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‘Scalability’—New Marker for a Well-run Woodwork Business?

Best practices in business management evolve over time, as experts adapt to changes in technology, materials, and—when it comes to workforce—society at large. From Henry Ford’s manual assembly line to Tesla’s robotic workflow, materials and end products change.

While managers in many industries can lay claim to “exceptional conditions” due to markets and end products, the wood manufacturing business really is different from others. For one thing, wood is an organic material, with variances in the raw material from sheet to sheet and board to board. And the size of its raw materials—4 x 8 and even 8 x 10-foot sheets of panel—requires more square footage per employee than do plants in many industries.

Designing a plant that will handle existing volume may be short sighted, say experts. A cabinetry or furniture plant structured to deliver say, 300 units daily, may choke whenever the volume peaks significantly, leading to long lead times, customer dissatisfaction, and lost sales.

Manufacturing expert Joe Baggett, principle of Innovative Wood Process Solutions, recently hosted a conference on scalability, with a half-dozen business management and cabinetry manufacturers presenting strategies for a more flexible approach: a plant built to rise and fall in capacity without backing up at the peaks, or going into the red when sales dip.

Baggett is the lead speaker in the day-long symposium “Process Automation” at IWF 2022, presented in partnership with 2020. He advises managers to avoid patching up bottlenecks, and to take the long view when working to optimize production processes. Process Automation will take participants on a journey to explore where and how sales, purchasing, engineering, production, and finance processes can be automated within a modern woodworking company. (Learn more and register here.)

One recent expansion by a furniture maker provides a good example. Hellman-Chang, a Brooklyn, NY-based business, hit a home run with its dramatic designs, even with price tags of $25,000 or more for dressers, desks, and other casegoods. Its small 5,000 sq. ft. shop was soon overwhelmed, as its craftsmen struggled working by hand to carve, finish, and cure its products. Multi-step finishes in particular led to delays as workers waited for the stages to air cure between steps and at completion.

Founders Dan Hellman and Erik Chang were constrained by their small quarters in Brooklyn, and in 2019 began plans to expand. A grant from the State of Georgia and ready availability of a vacant plant in Dawsonville, GA led Hellman-Chang to the new location.

Baggett advised on the plant layout, which began by improving processes at the existing New York plant so they would be more easily transferable to Georgia. Steps included commissioning a customized Thermwood CNC (IWF Booth 6213) that could carve the surfaces that had been done by hand, shifting from benchtop builds to automated manufacture of many solid wood workpieces. It also allowed for local hires in Georgia to pick up the work done by hand in Brooklyn.

Similarly finishing processes were shifted, moving from Milesi Wood Coatings (IWF Booth C1018) used in Brooklyn to Renner (IWF Booth BC733), offering similar performance and supported by a local Georgia dealer. Baggett also advised installating a forced curing process, so Hellman-Chang installed a batch oven from Prime Heat.

“Arguably our largest challenge is how to scale it,” says Hellman. “Because now we gravitate toward bench made furniture, but bench made is difficult to scale. “We desperately want to have the stations that are fully set up by process, but because we don’t just build cabinets, we have so many different processes that require different set ups, that we haven’t really cracked that nut yet.”


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