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Laminating turns component manufacturer into an industry fixture.

Whether it's manufacturing for the kitchen, office or retail stores, Northway Industries has met the challenge of adapting its components to meet changing markets.

Northway Industries is no stranger to change. Not only did its marketing focus change in 1978 from cabinet components to office furniture, but when faced with a stagnant office furniture industry, Northway branched into a new niche, the store fixture industry.

Today, the store fixture and office furniture industries comprise 66 percent of Northway's sales. But not one to remain stagnant, Northway is already exploring other growth options, namely in the RTA (outsourcing) market or point-of-purchase display industry.

And with changes in marketing, so came plant growth. This 29-year-old Middleburg, Pa.-based laminated components company has grown more than 65 percent since its inception, from a seven-man, 4,000-square-foot shop to its current size of 82 employees with 60,000 square feet of manufacturing space. Northway plans an additional expansion of 23,000 square feet later this year. Anticipated sales for 1995 are more than $10 million.

Door opens to mass markets

Incorporated in 1968, Northway specialized in manufacturing high-pressure laminated countertops and doors and drawers, primarily for Kraemer, Pa.-based Wood-Mode Inc. But by 1978, Northway found a more lucrative outlet for its laminated components - the office furniture industry.

"We just kind of fell into (the office furniture market)," said Albert Thilo, vice president and general manager. "We were making desk tops for an office furniture company when we realized that there were many more companies needing the same type of components. We just chased after the business," Thilo added. Today, the office furniture industry comprises 30 percent of Northway's business.

But despite the fact that Northway's office furniture customer base continued on a steady path, the recession made it difficult to gain growth in that field. The company moved into a new market, the store fixture industry, which is now its largest revenue generator.

"The store fixture industry shows the greatest growth for us, insofar as new customers," Thilo said, adding, "We got into store fixtures by attending the 1990 International Woodworking Machinery and Furniture Supply Fair in Atlanta. We came out of there with a huge order from a store fixture company. We had never targeted that market before. But it's a big industry, and still growing. Retail stores are always remodeling and refixturing."

The store fixture industry comprises 36 percent of Northway's work, which comes from store fixture manufacturers nationwide.

The remainder of Northway's business is divided between (in order of size) institutional and residential furniture, kitchen and bath cabinetry, and recreational furniture, including shuffleboard bases and playground equipment. Future growth may come from RTA furniture manufacturers looking to outsource laminated component parts, as well as point-of-purchase displays, Thilo said.

"We only do components. Approximately 85 percent of our business is in high-pressure laminates and 15 percent is melamine," Thilo said.

Not JIT, but PDQ

Although Northway does not follow the Just-In-Time theory of manufacturing, it can accommodate most customer requests for quick turnaround, said Betty Pisano, director of sales. The average turnaround time for laminated components is four to five weeks. According to Pisano, it is hard to define a "typical" order because of variances as to quantity, component size, type and color of laminate, and whether or not value-added machining processes, including routing, shaping, tenoning, boring or edgebanding, are required.

Orders also vary as to the type of composite board specified. Northway stock-piles an inventory of raw material including particleboard, MDF and hardboard. On average, the company has available 30 truckloads of particleboard in various sizes and thicknesses. Along with particleboard, the company also stocks various sizes of MDF and hardboard. All raw materials are unloaded inside the facility to reduce dirt and damage to product. To maintain the structural balance of the boards, the plant is humidity controlled. If humidification drops below the set figure, a misting system will be activated to raise the humidity. Boards are metered at 6.5 to 7 percent moisture content. To avoid any shortages in availability, board is purchased from a variety of sources, including Masonite, Georgia-Pacific, Union Camp and Allegheny Particleboard Co.

Typically, laminates are purchased by Northway once the job order is received. "Everything is basically done on a per order basis. No order is really the same," said Thilo. And because Northway manufactures to customer specifications, which often include matching the laminate style or color to a previously made piece, the company has found it necessary to widen its laminate sources. Laminates are purchased from a variety of manufacturers, including Ralph Wilson Plastics, Formica, Westinghouse, Nevamar and Pioneer.

But even though Northway matches customer specifications with regards to any laminate color, it does not consider itself a "custom" manufacturer, said Pisano. "We do high-production runs. We don't do the 'onesy and twosy' types of jobs."

Added Thilo, "When you start doing the 'onesy and twosy' jobs, and cut one panel at a time on the big Giben panel saw, it's a very inefficient process. We try to design our business for volume."

Laminating - job #1

Northway has come a long way since its first screw-down laminating press. According to Thilo, the next laminating machine was a six-platen air bag press "with a fixed opening so it was very inefficient."

Efficiency came, Thilo said, three years ago when Northway purchased a Black Bros. cold press. "We just have the one press but it is a zoned 5-foot-by-12-foot press with an adjustable daylight opening. It has one platen, but can adjust the zone pressure for whatever size piece we're pressing," Thilo said.

Laminating is a two-man job at Northway. On all orders, panels are first run through a Black Bros. panel cleaner to remove any particles which would affect the laminating process. A conveyor takes the panels directly to the Black Bros. glue spreader, where PVA glue, typically either National Starch or Swift Adhesives brand, is applied.

As panels exit the glue spreader, two workers manually lay the laminate onto the panel. A button is then pushed to automatically feed the next panel through the glue spreader. Most panels are laminated on both sides, with a second sheet of laminate or backer placed on the back side of the panel. Occasionally, Thilo said, a request will come through to just laminate one side of the panel, leaving the back bare.

Laminated boards are laid one atop the other until ready for pressing. Boards are placed in the Black Bros. adjustable daylight opening cold press for approximately 30 minutes, then allowed to cure overnight, Thilo explained. The press can accommodate 55 3/4-inch panels at a time, for example. And because the press is adjustable, Northway has the capability to laminate any size board, or stack size, whatsoever, he added.

Adding value to the product

There is more to Northway than just laminating straight boards, Thilo said. "We will do anything from simply laminating a panel to making the finished part - anything the customer wants," Thilo claimed.

"Anything" includes: panel sizing, tenoning, dadoing, boring, routing, edgebanding, T-moulding, and packaging.

In order to provide these value-added services, Northway recently invested in new equipment, including two Heian CNC routers, a Heian point-to-point boring machine, and a Torwegge double-end tenoner. More capital expenditures will be spent this year on additional equipment, including a second Heian NCB machining center, a second panel saw and another double-sided edgebander.

Panel sizing is currently a one saw operation. Northway uses a Giben Model 17 angular cutting system which can ripcut and crosscut at the same time. "When we started the company, we did all our cutting on a table saw. The Giben is totally programmable, so we save time and money," Thilo said.

Machining is also performed on a Torwegge double-end tenoner. According to Thilo, there is a demand in the store fixture industry for panels which have dado slots and rabbeting.

There has also been a steady demand for T-moulding by the fixture industry. To fill this need, Northway utilizes two Topmaster T-moulding systems.

Edgebanding is also a two machine job. Single sides are banded on a Homag single-sided edgebander. However, Thilo said, he is seeing an increased demand for two-sided banding. So, in addition to the double-sided Manea edgebander already in use, Northway plans to purchase another double-sided edgebander this year, with 3 mil PVC capability.

The most requested service aside from laminating and panel sizing, performed by Northway, is routing. According to Thilo, the routers are the only machines which physically run 24 hours a day.

Northway utilizes three Heian CNC routers, one Model NC 432P with a 4-foot by 10-foot split table and two with 5-foot by 10-foot split tables.

Also in demand is the Heian NCB multifunction machine which has routing and boring capabilities. The machine has 11 bits on the X axis, 11 bits on the Y axis, horizontal drilling capability, plus a router bit with an eight-position tool changer and a programmable saw blade. Everything from tabletops to speaker boxes can be machined on the routers. Due to production demand, a second NCB is scheduled for installation in March.

Expanding its size and markets

Over the years, Northway has grown 15 times its original 4,000-square-foot building. Four years after its inception, the company expanded, adding 5,000 square feet to its manufacturing space. Eight years later, with its move into the office furniture field, another 6,000 square feet was added. Today, the company has grown to its present size of 60,000 square feet, with an additional 23,000-square-foot expansion planned for this year. Business has also allowed the company to effectively work three shifts, 24 hours a day.

"We've had a nice growth pattern, with the biggest influx of new customers from the store fixture industry. And while we haven't been adding as many new office furniture customers, those that we have are growing in sales," Thilo said.

And with all things considered, including plant and equipment expansions, Northway is predicting 20 percent growth for 1995, Thilo said.

Sales of its product are facilitated through six independent sales representatives. Because of freight costs, most of the sales concentration is in the Northeast. With regards to regional sales, Northway sees most of its future growth coming from the Midwest and South. According to Pisano, this is because there is a large concentration of store fixture manufacturers in the mid-section of the country.
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Title Annotation:Northway Industries
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Feb 1, 1995
Previous Article:BIFMA director looks ahead, likes what he sees.
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