Coping With COVID: A Tale of Two Furniture Manufacturers

Universal encourages employee referrals, as word of mouth is a key recruitment tool in a tight labor market.

By Powell Slaughter, FurnitureToday

As we enter year two of the coronavirus, we think it’s worth recalling FurnitureToday’s recent account of how two upholstery manufacturers faced the pandemic’s labor and supply-chain challenges head on.

While supply chain issues remain largely outside furniture manufacturers’ control, Universal and Craftmaster Furniture, among others, are managing what they can to build capacity through physical expansion, process improvement and labor efficiency and recruitment.

For Craftmaster, backlogs were still four times normal levels as recently as this past winter for the North Carolina company, which does 65 percent of its business in custom orders.

“After we re-opened May 4, 2020 from the shutdown, our business exploded in June,” recalled Craftmaster CEO Roy Calcagne. “We anticipated a 50 percent order rate May through June, but we were back to 100 percent by the end of May. June through October, our business just about doubled. Fortunately, we’d ordered a lot of fabric and materials in advance of (2020) Chinese New Year.”

Craftmaster also orders parts, primarily wood legs, from Vietnam, and as with fabric, stocked up on those components ahead of China’s new year observance.

“We had some container delays in that but stayed in a good position for components,” Calcagne said. “But we always have a backup; if we can’t get legs from Vietnam on time, for example, we have them locally made.”

Meanwhile, Universal closed on its purchase of the existing Southern Furniture plant in Conover, N.C., in October 2019 with the goal of creating a domestic manufacturing presence that would give its growing upholstery line a custom-order capability. After changing out equipment and re-tooling the layout and product flow at the 450,000-square-foot plant, Universal had the program in full-swing in time for last fall’s High Point Market.

In retrospect, gearing up the plant leading into and during the pandemic may have been better timing than at first glance. Universal already had front-loaded fabric inventory before opening in Conover, and as a new entrant starting from scratch, it didn’t face as large an immediate backlog crisis as that of producers coming out of manufacturing shutdowns.

“We shifted some orders from overseas, and when everyone was shut down, we were still buying fabric,” said senior vice president of sales Sean O’Connor. “We were launching the custom business in the middle of COVID-19, and we kept on with the plan.”

With a customer base approaching 600 retailers and designers and growing, the Conover plant is fully booked and then some. “We’re running more efficiently, but our backlog is growing, and we need to hire more talent,” O’Connor said.

Similarly, Craftmaster opened a 100,000-square-foot upholstery production facility on the former Heritage Home campus in Lenoir, which Calcagne anticipates adding another 25 percent in capacity this year. New lines at its three Alexander County plants totaling 600,000 square feet should add another 15 percent.

“The bigger issue is the availability of skilled workers,” Calcagne added, a problem familiar to just about all domestic manufacturers. Craftmaster has been a big backer of the Furniture Academy at nearby Catawba Valley Community College, a program devoted to training workers for cut-and-sew and upholstering jobs.

COVID’s In-Plant Impact

The pandemic’s most obvious impact on production relates to absenteeism and social distancing requirements. Craftmaster’s cutters and sewers — all kits are done in-house — are inherently socially distanced in the plant, but the company does utilize production lines.

“We do have product lines, but we’re requiring six-foot distancing, masks, and we take temperatures every morning,” Calcagne said. “We’ve had COVID-19 issues, but it hasn’t de-railed us … most of our job functions are spread out anyway.”

Most of those instances involved employee exposure outside the plant leading to individual quarantines.

“We’ve had active COVID cases, but they’ve all recovered,” Calcagne said. “We still have to remind people every day. The masks, in my opinion, have made a huge difference, and we’ve made masks mandatory from day one.”

As a start-up, Universal/Conover was able to build its workflow and processes from scratch vs. re-vamping stations to accommodate social distancing requirements.

“We moved our machines a little farther apart,” noted Smith, adding that the custom, bench-made manufacturing model makes social distancing inherently easier. “Everybody is focused on a particular job in the process, and they’re naturally more spread out than with a typical production line.”

Focus on Efficiency

In addition to ramped up recruitment, Universal is honing processes. All cut-and-sew is done in the plant, so that takes out a link in the supply chain.

“We also are changing out cutting machines from XP system-based units to a state-of-the-art cloud-based system,” Smith said. “All our patterns are being uploaded to iPads at the workstations, so when product development makes changes, those are updated to iPads instead of relying on physical patterns,” eliminating a lot of potential errors that could eat into time, hinder flow and increase material costs.

Sewers have also been cross-trained to sew the entire kit for a single product, which Smith pointed out helps avoid repetitive motion problems since the sewers are doing different types of patterns. The cross-training continued in all the production areas, too.

Frame assembly and foam installation were staged to bring those functions into a more efficient space. Southern had been building frames from scratch one or two pieces at a time.

“We looked at that and decided to outsource frame components from two local suppliers for more consistency,” O’Connor said.

Craftmaster does its own frame assembly in a 50,000-square-foot building that feeds to a staging area via conveyor in the main plant. In addition, the company runs separate production lines for chairs on one hand and sofas and sectionals on the other for more efficiency since those products have different upholstering skill sets.

Nevertheless, noted Calcagne, “If your business is up 100 percent, there’s no plan you can make to accommodate that with existing capacity.”

Courtesy of FurnitureToday.