HIGH POINT — Travel restrictions related to COVID-19 have had a dampening effect on markets and trade shows. And those same restrictions also have limited product development trips industry executives and creative teams have made of late, including to Asia, where most furniture is made.
While this has been a challenge for those used to doing that work on the ground in countries such as China, Vietnam, Malaysia and India, the industry has adapted.
Now, instead of working face-to-face with engineers and development teams in Asia, the industry is using technology — from Zoom and Facetime meetings to 3D model development — to bring product to market, including some product that will be seen at the upcoming October High Point Market.
“There is that phrase ‘necessity is the mother of invention,’” said Doug Rozenboom, senior vice president, merchandising and marketing at A.R.T. Furniture. “We are just going about our business in that we just have to do it differently. Everything that we can do (through innovative use of technology) increases the chances that samples and the product are going to come out how it was intended.”
Take, for example, the company’s use of 3D imaging technology to develop virtual product models. This allows the company to get a full visual of the product and even place it in a virtual room setting to see what it would look like.
“We build the 3D models (before a sample is made) and render them to look as close to real photography as possible,” Rozenboom said.
This process also lets the company to share imagery to get feedback before it does sampling, thus allowing for any necessary adjustments. These adjustments can be communicated directly with the factory in Vietnam virtually as it prepares to make the samples.
While the company had previously dabbled in 3D models, it mostly relied on 2D CAD drawings sent to engineers at the factory. But 3D imaging is becoming more important as it can be used with augmented and virtual reality.
Rozenboom said the pandemic has made this technology even more important.
“I think it has made it twice as relevant,” he said. “We started to go down this road last year because it is just a way to get to the selling proposition quicker. I don’t have to wait for a container on the water to produce a selling image. When you look at the fact we are not traveling either, … the direction we are going makes even more sense. It is a confidence builder for us due to the fact we are not physically there.”
A.R.T. and others also have used more virtual communication with teams in Asia. Whether through Zoom, Facetime, Skype or Microsoft Teams, the goal is to efficiently communicate with those teams on entire aspects of the process, from product dimensions and construction to the application of fabrics, veneers and finish.
This, observers note, can often expedite development, particularly as it doesn’t require people to travel back and forth on 16- to 20-hour plane trips.
“We have people who live (in Asia), so we don’t have a lot of people going back and forth,” said Mike Wurster, president of Elements International, of the company’s teams on the ground in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and China. “We don’t want to be in a spot where we delay introductions or delay product for certain customers. We also have fantastic video and photo technology to put images in front of our customers, so this can result in speeding up the process.”
With COVID-19 travel restrictions, this now has become a primary way to share information, particularly with images and video that use large amounts of data.
When travel restrictions started earlier this year, the use of technology allowed Sunpan’s domestic product development teams to get things done a lot sooner, particularly as they didn’t attend Asia furniture shows normally held in February and March.
“The amount of new product that is in the pipeline has never been better and is fantastic,” said Carl Lovett, vice president, sales. “The sourcing teams would have been in Vietnam in February and March and then would have gone to China, which didn’t happen. Then they would have been in High Point.”
Lovett noted that during those weeks they would have been traveling they instead have been working on product, communicating with the factories and development teams in Asia to produce samples.
As is the case with other furniture importers, these completed samples are shipped to the States or Canada for review. This allows even more eyes on the product domestically, including designers and sales and marketing staff vs. just the sourcing team overseas.
“If the sample comes in right the first time, that is great; you have cut the lead time in half,” Lovett said, of the ability to make quicker decisions on what to produce, put on the website and ultimately ship. “If you have a good team and they are following the directions, they get it right the first time.
“If you have a good system in place, maybe we don’t need to travel to Asia four times a year. Maybe you do it twice,” he added. “It is just a new way of doing things, and it might be the new norm.”
Steve Silver, of Steve Silver Co., also said that the company has communicated more virtually with teams in Asia on various products including case goods and upholstery. He noted that not having to travel, including to the canceled April High Point Market, gave the teams additional time to work on product development.
Like other companies, it also has product shipped from Asia for review, allowing it to make a decision on what to put into production sooner vs. later.
“If we got a good feeling, we just bought it. We just moved forward with the April product, and we are actively selling that right now,” Silver said, noting that product will also be shown at the October market and is in stock for dealers to order right away.
Officials note that the biggest challenge relating to this new method of product development could be in developing the right finish for case goods. Time will tell, they noted, how this works out.
“We are spending a lot of time on Zoom and Skype calls reviewing product,” said Neil McKenzie, director of product development at Hekman Furniture. “The proof will be when we see the final products in person. We have to be very dogmatic in making sure they have what we have approved as finish panels next to a piece of furniture so we can see a comparison of how close the finish is. Color is relative on different screens.
“We also are working from drawings to make sure the (design) details are followed as well as from the finish panels,’ he added. “It can be a tedious process because you are getting into some minute details to get it right.”
Some are using other available domestic resources to make sure they get things like the finish right from the start.
Phil Haney, president and CEO of Lexington Home Brands, said he and fellow executive team members normally travel to Asia four to eight times a year. The last trip he made before the end of this summer was in November 2019.
But he said the shift has allowed the company to make better use of its wood sample shop in Lexington, N.C., to build additional samples, which he said “helps us with scale and design elements. While we can’t handle the carving, we can make the cases, and we can do mock ups (minus operating drawers). We will make it and take it to Akzo to get it finished. We normally make one or two, but now we make seven, eight or 10 items. It allows us to look at scale and to see how it works.”
From there, the company does CAD drawings and sends that — along with finish panels and finish lab sheets/instructions —to Asia for sample development.
“If you don’t have a sample shop and get a head start on this, it can be pretty difficult,” Haney said.
He said the team also uses Zoom and Facetime to communicate with product managers, engineers and designers in Asia.
“We will be on the phone with these guys sometimes for hours doing a review of each item. It is not perfect, but it allows us to get closer to it,” Haney said.
He like others believes the changes in recent months also could require less travel to Asia in the future, which may not be a bad thing, at least for now.
“I think we will go less, which is good. It is not a great time to be traveling,” Haney said, adding that while the company will definitely still make some trips overseas, “I don’t think it will be as often.”
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