Pressed for Success
The U.S. furniture manufacturing industry has suffered a downturn due to imports, economic recessions, and other factors. Unfortunately, it meant layoffs and acquisitions by larger holding companies, most notable being Authentic Brands Group (ABG) who bought the intellectual properties of Thomasville, Henredon, and Drexel furniture in 2018. As a result, U.S.-based furniture manufacturers and their suppliers have had to adjust their approach to manufacturing to compete.
In Lenoir, North Carolina, Bruex Inc. is a great example of a company remaining competitive, run by Keith Johnston, a third-generation curved plywood part manufacturer. Keith is the grandson of Bruce Johnston, Sr., the man who holds the patent on cold pressing plywood into curved parts, and the son of Bruce Johnston, Jr., one of the founders of Bruex. Upon acquiring the company, Keith restructured the whole system.
“The mistakes within the four walls, all of that stuff had to be rewritten. I’m the only salesperson, so I let the customers see me. The whole business has changed so much. In 2000, there were 32 curved wood manufacturers, now there are only seven.”
After restructuring, Johnston eliminated the second shift and reduced the crew to 17 people. Currently there are 20 multidisciplined people working the shop floor more efficiently than ever. This is due in no small part to the investment in a top of the line 5-axis CNC router and Mastercam software to run it.
Complex orders that Johnston would either reject or accept knowing there would be considerable time commitment are now doable. In all, Bruex has the 5-axis router, a 3-axis router, six radiofrequency machines, and rows of cold press machines. Johnston hired programming guru Dennis Garcia, who has decades of Mastercam experience, having worked at Henredon and at Mastercam Reseller Barefoot CNC in Morganton, North Carolina as an applications engineer.
“It has opened many doors for us because it’s allowed us to go out and compete with the remaining curved plywood industry left in the U.S.,” said Johnston. “Once the news spread that we got into 3- and 5-axis cutting, it was like the switchboards lighted up.”
Johnston has witnessed a shift in the furniture-making business in that the contours and shapes of the furniture are becoming more detailed and more varied, requiring different cutting and boring operations than in his grandfather’s day. “Most of the wood product that’s coming into a curved plywood plant are rotary-cut, sliced-face, or sliced-cut veneers,” said Johnston. “We build our panels out of the rotary-cut poplar or gum veneers, buying from every mill in the U.S.
According to Garcia, the software is the brains of the whole operation. “If we didn’t have it, we’d be out at the machine with a tape measure and calipers trying to type everything by hand. Now, it’s a whole lot quicker and easier to keep these machines running.”
Garcia favors 3-axis toolpaths for day-to-day jobs, using the Mastercam Router suite of CAD/CAM tools, including Curve/Drill 5-axis which cuts a 3D chain on surface edges and simplifies the creation of 3- to 5-axis drilling output for holes within a part.
The Multiaxis solution allows Garcia to perform 5-axis multisurface operations, and 4-axis, rotary axis, and roll die programming. He programs roughing and finishing processes within the same toolpath. He recently eliminated five of the nine steps it originally took when using a bandsaw for a chair frame.
“There’s an excitement level here with where we’re going with our new capabilities,” said Johnston. “The speed, the accuracy, the safety measurements that need to be calibrated are all done on the machine. We no longer need to pull people from one department to finish up a job in another department. The routers are doing the majority of this stuff for us.”
Bruex has been able to remain competitive with overseas competition by offering custom flat plywood frames cut on the CNC 3-axis router that fit together like pieces of a puzzle as well as solid wood frames. “It has added another spectrum to our capabilities,” said Johnston.
“I’ve been very frugal with my money in what you would call a pattern of fear of reaching out and putting my earnings all back into the business. We survived the 2007 through 2009 period, which was terrible, especially in the furniture industry,” Johnston said. The addition of the company’s radio frequency division allows them to cut more drastic curves and work with exposed woods, case goods, etc. It has been instrumental in expanding Bruex’s work with sports equipment, such as water skis, snowboards, and skateboards.