As U.S. furniture manufacturers revamp domestic production after more than a decade of offshoring, they need help implementing state-of-the-art assembly lines. Many of those companies are seeking assistance from the Franklin Furniture Institute at Mississippi State University.
The 27-year-old organization is operated by the Forest Products Department of the College of Forest Resources. However, the multidisciplinary effort also taps experts from Mississippi State’s architecture, business and engineering schools.
“Our mission is to help sustain and increase the competitiveness of the furniture and home furnishings industry in the southeastern region of the United States, including Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina,” says Bill Martin, director of the Franklin Furniture Institute (FFI). “We are an extension and outreach unit focused on providing research, training and technical assistance to the furniture value chain.
“We analyze existing product designs and reduce the number of components for efficiency; research new materials for improved performance and ease of manufacturing; and design new products for increased performance,” adds Martin.
The FFI boasts a 5,000-square-foot laboratory equipped with machines and fixtures for testing components and joints. “We spend a lot of time testing the strength of back and arm designs, because that’s the most heavily used part of a chair or sofa,” says Martin. “We look at a wide variety of horizontal and vertical stresses in wood frames and metal components. In addition, we test reclining mechanisms used in motion furniture.”
Martin and his colleagues study the performance of engineered woods and wood composites, in addition to springs, screws, staples and other metal components used to assemble furniture.
“We test screws and other fasteners to find out how they hold in wood, both on the face and on the edge of the material,” explains Martin. “We also look at assembly factors such as the pros and cons of drilling pilot holes to start screws and the amount of torque put on screws.”
Many projects are currently focusing on sustainability and renewable resources, such as testing wood, fabric, foam and other materials against various federal guidelines. One ongoing R&D effort is studying new ways to make wood from bamboo and other grasses.
Several years ago, FFI focused heavily on frame design and structural performance. For instance, a major study examined the mechanical properties associated with using oriented strand board (OSB) as a frame stock, because of its cost-saving advantages.
“Mechanical properties of five different OSB products from four different manufacturers were evaluated as potential upholstered furniture frame stock,” says Martin. “The mechanical properties evaluated were frame-strength performance, screw and staple withdrawal resistance from the material, and adhesive bonding strength.”
Recently, FFI shifted its focus to more industry outreach and lean manufacturing initiatives. Lean projects typically include value-stream mapping, plant layout and direct labor analysis.
“We just finished one study where we recommended that a company outsource its frame production,” says Martin. “That freed up more than 10,000 square feet in their plant.
“One of the competitive advantages that the U.S. furniture industry has is time to market,” adds Martin. “Consumers don’t want to wait six to nine months to get products delivered from China.”
The Franklin Furniture Institute also sponsors an annual manufacturing summit that attracts executives from throughout the industry. The one-day event focuses on current issues and problems facing furniture manufacturers’ competitiveness and sustainability.
This year’s event will be held on April 23. To learn more details, click www.ffi.msstate.edu.