Productivity trends in kitchen cabinet manufacturing Essay

Output per employee hour in the manufacture of wood kitchen
cabinets rose at an average annual rate of 2.1 percent between 1972 and
1982, or at virtually the same pace as for all manufacturing (2.0
percent). However, annualized increases in both output and employee
hours were greater for the industry (4.7 percent and 2.5 percent) than
for total manufacturing (1.4 percent and — 0.5 percent).

Factors underlying the 10-year productivity advance in the making
of kitchen cabinets include improvements in woodworking machinery and
particleboard processing equipment; faster drying glues and coating
materials; and more mechanized transfer apparatus. Capital expenditures
increased strongly during the latter half of the seventies, although
they subsequently tapered through the early eighties.

The productivity trend in the industry was market by two distinct
phases, which paralleled developments in all manufacturing. Between
1972 and 1979 (the industry’s output peak for the period examined
here), productivity rose strongly, reflecting fast-paced output gains.
But over the 1979-82 period, which was marked by recession and a deep
slump in residential construction, the trend reversed direction, with
output declining at an even faster rate than employee hours:

Manufacturing generally experienced a slowdown in its productivity
rate between 1979 and 1982, rather than a reversal; but the trends in
output and employee hours were downward, as in kitchen cabinet

Year-to-year changes in the industry’s productivity were quite
volatile, ranging from an increase of 23 percent in 1977 to a decline of
11 percent in 1982. In 5 of the 10 years after 1972, productivity rose;
in the other 5, it fell. However, in 2 of the years of rising
productivity, the increase was attributable to a more rapid decline in
employee hours than in output. And in 3 of the years of declining
productivity, both output and employee hours increased, but the latter
grew faster than the former. These patterns contrast with the
experience of durable manufacturing industries generally, which
evidenced a much nattower range of year-to-year fluctuations in
productivity during the review period ( – 3 percent in 1974 to 4 percent
in 1981). The volatility of productivity movements in kitchen cabinet
manufacturing stems largely from the industry’s close link to the
highly cyclical demand for residential housing.

Output and demand factors

The kitchen cabinet industry manufactures stock line and custom
cabinets, as well as bathroom vanities. Stock line cabinets, which
account for about one-half of industry output, are mass produced, and
are distributed to residential building contractors. Custom cabinets
represent roughly one-third of output and, while the cabinets are built
to customer specifications, large-scale production is often feasible
with the application of flexible manufacturing technologies. Banities
make up the remaining one-sixth of outpup. Most kitchen cabinets and
vanities are made of wood; those made of plastics accounted for 14
percent of output in 1982 (up from 11 percent in 1977). The manufacture
of metal cabinets, which were once a large proportion of total kitchen
cabinet production, is no longer a significant industry activity.

Industry output is closely linked with residential construction,
replacement, and rehabilitation markets. Among these markets, new
residential housing starts provide an estimated one-fourth of the
industry’s major outlets. Over the study period, such starts
tended to decline from the high set in 1972, although there were
secondary peaks in the late seventies. Housing starts subsequently
plummeted, however, so that by 1982 levels were nearly two-fifths below
those recorded in 1979.

Throughout most of the review period, replacement and remodeling activity, spurred in large part by high rates of sales of existing
homes, tended to offset the impact of declining housing starts on the
output of cabinets and vanities. Existing-home sales rose at an
average annual rate of 10 percent between 1972 and 1979, then fell by
nearly 20 percent per year to 1982. Constant-dollar outlays for major
replacements–30 to 40 percent of which are for newly installed kitchen
cabinets–rose 4.9 percent per year over the earlier period, then
dropped by 1.7 percent annually. Remodeling outlays, a signigicant
proportion of which likewise are devoted to new kitchens and bathrooms
and their furnishings, also rose, then declined, although at more
moderate rates than major replacement spending. Most remodeling and
replacement work is performed on older structures, which are more likely
to need redesigned kitchens and enhanced storage space. (In 1982,
four-fifths of replacement and remodeling expenditures were made for
residential structures built prior to 1970, and more than half on
structures built prior to 1960.) However, the number of cabinets per
kitchen–estimated to average 12 in new single-family homes in 1983, and
15 in remodeled homes–is not believed to have changed much over the
past 10 to 20 years, although a rising proportion of single-family homes
feature two or more bathrooms, hence requiring additional vanities.

The comparative strength of remodeling and replacement demand
resulted in a considerably higher rate of production of custom than of
stock line cabinets. Between 1972 and 1979, production of the former
rose by nearly 8 percent a year, of the latter by only about 4 percent a
year. Output of vanities paced that of custom cabinets. After 1979,
however, output of both custom and stock line cabinets slumped, while
production of vanities declined moderately.

Employment, hours, and occupational mix

Employment in kitchen cabinet manufacturing, currently numbering
58,000 persons, rose strongly–by 42 percent–between 1972 and 1979. By
1982, however, employment had fallen 22 percent. The expansion and
subsequent decline in the industry’s employment contrasts with the
more moderate pattern of employment trends for manufacturing as a whole,
as indicated by annualized percent changes for the two subperiods:

The number of production workers in the industry rose at only about
three-fifths of the rate for nonproduction workers over the review
period (2.5 percent per year versus 4.0 percent). In 1979, production
worker employment stood 44 percent above 1972 levels, but then plummeted
28 percent by 1982. By contrast, nonproduction worker employment
increased steadily, so that by 1982 it was nearly half again as large as
10 years earlier, and the proportion of nonproduction workers in total
employment had expanded from 17 percent to 22 percent. Reasons for the
rising proportion of nonproduction workers include the hiring of larger
sales and distribution staffs, and increases in the number of

Average weekly hours in the industry exceeded 38.0 hours in only 4
years between 1972 and 1982. They usually ran about 94 percent of the
manufacturing average. Industry sources believe that the lower average
workweek arises mainly from the workweek practices of the smaller custom
cabinet establishments. Industry overtime hours fell to 70 percent of
the all-manufacturing average after 1973, and dropped to less than 60
percent in years of declining output. Even in years of strong output
growth, neither average weekly hours nor overtime approached the
manufacturing average. By comparison with all of manufacturing, then,
the industry evidently preferred to hire rather than lengthen work hours
during periods of increasing demand for its products, and to reduce its
work force rather than work hours when demand declined.

Hourly wages of production workers in the industry averaged 17
percent below the comparable manufacturing figure for the review period.
Also, they tended to decline relative to the manufacturing average over
time, so that they lagged by 21 percent in the last few years of the
period. The industry’s lower average hourly wage is probably a
reflection of the large proportion of semiskilled workers it employs.

That this is, in fact, the case is suggested by data on the
industry’s occupational mix, which is weighted much more toward
operative and laborer (that is, unskilled) positions than is employment
in manufacturing generally. (These data apply to the group of
woodworking industries of which kitchen cabinet manufacturing represents
about one-quarter of the employment. But because the woodworking
industries group as a whole uses similar production technologies and
serves similar markets, differences in occupational composition among
industries within the group are likely to be minor.) Of the
group’s total 1983 work force, 81 percent were blue-collar workers,
compared with 69 percent for all manufacturing. Most of the difference
was linked to the high proportion of workers classed as laborers in the
woodworking group (17 percent versus 9 percent for manufacturing). A
relatively large number of laborers in the woodworking industries are
engaged in such tasks as loading and unloading production machinery,
handling of stock, and as helpers–tasks which tend to be mechanized in
other manufacturing industries.

The proportion of operatives employed in the woodworking industries
group is slightly higher than in all manufacturing (42 percent versus 40
percent). Here, the difference stems chiefly from the greater relative
importance of assemblers, sawyers, edgers, and other workers in
occupations typical for woodworking. The group also employs a
marginally greater relative number of craft and related workers than
manufacturing generally. White-collar workers, however, play a
comparatively lesser role in the woodworking group, despite the increase
in the share of nonproduction workers in kitchen cabinet manufacturing
employment noted earlier. In 1982, white-collar workers represented 19
percent of employment in the group, as against 31 percent for all
manufacturing. Much of this difference reflects the much smaller
proportion of professional and technical workers in the woodworking
group than in general manufacturing (3 percent versus 10 percent). The
share of clerical workers in the group (8 percent) also was
significantly smaller than in all manufacturing (12 percent).


The manufacture of wood kitchen cabinets and vanities entails the
sawing, shaping, planing, and sanding of hardwood components (less often
softwood, hardwood plywood, and hardwood veneer components), most often
used for the facing of the final product or drawers, and of
particleboard (or fiberboard), which usually constitutes the
“box” or interior of the cabinet. After the components are
imprinted with ink by means of cylindrical presses and hardware is
affixed, cabinets are assembled by stapling and gluing. Larger firms
may locate the fabricating plant close to lumber supply areas, and
perform assembly and other nonfabricating operations in separate
establishments from which markets may be readily served.

Kitchen cabinet manufacturers use the same basic woodworking
technologies employed in millwork generally. (Prior to 1972, the
industry was defined as a subset of millwork for purposes of Federal
statistical studies.) The specialization and large-scale operations
that came to characterize the stock line segement of the cabinet
industry, and to a lesser extent its custom segments, did not fully
develop until the 1950’s. Kitchen design then shifted away from
metal cabinets, partly because of certain disadvantages associated with
use of the latter; and distributor networks enabling nationwide
distribution sprang up. As in millwork generally, large-scale
production of kitchen cabinets and vanities was to some extent promoted
by the introduction of synthetic resin adhesives, which yield a
quick-curing bond.

Kitchen cabinet and vanity manufacturing is highly mechanized: all
work that transforms the lumber and processes the shaped components and
particleboard is done by machines or mechanically driven devices (such
as inking cylinders). Especially in the stock line segment of the
industry, transfer of stock has been increasingly conveyorized, rather
than being performed by material handling equipment or manually.
Conveyorization has in turn been made possible by the economies of scale
of mass production, and also by advances in technology, such as those
that permit the rapid application and curing of inks and glue.

First in the sequence of the industry’s manufacturing
operations is the treatment of the rough lumber. The lumber is
delivered in uniformly sized sheets to predrying facilities. Predrying
facilities began to be installed by the industry during the late
sixties. They are designed to reduce the drying process from 5
months–if the lumber were to be left to dry in the open air–to 1 month
(more or less, depending upon the species of wood). Predrying generally
shrinks the lumber’s moisture content by about 70 percent; it has
the additional advantage of preventing the quality degradation
characteristic of lengthier drying processes. The lumber is then
transferred to kilns, usually for a 15-day period, so as to further
reduce moisture content.

The machinery used in kitchen cabinet manufacturing reflects
woodworking technologies that have been applied for many decades.
However, a large proportion of such machinery appears to be
comparatively new, and thus features the many minor innovations and
modifications that cumulatively enhance the productivity of
manufacturers’ capital stock. According to a 1979 survey conducted
by Woodworking and Furniture Digest, much of the existing woodworking
and other equipment used in kitchen cabinet manufacturing establishments
was less than a decade old. For example, one-half of all sawing and
profiling machinery was 10 years old or less, as were two-thirds of all
dado, grooving, planing, and mitering machines. Most types of sanding
machines were likewise of comparatively recent vintage. Well over
four-fifths of edge banding machines employing hot-melt adhesives had
been installed within the previous 10 years. Where the proportion of
equipment 10 years old or less fell below 50 percent–as in the case of
manually operated shapers, certain kinds of lathes, carving machines,
tenoners, and sanders–it was preponderantly between 10 and 20 years

Of innovations to the production processes of the industry only a
few examples can be given here. Defects in the lumber used in
manufacturing kitchen cabinets were formerly spotted by a worker’s
trained eye and had to be laboriously removed with hand tools. Now, an
electronic device “finds” the defect, and programs the cut so
as to isolate and eliminate the defect. Labor requirements as well as
material waste are thus considerably reduced.

Cutting heads of shapers, as well as saw blades, have been
toughened by tungsten carbide, reducing time spent in removing and
sharpening such devices. Particleboard pieces of similar thickness can
now simultaneously be sawed to varying dimensions (as specified by
different customers) by programming a computer, which generates a
machine-readable tape that informs the sawing machinery of the cuts to
be made and their sequence. The computer also generates a tape that can
be read by the machine operator, so that he or she may check and follow
the cutting operations, and override when necessary. Such lumping of
small orders for processing of particleboard without manual resetting of
machinery has raised output per unit of labor input in some
establishments by three to five times.

Secondary sanding operations, traditionally performed by hand, have
been disappearing gradually; the use of multi-functional sander
attachments, which reduce or eliminate the relatively high labor
requirements associated with hand sanding, is becoming more prevalent.
Automatic thickness settings permit a wide range of bites, down to
finest surface polish. In addition, air-operated hand-held polishing
apparatus has been developed that also dispenses with secondary sanding,
and prevents swirl patterns by means of its so-called random orbit
action. A shift away from electrically powered tools to air-operated
hand tools is widely believed to have improved operator efficiency.
Air-powered tools are lighter and less fatiquing to operate, and offer a
wider choice of such options as handles and styles adaptable to operator

Adhesives and the means of applying them have likewise been
improved. High-speed production and assembly requires rapid curing, and
gluing has become an integral part of the production process in the
larger, mass-producing establishments. However, stapling has not yet
been eliminated in kitchen cabinet and vanity assembly, where it
supplements gluing in the fastening of parts. Gluing, like stapling is
performed by hand-held power tools. Such tools have been redesigned so
as to minimize operator fatigue, and technically improved for ease and
speed of operation: for example, screw-in cartridges now permit quick
replacement of the glue-dispensing head.

Processing of particleboard gained considerably inefficiency during
the review period with the introduction of synthetic precision coaters,
which ensuure that the board is free of voids or craters, and of
ultraviolet light as a device for rapidly curing such coaters.

Fast curing is, of course, indispensable in the mass production of
the cabinet box (which, as noted, consists of particleboard). The board
is also run through a wood grain printer consisting of chrome cylinders
engraved with the desired grain pattern, and is imprinted with the
pattern by means of inks that dry almost immediately when the board has
been run through an oven. Prior to the introduction of these processes,
the cabinet box was left unfinished, meaning that more expensive
particleboard had to be used. Despite the expense of capital investment
in the new process, costs of fabricating the box have declined, while
the final product has become more attractive.

Capital investment

Expenditures for plant and equipment by kitchen cabinet
manufacturers paralleled output trends over the review period. Capital
expenditures by the industry, in constant dollars, rose at an average
annual rate of nearly 7 percent between 1972 and 1979, then declined at
a rate of 17 percent per year to 1982. The industry’s capital
spending varied from year to year in line with its output, although
fluctuations in spending were far greater than those in production.
Thus, in 1977, capital spending soared 51 percent compared with 47
percent for output, while in 1980, it plummeted 44 percent (always in
terms of price-adjusted dollars) as against a 7-percent output drop.
Average annual percentage changes in capital spending for the industry
differ markedly from similar estimates for all manufacturing:

In terms of current dollars, assests per worker in the kitchen
cabinet manufacturing industry have risen less than in total
manufacturing. According to Bureau of the Census data assets per worker
in the industry increased 42 percent during the review period, compared
with 76 percent for all manufacturing. The industry used considerably
less capital per worker than manufacturing generally throughout the
period, and in recent years, its capital intensity actually declined.
Until the mid-1970’s, assets per worker in the industry averaged 34
percent of the comparable figure for manufacturing, thereafter dropping
to an estimated 26 percent. The decline to some extent reflected a
decrease in the value of structures (that is, plant) relative to the
industry’s gross asset value–from about two-fifths in the earlier
part of the period to one-third in the later years. The industry thus
tended to place relatively more emphasis on installing new equipment
than on constructing new plants.

Structure of the industry

The number of establishments in kitchen cabinet manufacturing rose
65 percent between 1972 and 1982. Most of the growth occurred before
1978, but despite slackening output in subsequent years, the number
climbed by an aditional 15 percent by 1982. The increase centered on
custom cabinet fabricators rather than stock line firms, attesting to
the strength of demand for replacement and remodeling of kitchen
cabinets and vanities. It is possible that the rapid rise in the number
of custom cabinetmaking firms contributed to the productivity slowdown
in the industry in the more recent years of the review period.
Virtually all the employment increase in the industry during the
seventies occurred among custom cabinet and vanity fabricators rather
than among stock line establishment.

The great majority of industry establishments are small firms
employing fewer than 20 workers. In 1977, four-fifths of all
establishments classified in the industry accounted for but one-fifth of
total employment. Three percent of all establishments employing 100
workers or more accounted for 40 percent of all workers. Changes over
time in the distribution of establishments by employment size were
small. Concentration ratios shifted upward for stock line
manufacturers, with the eight largest firms accounting for 71 percent of
the value of shipments in 1977, as against 49 percent in 1972. The
upward shift was less pronounced for custom fabricators (25 percent in
1977 versus 22 percent in 1972.)


Swings in residential construction, and high interest rates (if
they persist), are likely to retard short- or medium-term productivity
improvements in kitchen cabinet manufacturing, because they tend to
depress capacity utilization and capital investment. Nevertheless, the
experience over the 1972-82 period suggests that, over the long term,
productivity should continue to advance. Productivity gains are also
foreshadowed by continued diffusion of innovations, at least in the
large establishments.

Automated systems are likely to be adopted more widely in the
industry as costs of numerical controls decline. The precision of cuts
made by such woodworking machinery as saws, shapers, and planers is
likely to be controlled much more readily by the use of microcomputers,
which would reduce setup time and waste, and improve product quality.
The application of coating also appears likely to become increasingly
computerized: In a new type of technology, an electronic eye determines
the dimensions of the wood component to which the coating is applied,
relaying the information to a computer that operates revolving spray
heads. These spray heads turn on and off as programmed. Changes in the
color of the coating do not require significant downtime. The chemical
characteristics of the spray have evolved so as to reduce drying time to
little more than 2 minutes, and further reductions are in the offing.
Together with appropriate changes in factory layout, such innovations
have at east halved labor requirements of establishments in which they
have been adopted.

Flexibility in setting up woodworking machinery afforded by
microelectronic devices and numerical controls should also advance the
efficiency of custom cabinet production. Moreover, families of common
parts are more efficiently produced where group technology concepts or
flexible manufacturing systems have been adopted by establishments in
this segment of the industry.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected an average annual rise
in the employment of the industry group to which kitchen cabinet
manufacturing belongs of 2.3 to 2.4 percent between 1982 and 1995.
These rates are somewhat lower than the 2.8-percent annual increase
recorded for the 1972-82 span. The occupational mix of the industry
group is not projected to change significantly. The Bureau also
projects great strength in residential construction in the years ahead,
with 2.16 million private housing starts in 1988, and 1.9 million
annually thereafter to 1995. Expenditures for replacement and
remodeling are also likely to increase, considering the large additions
to the stock of residential housing in the 1970’s. Consequently,
if demand for kitchen cabinets and vanities grows with the projected
rise in residential construction and replacement and remodeling outlays,
capital investment in the industry should be spurred, ensuring continued
productivity improvement.


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