Office furniture maker leans on clean

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The wood office products shown are made with veneers produced at the Steelcase Wood Plant. Courtesy Steelcase

Sometimes, the best way to know where a manufacturer is headed is to look at its recent past.

For Grand Rapids-based office furniture maker Steelcase, October 2001 saw the introduction of the 600,000-square-foot Steelcase Wood Plant at 4100 68th St. SE in Caledonia.

It was one of the world’s first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified manufacturing facilities, according to Chris Cobb, project manager at the site.

Cobb took the Business Journal on an hourlong tour earlier this month to share insights on the operation and hints of what might be coming.

Steelcase has dedicated itself to making the plant, which houses about 750 employees, a responsible production operation.

Since opening, the plant has reduced its use of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by 91%; produced Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified veneers from responsibly managed forests; worked with recycled post-industrial fiber content for its particle boards and melamine; and had several wood products certified as Cradle to Cradle (C2C), a designation that indicates “safer, more sustainable products made for the circular economy,” according to c2ccertified.org.

Hand-in-hand with its commitment to sustainability is the company’s efforts to make the Wood Plant a clean and safe place for employees.

“No. 1 is always safety. Our plant manager does not want any employee coming in here and not having a safe work environment, so we measure safety every morning,” Cobb said.

“We even measure close calls in the plant. Let’s say I was walking and there was a mat and I stumbled on the mat because it wasn’t taped down, they’ll review that, and they’ll get corrective action onto that close call. We really pride ourselves on the safety of a wood plant of this size.”

On the air quality front, in 2007, Steelcase switched to water-based instead of oil-based stains, as the latter contain VOCs that are unsafe for workers to breathe. The process took place in stages over several years, and now that the transition is complete, workers do not need to use masks as they spray on the stains and cure them in ovens.

The Wood Plant makes and stains three products: veneers (fine wood sheets that are pressed over particle boards to make the facing layer of furniture products), melamine (paper-thin pressed wood, particle and resin sheets laid over particle board) and laminate (a synthetic product that is printed to look like wood and laid over particle board).

Steelcase no longer produces furniture from solid wood, as it tends to warp and bend with age and dry conditions, although it does often put solid wood edging on conference tables and on similar pieces.

The section of the Steelcase Wood Plant where workers cut veneers uses a ceiling-mounted system of misters to keep the humidity at 60% amid the dry Michigan winters so the veneers don’t crack or break. In the summer, the misters are turned off to save energy, and moist air comes in through vents from outside.

Another area in the plant — the cutting floor — employs air quality features, as well.

“We cut about 25,000 to 30,000 boards a day out here. We’re creating a lot of sawdust, and that is all collected in the dust collection system,” Cobb said. “You see all the tubes that run up. That material is (moved) to the back of the plant, which keeps it off the floor and out of the air for our employees. Our water misters also help bring that material to the floor, then we have sweepers that come along and sweep it up.”

A method that helps to make the Steelcase Wood Plant a lean, waste-free manufacturing operation also keeps the plant clean and safe — the 5s program: sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain.

“We don’t want stuff scattered all over the place; we want to know exactly where it’s at,” Cobb said. “We’ve marked the floors where everything should go. We will even mark the floor for a trash can. We’ll mark tools — from scissors to wires, drills, etc. — to make sure everything is in place, because we want to make sure the plant is as clean as possible. There’s no better incentive for our employees as they come in than to know that they’re working in a very clean, organized facility. You don’t want chaos within the lean manufacturing operation. You want it organized.”

The floors in the Wood Plant also are spotless and gleaming, with signs that say, “If there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean” hanging from the ceiling.

When the Wood Plant opened in 2001, about 70% of its product orders were for wood veneers and about 30% were for laminates, but now the percentages have changed places. Cobb said he never saw that coming, but it makes sense given the lower cost, higher durability and greater color flexibility of laminates.

At the same time as that change was happening, Dave McLenithan, manager of the Steelcase Wood Plant, said market demands began shifting away from cookie-cutter spaces to more custom environments.

“People in the ’70s or ’80s (wanted) of all these cubicles, all the same, whereas everybody wants their own space, their own touch now, and so what that’s doing for us is we got really good at making a lot of the same stuff then, and now, our business is 40% custom products and growing all the time,” he said.

Custom looks can include mixed-media pieces that combine wood, metal and fabric, as well as mix-and-match items from different collections all in one space.

During the 1940s and ’50s, when Steelcase was making solid wood furniture, its workforce contained a greater number of craftsmen. As demand for customization gains a foothold, the company is in need of more skilled craftsmen.

In 2020 and beyond, McLenithan said the plant will focus on upskilling talent and re-utilizing craftsman skills that longtime employees already have, as well as creating a new assembly area and adding more machines and routers capable of making custom parts from “napkin” blueprints rather than standard templates.

McLenithan, a 36-year Steelcase employee, added that with Steelcase using a lean manufacturing approach it did not have until the 2000s, the company is much nimbler and more adaptable to changing market demands.

“It’s a lot of fun, especially if you like constant change and the constant challenges of what customers are ordering and what they desire now,” he said. “It’s just so different than what we’d been making for the past 20 years.”

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