To beat China on costs, manufacturer turns to tech
When Andrew Campbell, a carpenter by trade, founded Eastern Millwork in 1992, he realized he had to go high-tech to compete with woodwork imported from low-wage places like China.
"I think manufacturing needs an image makeover," he said. "When young people think about careers in wood manufacturing, they think of a dusty shop with simple machines and a lot of hand labor. We want to change peoples' minds, so we can get the best and the brightest to come to us."
Campbell bought German-made, computer-controlled woodworking machines, and recruited several German engineers who had studied wood design and engineering. Among them is Heiko Sieling, the company's chief estimator, who said, "All the people on the floor have to know computers and technology. They are holding a mouse — they are not holding a chisel anymore."
That technology plays an integral role at the Jersey City company, from the computer programs that generate 3-D carpentry plans to the automated wood milling machines programmed to cut and form pieces of wood on the shop floor. Eastern Millwork has made woodwork for Lincoln Center, in New York, and for University Medical Center of Princeton's new hospital in Plainsboro.
At Rockefeller University, in New York, Eastern Millwork made the decorative wooden scroll that lines the interior of the seven-story atrium. "They wanted to line the atrium with wood slats every six inches. But the atrium is an ellipse, so as you move along the atrium, the angles change," Campbell said. "So every wooden slat had to be set at a different angle." Drawing the plans by hand and individually calculating each slat's angle would have made this architectural flourish prohibitively expensive, but by working from a 3D computer model, the company was able to easily figure out where the slats should go. Campbell figures technology saved about $1 million on the job.
Meredith Aronson is director of ManufactureNJ, a talent network created by the state Labor Department to build the state's work force in advanced manufacturing — the kind of building that employs high-skilled workers using computer-aided processes. She said Campbell has managed to create a "culture of innovation" at Eastern Millwork.
"He allows people who are highly skilled to continue to push all the edges," she said. "He has somebody who knows cabinet making at a very high level, and will have that person work collaboratively with a designer or somebody who does the information system."
Aronson said the company "uses technology to compete on labor" by integrating information technology into the process and the products." For example, after each piece is manufactured, it gets a bar code label that tells the installation crew where it belongs. "It's an end-to-end process, with information and production integrated — and that is modern manufacturing," she said.
But "automated labor doesn't mean no labor," Campbell said. "It means your work force is more sophisticated, and they use technology as a force multiplier that allows them to bring a tremendous amount of value to a project — without the value coming at cheap labor rates."
And Eastern Millwork's Jersey City location is an advantage for the company, he said. "New York and New Jersey have a huge design community. The architect can use our facility as an extension of their (studio) to figure out how they are going to bring their dream to reality. Proximity to the design community means something."
Campbell said automation enables him to compete on the global market. He said he bid on a job recently against a Chinese competitor "whose shipping cost equaled more than all of my shop floor labor costs. When you use technology to improve production, other things that were not relevant before — like shipping costs and proximity to the market — become relevant."
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