Abstract

The following was a blog entry by Kerry & Bryce Moore for http://metromodemedia.com
By: Kerry & Bryce Moore, 2/15/2007
Our guest bloggers this week are husband-wife team, Kerry and Bryce Moore. Designers and owners of Context Furniture in Royal Oak, Kerry and Bryce suggest that Michigan's manufacturing model is in need of a major paradigm shift.

Post No. 1
There have been many suggestions as to how Michigan should reinvent and revitalize itself. Ideas that encourage expanding the creative class are top among them. There is a lot of truth to that idea, but it doesn’t tackle the major issue. Challenging our assumptions about manufacturing and evolving beyond our current models is integral to the health of this area.
Manufacturing has been the backbone of this region and we cannot let it go with out a fight. Somebody has got to touch "it" in order for "it" to get made. Context Furniture has been deep in "it" for over the past 3 years. And despite the challenges of the new economy we find it very possible to make our products here.
Southeastern Michigan was a center of manufacturing for almost 100 years. Ideas such as vertically integrated manufacturing and assembly line construction –which in turn requires low cost labor– were born from this area as the automobile industry bloomed. The effects were felt worldwide and the Michigan model changed how everything everywhere was made.
Now, about a century later we see the effects of that model. Cheaper labor markets compete for business and reduce jobs from the geographic birthplace of such ideas. It is time to awaken from that 100-year old idea. It’s time to develop other ways to manufacture.

Post No. 2
We started Context Furniture as two young designers, with limited start up capital equal to maxed out credit cards, no business experience and nothing but passion driving our manufacturing beliefs. The accepted traditional wisdom of how products should be produced –then and now- seemed not only antiquated, but also exclusive, making it impossible for startups like ours to participate. In order for us to compete -survive, actually- we had to establish our own manufacturing model.
We began with a core concept: A well-designed product that exploits new technology and requires only small production runs will be competitive with mass manufactured products. Though our beginnings were tumultuous, this concept proved sound and as we grew more confident with our process, four philosophies began to guide us:
1. manufacture on demand
2. mass customize
3. manufacture sustainably
4. allow design to drive manufacturing
Manufacturing on demand means we don’t make it until there is a need for it.
By keeping our raw goods in a state of flexibility we do not need to invest in excessive inventory. Our design process was developed to take advantage of technology --in this case CNC routers-- which allows us to forgo extensive tooling time and set ups. We can respond to the market immediately. Our lead-times are anywhere from 4-8 weeks, giving us a huge logistical advantage when competing with oversea companies, which require manufacturing time, a container to be filled and the long journey by ship.
Being close to production allows us greater quality control and as an added benefit, our products are more environmentally sound because they do not need to be transported halfway around the world. Advantageously it rewards our design business, we are positioned to offer design on demand hand in hand with manufacturing on demand.
For example, in 2005 we developed the William & Mary collection, furniture inspired by a vintage graphic style that was being explored by the design community. As one of the first seating products in the market with this design, the unit has become one of our best sellers.
Being based in Michigan allows us to take advantage of industrial and manufacturing synergies. Operating lean and flexible is crucial to our success. Partnering with suppliers and vendors that have a diverse customer base, means they are not dependent upon the furniture-manufacturing sector to exclusively cover their overhead. This, in turn, lowers the cost for everyone. As more and different industries find a use for CNC routers, the cost of the technology that we utilize goes down. This benefits our customers with better price, better product, and better quality.
By offering well-designed products that exploit cost saving technologies we can position ourselves where cheap labor can’t compete. If we deliver if first, deliver it best, and at a reasonable price we should outpace the competition.

Post No. 3

Adopting manufacturing on demand has dovetailed into our second greatest advantage, mass customization.
Our original business model was based on mass-customization, so we could offer custom size, shape, material and finish without significant cost and lead time increases (all associated with custom products.) While our premise and process was ideologically simple, like most ideas, its practical application was a bit more difficult to achieve.
Our biggest development obstacle was convincing our suppliers or vendors to try something different. We made assumptions about the materials, technology and processes that were necessary to make our products. In each small step along the way, we often heard “you can’t do that” or suggestions to do it another way. Usually the way it had always been done, the less efficient way. Our counter rational and enthusiasm made people think we were crazy, but convinced them to at least try, and push their capabilities to the edge. The learning curve was steep, but we were fortunate enough to find open-minded individuals who shared a why not attitude.
Streamlining the process is essential to mass customization since the focus should be on the endless possibilities of shape, size, material and color. Our endgame is to develop a reality where the consumer can also act as designer. We consider this to be the most responsible and efficient way to manufacture. Create one of something that is truly wanted as opposed to multiple items with an uncertain future.
Today, over 50% of our business is custom. Our confidence in and proximity to quality control allows us to dedicate time and energy to our customers and their specific needs. We have prioritized our efforts to follow design’s lead. This requires a willingness to be adaptive and ready to challenge engineering assumptions when needed. There’s no resting on laurels here; there is only what we’ve done, the experience gained, and how that will evolve in the future.

Post No 4
Manufacturing on demand combined with mass-customization positions us to take advantage of sustainable manufacturing.
Unlike most industries, we don’t need to invest in hypothetical customer demands; we simply meet their individual needs then exceed their expectations through performance.
Much like our design philosophy, our manufacturing philosophy is dependent on adaptation. We don’t need to constantly grow to succeed, that is an unrealistic expectation. Instead, we grow, contract, expand, and evolve responsively to fluctuations in the market. Manufacturing sustainably means building an intelligent infrastructure that can perform multiple tasks and make a broad range of highly customizable products. It must be mobile, withstand market fluctuations, and create partnerships with other companies, which reduces overhead costs and eliminates unnecessary growth.
Each aspect of our business is equally important to our success. In addition to production we constantly fine-tune our designs, product development, and marketing. Not all areas of the business run full tilt all the time. Having a multi-disciplinary approach allows us to react to the ebb and flow of the market. Each component is equally important and yet dependent upon the others. If we lose sight of their collective strengths we’re not cost effective or on point.
Furthermore, when we consider our responsibility to the environment, manufacturing sustainably also means being in closer proximity to our customers, which decreases pollution due to transportation.
Streamlined production and alliances with similar companies can reduce manufacturing footprints and in turn require less demand on the energy, infrastructure and building consumption.
We foresee a time in our industry, where instead of going to IKEA buy your furniture, you’ll visit a local manufacturing center. This manufacturing center will have license to produce many designs, IKEA’s included, but will make them for you right there. This accomplishes several manufacturing sustainability goals: it brings the production of the product closet to the consumer, combines manufacturer’s budget dollars which in turn increases investment in the local job economy, and reduces waste by producing only what there is a demand for.

Post No. 5
The foundation of our philosophies is that design driven manufacturing will not only compete with international low labor products but will eventually surpass it.
We are committed to designing and redesigning everything we do, everyday. In this sense design is not an adjective for styling products, but a verb that problem solves. Design inherently understands process, maximizing materials and lean operation. Good design means lower cost items at a competitive price point.
Engineering questions the "how to" and "because." Design should question "what ifs" and "why nots." The collaboration of design and engineering are meant to answer the ownership desires of "I need" and "I want."
If design does not come first, "how to" and "I need" take over.
Products that omit design as the origin and service only the latter two parts of equation will eventually lose market share because of their lack of inspiration. A mediocre product underserves the customer.
Working in the product design industry is an educational experience; it changes how one interacts with consumer goods. I’m less inclined to buy something cheap just because it’s part of a trend or has some fleeting entertainment value. Things have value beyond price.
In the competition for our consumer dollars there is a bounty of useless crap vying for our attention. As designers and manufacturers we need to produce things that not only retain their value but also matter in the long run. We believe that the Dollar Stores packed with surplus inventory --inventory that will eventually become landfill fodder-- do not enhance our quality of life.
In fact, it does the opposite; it encourages overspending and over consumption. Ask your self these questions: Is America happy? Does our multitude of electronic devices, franchise restaurants and dates to the mall give us the sense of self we’re longing for? Is our purchasing power being rewarded beyond reduced cost? We believe design driven manufacturing can overcome these predicaments. Perhaps consumers are ready and willing to buy less in order to buy better, smarter products.