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Techline pushes the limits of RTA furniture.

Whether it was prefab housing in the '50s or a new fine of veneered, radius-edged RTA office furniture in the '90s, this Wisconsin-based company continues to pioneer trends in furniture and building construction.

In business, there are almost as many ways of being successful as there are of failing. One of the most critical factors to success is figuring out what the consumer wants - even if they do not know it yet - and delivering it to them.

For nearly 50 years, Marshall Erdman & Associates, a Madison, WI-based architectural design/build firm with a large RTA furniture division, has attempted to identify trends, find or develop market niches, and then design products to sell to these markets. Founded in 1948 by Marshall Erdman, a pioneer in the housing and woodworking industries and a former protege of Frank Lloyd Wright, the company began manufacturing affordable, prefabricated housing (including production of Wright-designed prefab homes) and medical offices and schools during the post-World War II economic boom. Construction of medical buildings is now the major part of the company's business, contributing $200 million in sales this year. In the 1960s, Erdman, who led the company until his death two years ago, successfully integrated 32mm cabinet construction into its production methods - 20-years before much of the rest of the industry in this country began to utilize this system. In 1967, the company purchased new high-tech equipment from Europe to automate its case goods line and continue the company's practice of standardizing components, a practice that had started with its pre-fab housing and continues to this day. In the 1970s, the company formed an RTA furniture line, Techline, and, recognizing a broader market for its furniture, formed a separate distribution network, Techline Studios, to sell it. Today there are some 65 Techline Studios around the country, as well as a network of 200 retailers, selling Techline furniture. In 1982, Techline was taken to the High Point, NC, furniture market which raised its visibility and its sales. While the lion's share of the business remains its building design and construction, Erdman's RTA its furniture sales have grown steadily, last year topping $30 million.

Now, the company believes it has identified a new furniture trend that it hopes will help grow its furniture sales even further. In February of this year, the Techline division added a more aesthetically-pleasing product to its SOHO (Small Office/Home Office) line of RTA furniture. Atelier, which in French means a studio or workshop, is an office furniture line that is distinguished by radiused parts and finished veneers.

"I think the trend is toward cleaner looking pieces with softer and warmer looks and unusual shapes and configurations," said Dan Erdman, son of company founder Marshall Erdman, and national sales manager for the retail side of the company's Techline division. "Historically our products have had square edges. Some would say it had an austere look, but today the world wants rounded and softer comers and veneers. We think we have developed a product to satisfy them."

STANDARDIZING A NONSTANDARD PRODUCT

Even from its beginnings, the company believed in standardizing its furniture products. The company has always used through-feed machines and its flat-pack products' assembly is based on the 32mm system. "Standardization and mass production are two of our most important ideas," Erdman explained. "All of our components are interchangeable from one product to the next."

These things do not, at least not on the "surface," fit the mold of Techline's newest workplace product: Atelier. Featuring a clear finish, exposed MDF edge, and a cherry veneer top, these pieces "surround the user with curved work surfaces and smoothly rounded edges," as the Atelier line is described in company literature. This is far afield from the laminated, rectangular furniture for which the company has been known for more than two decades.

"We were concerned with introducing the exposed MDF edge, both from a manufacturing standpoint and how it would be received by the end users," Erdman said. "But it has been a non-issue among our customers. It has been well received and I think that it is because we do not try to hide the exposed edge. We use it as a design detail."

It appears to be working. The Atelier line, which carries a higher price tag then other Techline products, was targeted to produce $1 million in sales in the first year. After being named a Best of Market at the 1997 International Home Furnishing Market in High Point this spring and a nominee in the Best of NeoCon competition during the 1997 NeoCon office furnishings exhibition, sales are on track to reach that million dollar goal. Currently 60 dealers have signed on to carry the product.

While initially struggling with color inconsistency of the MDF, the former laminate-only company came to realize that as veneers differ in color, so too will MDF. "Its different than with laminate," Erdman said. "With laminate if you have a color today, it will be the same color 10 years from now." After experimenting with the machinability and how different brands of MDF took a stain, the company chose to use a 45-pound MDF product from Plum Creek.

Beyond the color consistency challenge, the company faced another manufacturing challenge, one could have put a strain on the standardization concept. With its rectangular pieces, the MDF panels are cut to size on a Schelling panel saw, conveyed through a Homag sizing and edgebanding line and then drilled on a Weeke multi-spindle feed through boring machine. Making these standard parts has been as simple as one, two, three. But, how do you produce a piece of furniture with unusual shapes, without causing production bottlenecks? "You can't get the high production on these products like you can on a rectangular piece," said Jim Schaff, plant manager. "Because you need to do them one panel at a tune."

To help alleviate this problem, company designers created a product that could be built with at least some standardized parts. As much as 70 percent of the Atelier product is made on high-production equipment, "which helps us to hold costs down and still produce a stylish piece of furniture," Schaff said.

THE OTHER 30 PERCENT

Machining the remaining 30 percent of the parts required was the challenge, however.

Just as in 1967, when the company bought its first state-of-the-art equipment - consisting of a panel saw, edgebander and a 32mm/ drill - the company has again turned to technology to respond to its productivity problem. In the production area that has meant computer-controlled, flexible equipment.

After researching available CNC equipment, the company determined that the Homag BAZ machining center available in the U.S. from Stiles Machinery was the answer for making shaped tops. The machine, "does any shape you want," Erdman said. Its capabilities include routing, boring, grooving and edgebanding. The BAZ, features an automatic tool changer of which the company uses anywhere from eight to 12 carbide and diamond tools.

While this has helped increase production, the company felt it needed to increase production even further. It is in the process of purchasing a Weeke BP155 overhead machining center that is similar to the BAZ in function, but without the edgebanding capability.

THROUGH-FEED FINISHING

A second production challenge is the veneer top which helps give the Atelier collection its distinctive look. As with the production area, the company needed to find a way to finish the veneered workpieces in a high-production environment. Prior to the introduction of Atelier, the company had begun to finish doors and drawer fronts with hand-held spray guns to give its customers additional choices. While the results were acceptable, the method was not high production enough. Soon the company was spraying two shifts a day and still falling behind. Three years ago, the company purchased a $1 million, 140-foot conveyorized, Cella Ecosprayer UV finishing system from Stiles Machinery. With the new system in place, designers started looking for ways to utilize it to its fullest. "We bought the technology and then developed the products and uses for the machine," Erdman said. "My dad had a penchant for buying machines before we really needed them."

The 4-foot by 8-foot veneered panels, laminated using a Black Bros. glue spreader and a Friz veneer press, are conveyed through various stages of the line at approximately 23 feet per minute, taking 6 minutes to go through the entire finishing system.

The finishing process begins with the unfinished, veneered work-pieces being automatically conveyed through a Heesemann FGA8 widebelt sander using 320-grit sand paper, which prepares the piece to accept the finish. After being conveyed through a blower system to remove dust not evacuated by the widebelt sanders' dust control unit, the panel is then transported into the Cefla automatic spray booth. Here, two spray guns, which are completely enclosed, travel back and forth over the workpiece, applying a stain, and, on a second pass, a topcoat. The UV-cured finishing materials are supplied by Crown Metro Inc. The spray guns turn on only when a sensor detects the panel passing beneath it. This results in a high-transfer efficiency and, along with the systems' lacquer recovery and recycling capabilities, has allowed the company to meet Wisconsin's strict finishing regulations.

After passing through a set-up oven, the workpiece enters the UV-curing oven. A row of UV lamps, which progressively produce greater heat along the row, cure the finish and dry it completely. By adjusting the lamp's heat cycle, the company can alter the look of its finish.

Since purchasing the finishing system, the line has become an integral part of the company's operation. "When we first purchased it, we were doing a couple of shifts a week doing fronts," Schaff said. "Now we are using it two shifts a day."

MEETING FUTURE DEMANDS

Anticipating that sales of its Atelier line will continue to grow, the company is already looking toward future production requirements. With its finishing line already running two shifts, finishing productivity is an area that will most likely need to be addressed in the future. In the machining department, the addition of a second versatile machining center, the Weeke, should help to eliminate potential production bottlenecks. However, if sales of the Atelier product grows, the production department may be hard pressed to keep up with the through-feed machine pumping out standard, rectangular components at a much faster rate than can be accomplished one panel at a time. This may also need to be addressed in the future.

"Just by looking at our trends you can determine this is the case," Schaff said. "People want 'warm and fuzzy,' which are veneers that need to be finished, and rounded comers which is what we are gearing up to do."

RELATED ARTICLE: Doing Things Just a Little Differently

"We are a different type of furniture company," said Dan Erdman, national sales manager for the retail division of Techline. The biggest difference, of course, is that the company has revenues from a variety of income sources outside of furniture. The biggest cash flow is in the design and building of medical buildings. The company furnishes these buildings with the case goods and free-standing furniture that it constructs in-house. It even supplies artwork for interiors of its buildings.

One of the interesting and "different" areas of the company is in its laminating department. For two decades, Marshall Erdman & Associate's Techline division has been known for its laminated case goods. While many companies manufacture laminated products, the thing that sets apart this vertically integrated firm is that it produces its own rolls of low-pressure melamine-impregnated papers on equipment purchased more than a decade ago.

About every three weeks, approximately 40,000 pounds of melamine resin are trucked the company's headquarters and manufacturing facilities in Waunakee, WI, just outside of Madison. A single ply of paper - 80-pound stock for white melamine and 65-pound stock for colored melamine - is impregnated by a Babcock BSH melamine impregnating machine by feeding it off a roll and through a bath made of a mixture of resins and hardeners. Once impregnated with the melamine resin, the paper travels suspended through a dryer system built into the Babcock system and is then respooled.

The melamine paper is then fed into a Wemhoner continuous fast-cycle laminating press where it is "stamped" on 45-pound, 5-by 12-foot particleboard. The panels are then ready for machining, flat-pack packaging and delivery.

The company began producing its own melamine panels because it wanted greater control over the final product. As company founder Marshall Erdman explained in 1986 interview with Wood & Wood Products, "I am very fussy about upholding our reputation for precision. I felt that we could not depend upon the quality or color consistency of the melamine panels we bought from our suppliers. I thought white was white until panels began coming to us in 15 different shades."
COPYRIGHT 1997 Vance Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related article on changes in Techline; ready-to-assemble furniture
Author:Adams, Larry
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Sep 1, 1997
Words:2134
Previous Article:Getting a jump on the factory of the future.
Next Article:Improve edge bonds using less glue.
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