percent, which is just not acceptable. When you blow apart a decorative outer panel that is laminate and face veneer, you've blown a lot of money," he added.

In January 1991 Irwin began using Multibond 2000, a one-part PVA adhesive from Franklin International. Using the quickercuring glue reduces the radio frequency cycle by 30 percent. The lower temperature of the heated panels has cut the scrap factor to 3 percent, Klooster said.

'No waste with one-part glue'

Pre-catalyzed adhesive is more costly per pound, but the process is cheaper and more effective, Klooster said. "We had to mix the old urea formaldehyde glue in barrels. Multibond 2000 is shipped in bulk and ready to use. We get 5,000 gallons in three tanks and, during our busiest periods, we go through that in two weeks. It is pumped directly from tanks to glue rollers so there's no waste."

The adhesive has excellent stability and a minimum six months shelf life. Thus, Irwin was able to get a higher viscosity product without having it thicken at the bottom of the storage tanks. High viscosity reduces squeeze-out during the RF pressing process, greatly limiting the potential for arcing.


From the glue-up department, the laminated panels go to veneer machining where they are cut five at a time. Curved panels are shaped on specially-made blocks in an Onsrud profile shaper. "For some one-time jobs, we don't want the expense of making shaper blocks, so our bandsaw operator - who is as good as they get - cuts the special shapes on the Tannewitz," Klooster said. Sanding, drilling and any additional shaping are completed here.

Armrests, usually made from 8/4 hard maple, are machined in a separate area, where about 2,000 of them are completed during a typical eight-hour shift. Irwin has more than 300 variations in armrest designs and will supply koa, teak, rosewood or other species at the customer's request. An Alexander Dodd dovetail machine makes slots in the back for locking armrests to the standards.

Color matching

Irwin's standard finish is a 35-sheen stain that may be either dipped or sprayed. Sealer is applied, then sanded and the part receives two coats of pre-catalyzed lacquer. After air drying for four hours, the pad is ready for packing.

Special parts, such as book racks with Communion cup holders on the backs of church pews, require a two-part catalytic lacquer for water resistance. It is harder, glossier (90 sheen) and requires a minimum of 12 hours drying time.

In order to shorten lead times and become more flexible, Irwin recently installed a lab for mixing custom colors to match customer's color chips. "We were lucky to find that one of our production people had a good eye f or color," Klooster said. "Color matching is a lot harder than it sounds."

Having the lab in-house has pared the color approval process down to about 10 days. The old way - sending sample chips out to a lab and back to the customer for approval - sometimes took 30 days. Irwin will mix custom colors in quantities up to 10 gallons, but for larger quantities, the new formula is mixed by the supplier, Sadolin Chemcraft.

Self-contained, self-directed

"What we try to do here is to be totally self-contained," Klooster continued. "We do wood well, so we start with raw materials. We sharpen our own tools. By controlling our own processes, we can get exactly what we want.

"We are working towards all self-directed work teams. We want the people on the floor to have all the information a supervisor would have and to be able to be in control. That includes administrative duties, scheduling work and ordering materials. The supervisor then becomes more of a coach or counselor."

This idea evolved from Irwin's Quality Circle Program called CAPS (Caring about Problem Solving), Klooster explained. Twenty different quality circles meet weekly to discuss problems in their departments and find solutions.

"When you have the kind of growth we've just experienced, you have to have that kind of program so people know they are really involved," Klooster continued. "You have to be honest with them. Irwin's president is quite advanced. He isn't afraid to tell people on the floor everything they need to know, and I mean everything. Nothing is a closed topic here," Klooster added.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Vance Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:public seating industry leader Irwin Seating Co.
Author:Garet, Barbara
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Article Type:Company Profile
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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