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Tell City increases value, draws a line on costs.

Doug Fenn, president of this Indiana-based furniture company, views IWF as a cost-effective means of keeping tabs with new technology.

Strategic planning, which included investment in new high-tech equipment carefully inspected at IWF '90, is paying dividends for Tell City Chair Co.

When other companies were pulling in their horns, biding their time until the economy showed marked improvement, the Tell City, Ind.-based company was investing in new equipment and processes; introducing Tidewater Cherry, a comprehensive new line of 18th-century style furniture; and aggressively going after new markets. While some firms were cutting back on design and increasing prices, Tell City not only added high-end design details and other labor intensive processes but managed to maintain medium-range prices.

"Even in the most difficult economic times, opportunities do exist," said Doug Fenn, Tell City president. "We've found a number of opportunities for immediate and long-term rewards." Fenn said Tell City's strategy includes:

* Bringing about greater efficiencies in manufacturing (including improved quality) through machinery investment.

* Increasing market share.

* Reducing retail cost of the product.

CNC equipment refines the process

The purchase last year of three new Balestrini machines - a CNC double-end tenoner, a six-head profiler and a mortiser - that work in tandem, enabled Tell City to boost production by "bringing the process together rather than moving people and materials around the plant," Fenn said. He added that the investment in the three machines, which were inspected by Tell City personnel at IWF'90 in Atlanta, probably represents the most significant change in production his company has made in its 127-year history.

The Balestrini mortiser and the tenoner produce the mortise and tenon joints on chair seat rails and back posts. The tenoner can produce 2,000 pieces an hour. Computer controls have reduced the set up from as much as an hour and 15 minutes to 52 seconds, according to Ronnie Harper, Tell City's director of manufacturing.

The six-head profiler contour shapes and sands chair back posts after they have been steam bent. The first two heads rough cut, the second finish cut and the last two heads do the sanding.

One person floats while operating the Balestrini equipment, freeing up at least six people, Harper said. The new system allows for a lot of flexibility and many of Tell City's 450 employees are cross-trained to do different jobs, depending upon what product is being manufactured.

Fenn said Tell City also purchased a Giben panel saw last year which was intended to "free us from our suppliers' cut-to-size products. They complained that lot sizes in the residential market are not large enough to be efficient and started to tack on add-on charges. We now cut all our back panels and dustproofing," Fenn added.

'Turning on the heat'

"We have to produce value in our product," Fenn said. "In a category that is as Well-defined and permanent as 18th century cherry, most of our competition has been in business 30 years before we entered this market. They are very mature, very experienced and very accepted.

"So we have to do things to differentiate ourselves from our competitors on a variety of levels," Fenn continued. "We did that essentially by adding new technology, using it to get productivity improvernents, then taking the savings we gained from that process and putting it back into hand work.

"Most guys would take the savings and put it into their own pockets," Fenn said. "We said, No, let's turn the heat up. Let's take the money we've realized from our investment and put it back into craftsmanship details."'

Expensive features added by Tell City include hand carving and single board door fronts, which are rare. Glue lines don't exist. Fenn said everyone else glues up little pieces in a panel then cuts them out, which of course makes for glue joints.

The back posts and splats on all Tidewater Cherry chairs are also one piece and steam bent, something no other manufacturer has done. "Steam bending has always been a colonial application," Fenn said. "It has never been done in 18th century styling. I mean that - never. No one else has ever adapted it to that style.

"Finishing cherry is very demanding," Fenn said. "We've added another spray booth and another oven and extended our finish conveyor. Again, we put more people into the finishing system because this finish requires more hand work - closer inspection, more rubbing, more sanding, more TLC."

Increased quality

Greater efficiencies in the manufacturing process (lowered costs, reduced waste, improved production time, increased quality) which the new equipment helps to provide, open up new marketing opportunities, Fenn said.

As customers become more aware of perceived value, the company looks for new ways to put freed-up money back into its product. Tell City has returned to the use of plywood back panels and plywood dustproofing, and they are nailed, not stapled. "We are bringing in plywood in containers now, and that also is cost effective," Fenn said.



The manufacturing process begins long before a cutting tool screeches through a piece of wood at Tell City. Doug Fenn, president, and a member of International Woodworking Machinery & Furniture Supply Fair Board of Directors, tells how he uses the fair to meet his needs as a manufacturer.

Once the firm identifies a productivity opportunity and a potential market area, personnel are assigned to research available equipment. At least nine months before purchasing the Balestrini equipment last year, Fenn and his staff began gathering information. "We called for brochures, did engineering work and studies, then began narrowing down the list of suppliers," he said.

Then IWF |90 in Atlanta became the focal point of his decision making. "We scheduled appointments with machinery manufacturers at the fair, flew in a committee involving manufacturing, industrial engineering and product development personnel, and toured the fair to review equipment."

Pre-arranged demonstrations were observed; the group discussed what it had seen over dinners in Atlanta, and continued its discussions upon returning home. "We boiled everything down, refined what needed refining and got final quotes," Fenn said. Post-show sessions at the plant with the two finalists included tough questions, Fenn said.

"The biggest mistake a company can make is to go to a show like IWF without preparation," Fenn said. "Our advanced research made the Fair highly productive and the decision making less difficult.

"We're looking into another product that fits our marketing strategy and began our IWF preparation in February," Fenn said. "We don't just buy machinery. We buy solutions.
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:includes related article; computer-numerically-controlled machines increase productivity at Tell City Chair Co.
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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