September 17, 2012,
At a factory in Costa Rica, hundreds of people are working to transform melted aluminum into luxury outdoor furniture. The sounds of machines humming and metal clinking fill the Pride Family Brands facility as craftsmen create aluminum castings, shape and weld the pieces, finish the frames with detailed techniques and stuff and stitch the cushions.
It's an intensive process that involves hundreds of well-trained workers, creative minds and months of hard work, and it's essential in developing a product from a concept to a finished piece in a market showroom.
The outdoor furniture manufacturing process varies depending on a product's size, style and material. An array of considerations must be taken into account to ensure the finished piece is both stylish and practical.
||Molten aluminum is poured into casting molds to create the pieces that comprise Gensun Casual Living’s cast aluminum furniture.|
|Gensun’s fi nishing process begins with a powder coat fi nish, followed by hand-applied antiquing and a fi nal clear coat.||
||The Grand Terrace Collection is one of Gensun’s top-selling designs.|
"You've got to consider that it's a design that people will want, that people will be attracted to and want to sit in and then buy ultimately," said Jan Trinkley, VP sales and marketing, Gensun Casual Living. "You've got to make sure from a quality perspective that the product will withstand the rigors of not only the environment but with different statures of people, whether it's a small woman or a large man. We put a 15-year warranty on our products. We want to make sure our product is going to stand the test of time."
Every product begins as a concept, from a pitch by an independent designer to a company's desire to broaden its selection of outdoor offerings.
At Telescope Casual, Executive VP Bill Vanderminden said the design process often begins with a discussion about an unmet need in the marketplace - a category the company hasn't yet explored or a fresh take on an old product. From there, the design team at the company's Granville, N.Y., facility works closely with manufacturing personnel to develop a product that's creatively designed and feasible to produce.
"We have in-house designers with a manufacturing background so thoughts about how the design can be built are an integral part of the process from the beginning," Vanderminden said. "The design team takes input about market needs from our retailers and our sales representatives and then we design a product that can meet that need in an attractive, desirable way, while paying attention to the manufacturability of the product."
Jensen Leisure works with a few key external designers, like Dick Bjork and brothers Edi and Paolo Ciani, whose designs reflect the company's signature brand of wood furniture.
Robert Simeone, chief forester and product manager, said Jensen Leisure typically operates on a two-year timeline for new product development. The process begins with a detailed brief about needs in the marketplace, the desired price point and the designer best suited for the project.
"We have a rep council we work with and we have a management team," Simeone said. "About three times a year we sit down with our rep council and look at market trends. We look at how products are performing, and we look at new products to be brought in."
||Pride Family Brands’ manufacturing process begins with heating aircraft grade aluminum at up to 2,000 degrees before pouring it into casting molds.|
|Some of Pride’s furniture, such as the French Quarter Collection, features metal strips woven by hand.||
||Hand-brushed detailing gives Pride furniture old world, antique, tropical or brushed wood looks.|
|Pride’s manufacturing process results in luxury cast aluminum outdoor furniture, such as the new French Quarter Collection.||
Whatever the product, collaboration is essential in harmonizing a designer's vision with a company's style.
"In the initial process with the designer, we would meet with them, have them do a portfolio of sketches they might think would fit the Lloyd Flanders family of products or particularly our loom product because it is a proprietary process, and from that portfolio we'd pick two or three groups we'd think are most sellable, then we would turn them over to [Research and Development] for initial development," said Dudley Flanders, president, Lloyd Flanders.
Though every company has its own process, initial development typically involves computer renderings, technical drawings and prototypes before it's time for the manufacturing team to bring the product to life.
The manufacturing process begins with raw materials, ranging from the aluminum that Pride Family Brands heats at 2,000 degrees and pours into casting molds to the stainless steel fasteners Lloyd Flanders uses for swivel assembly.
Those raw materials come from a variety of sources. Pride Family Brands purchases materials from across the United States, ships them to Florida and then exports them to the Costa Rica manufacturing facility. Telescope Casual opts to use local vendors as often as possible, including one just 20 minutes from the factory. Treasure Garden umbrellas and cantilevers begin life as pieces of aluminum, steel, plastic and fabric that the company primarily produces itself.
"Other than canopy fabric that we purchase from outside suppliers, we produce all raw material in house from raw state," said Oliver Ma, president, Treasure Garden. "We bought raw material such as aluminum bar from common market, extrude it to certain length and width to meet any product specs of our product line. We have our own mold factory that contains all kinds of updated machineries that produce all plastic parts for our need. This vertical integration allows Treasure Garden the advantage of monitoring every stage of the manufacturing process to maintain a consistent level of quality."
||A forester marks a tree from Jensen Leisure’s 2.1 million-acre forest in Bolivia for use.|
|After the wood is harvested and fi red in a kiln to eliminate moisture, workers at Jensen’s Bolivian factory cut and shape the wood.||
||Once the wood pieces are assembled and fi nished, sleek wood furniture such as the Atlantic Steamer is ready for market.|
Gensun Casual Living deals primarily with two or three vendors to obtain its raw materials. Trinkley said the quality of materials is imperative - strong welds must hold up over time, paint cannot chip, fabric shouldn't fade in the sun. The raw materials comprise the individual parts of the furniture, which are then assembled to create a complete product.
"A table will have multiple molds - you'll have the tabletop, you'll have the leg, you'll have cross braces between the legs," Trinkley said. "In a welded product, you then take all those parts and weld them together. There's a lot of finishing where you sand and make the mold smooth. Then you paint it and you look at what you have. You sit in it, you test it, you make sure it holds up to what our specs are for quality. If it survives all of the above you've got a winner. If not, it gets tweaked again."
Like Gensun, Pride Family Brands specializes in cast aluminum furniture, made by pouring molten aluminum into cast molds that are produced in Pride's own foundry. The castings often include intricate detailing such as curled arms, ornate grooves and delicate finials. The pieces are welded together and hand-buffed to create a smooth, invisible seam.
||Telescope Casual manufactures furniture using a variety of materials, including aluminum that must be cut, shaped and welded.|
|Telescope’s manufacturing facility is based in Granville, N.Y., and the company obtains many of its raw materials locally.||
||Telescope’s Leeward deep seat sofa is constructed of Marine Grade Polymer, an HDPE material consisting of 30% recycled content.|
During the product development process, Pride Family Brands President Steve Lowsky said the team can make up to 20 prototypes based on one design concept before the product is ready for market.
"The chair has an evolutionary process," Lowsky said. "So we make the chair and of course the chair doesn't look like anything we envisioned ... Somewhere around prototype number 15 we're like, ‘Now we're getting to where we want to be, but can we make the back a little more arched?'"
Pride's four-step finishing process involves a chemical wash, powder coat finishing followed by curing in an oven, hand-brushed detailing and a clear coat finish. From casting and cutting to welding and polishing to painting and packaging, Lowsky said 40-45 people touch a single product.
"Broad appeal is very important," he said. "We can make beautiful designer looks that win awards, but if they don't have broad appeal, they're just great designs that don't sell. A real designer has to be a merchant at heart."
Jensen Leisure's manufacturing process begins in the company's Bolivian forest, a 2.1 million-acre reserve certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. The forest is rich with 350 species of trees, including Jensen's signature ipé timber. After workers harvest the wood, it's placed in a kiln to dry out the moisture content so it's stable enough to style and finish.
"The forest wouldn't exist if we didn't have this enterprise. It's not a public forest," Simeone said. "The whole thing ab
|The canopies of Treasure Garden’s umbrellas and cantilevers begin as sheets of fabric available in an array of colors and materials.||
||Workers at Treasure Garden’s Ningbo, China assembly workshop construct umbrellas with moving parts that require technical expertise to assemble.|
|The fi nished product is a stylish Treasure Garden umbrella built to withstand the rigors of the outdoors.||
out the FSC is it adds value to forests, and if they don't have value, they'll be converted to other uses. The purchase of our products directly supports the preservation of that forest."
Lloyd Flanders is best known for its Lloyd loom wicker, developed by Marshall B. Lloyd in 1919. The majority of Lloyd Flanders frames are made from tubular aluminum, shaped by bending machines and fitted and welded by hand before they are covered with Lloyd loom, secured with stainless steel staples and finished in one of the company's 27 finishes.
"The loom product itself begins with flat paper, which is then spun into a uniform diameter strand, which allows it to be run through a jacquard loom just like you would a fabric," Flanders said. "Out the other end comes wicker fabric in a roll, just as if it were a common fabric. We then upholster the loom wicker onto the frame, just as you would in any other upholstery process."
Many manufacturers use several materials in their furniture production. Lloyd Flanders manufactures some products made from a vinyl wicker that's hand-woven onto the frame. In addition to aluminum, Telescope Casual uses wood, wicker and high-density polyethylene in its products.
Some companies specializing in HDPE extrude post-consumer plastics such as milk jugs into a "plastic lumber," off ering a wood-like texture with added durability and color options. Telescope Casual put its own twist on HDPE, creating a material called Marine Grade Polymer that consists of 30% recycled materials.
Rather than using post consumer products, Telescope recycles the waste from every step of the manufacturing process back into the product. The material is extruded into large, dense HDPE sheets that are completely solid with no porosity.
"The material stands up extremely well outdoors, it has a nice substantial weight, it feels nice to the touch and most importantly it opens up endless possibilities to new creative designs that would not have been possible or practical with aluminum," Vanderminden said.
Though each manufacturer has its own schedule and staff, designing and developing new products typically takes several months to a year and involves the contributions of up to several hundred people. In addition to design and manufacturing, new products must undergo extensive testing to ensure they're in top-notch condition before they arrive at the showroom.
Jensen Leisure tests its products for European, U.S. and contract market standards, assesses the product's strengths and weaknesses and redesigns it if necessary.
"We make several prototypes and we stick it out in the weather for about eight months," Simeone said. "We observe what's going on with the wood and the finish. That's one reason we try to make it a two-year cycle. We like to make sure by the time we do bring it to market, we have those kinks worked out."
Vanderminden said it's also critical to allow ample time to tackle any unexpected setbacks that arise during the process, from materials arriving late to imperfections in the product construction.
"Scheduling production in an efficient manner is a monumental task," Vanderminden said. "[Quality control] rejected parts, inventory inaccuracies, raw materials not delivered on their due dates, shop orders past due, and just the incredible variety we manufacture, all contribute to the challenging task of manufacturing furniture."
Like outdoor furniture, Treasure Garden's products undergo extensive testing before they're shown at market. But Ma said shade products present their own distinct challenges, such as managing and controlling the production lead time since umbrellas are highly seasonal.
"The umbrella is very different from furniture," Ma said. "There are a lot of moving parts and it involves mechanism and technical expertise. Our testing of umbrellas includes opening and closing for thousands of times, as well as strength, wind resistance, etc. Nature is always our biggest enemy. Since our product is for outdoor use and umbrellas usually come with a large canopy, our products are constantly fighting against gusty wind, snow, rain storms, mildew, dust and moisture."
Determining when a product is ready for market presents its own challenges. Lowsky said Pride Family Brands isn't afraid to tinker with an idea after market, taking retailer feedback into account during the next product development cycle.
"We listen to our retailers," he said. "We're not scared to take retailers' opinions because they're the soldiers on the front lines. They're the ones selling every day and they're probably the most experienced with direction and consumer wants and needs."
Even after months of planning, developing, designing and creating, most manufacturers will say they're not fully satisfied that a product is ready for market until they see the response from customers in their showrooms.
"I'm never really satisfied until I see smiles on a bunch of dealers' faces in Chicago," Trinkley said. "That's when you know you've got something."
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