Up with the larks to take a look around the Bernhardt plants! Today I was going to look around two of the main plants for Bernhardt design (remember, that's the contract wing of the company). The plan was Plant 7 first—furniture & seating. So the first thing to note here: If you ever drive through Lenoir, you'll see that Bernhardt have a huge number of buildings spread around. They have grown over their history and have access to lots of space—they have actually consolidated and downsized due to technology and changes in production. This has benefits and drawbacks, for example: because the factories are on-site, they are able to deal with problems with product and prototyping incredibly fast and efficient manner. Well here's the bad, the factories have been around for a long time—in fact there is a train track which runs along side a lot of the factories which isn't used any more. That age is shown a little in how the factories are organized. It's not that they aren't organized as well as they can be, but more that no-one who was designing a space for the fabrication the workers are doing these days would design it like that. The buildings are multi-level, back and forth, closed walled, hot and still. It totally makes sense that if its paid for, you have to use it—hopefully at some point in the future they will move to a more well designed building which can help rationalize the process a little.
Plant 7 receives the seating frames from plant 5 (woodworking plant which makes frames for whole company)—these are awesome plywood frames. I have to admit I've never taken a pair of scissors/hacksaw to a piece of furniture to see it's skeleton, so the whole creation process was amazing, but seeing the bare-bones really made sense and actually made the forms that you see at the end not look all that hard to produce. Once the frames are sprung and covered, they are sent through to upholstery to have the foam padding and sewn covers added. An interesting little insight (and something which came from our discussion with PD yesterday) was the whether foam bodies of chairs would be injection molded or not. The distinction is if something is thought to be potentially high volume, then this might be injection molded on to a steel or aluminum tube frame. The reason this is interesting is that sometimes they take you by surprise, like the mitt chair which is very popular, but made entirely by hand. Injection molding would mean no need to make a frame and to add the foam to the frame, but obviously plays with the risk that the tooling cost will be repaid.
Everyone in the upholstery section is trained to produce every piece of furniture. I'll make a stupid admission here, which is that I was super excited, because I thought I might have captured a hyperloop of this awesome guy making the mitt chair, but it wasn't until over half way through I realized I hadn't pressed record! Urgh! This guy was able to go from the prepared separate parts (frame, cut foam, sewn cover) to the finished piece in 25-30 mins. It was a pretty amazing sight. This is one of the highest skill jobs in the plants, for lots of different reasons. One of them is that they deal a lot with COM (customers own materials), which can be so different to the usual materials applied to the furniture because of factors like stretch, rebound, grain and thickness. This can be such a big issue that they will sometimes reject COM as it cannot live up to the standards which Bernhardt needs it to do—also they don't warranty a COM as they can't promise how it will wear after time.
One of the big things I noticed at Bernhardt was the focus on QC (quality control). There is a lot of hand work and craft focus, and obviously that individualization of labor can lead to irregularities (as well as catching scuffs and other fixes which need to be applied to the pieces as they navigate the plants). To help with this, there are many QC checkpoints throughout the factory, as well as little stations at the end of the lines to touch up finishes, and materials. Another important part of this process when thinking about furniture systems is to check modular piece and those which will live together to ensure that every thing is perfect—this means everything from color matching to lining up seams. To help this, those larger modular piece are all staged together, on a physical stage, so they can be thoroughly checked. Talking of color matching, in the finishing section of the plant, they have color boards for customers stored from 50 years. Plant 7 also includes the sewing department, another highly skilled department, which first deals with COMs and adapts patterns to fit furniture (this is done through knowledge, not by pulling it onto a pre-made piece).
Moving on to Plant 3—cased goods. I'll make a little admission here, my dad is a carpenter who works with solid lumber and so I've kind of spent my life looking down on veneers as they always seemed low quality and really to not serve any purpose beyond being cheap. Plant 3 deals with veneers and seeing them made in front of me definitely changed my mind about that somewhat. This is a huge facility, with a lot of crazy machines that are pretty fascinating, including one which was like a swiss-army machine which could CNC, saw, apply edge veneers, clean edges and drill. Seeing the process was really enlightening, how the pieces are picked, glued together, applied to a board, edged, sanded, and then finished. A lot of work goes into high quality veneers. Unfortunately the waste can be a bummer—I saw one large piece which was dropped, killing one corner of it, so that piece gets chipped (and then burnt, sad face)... the problem can be that if that piece needed to match the other pieces, or they can't make a satisfactory match with another one, all of them get dumped and everything gets started again.
Ok—two other things real quick. This awesome product, because we all need to fix a little dent or something every now and then. Also these guys, because they asked me to take their picture, here you go fellas: