3D printing and robots power largest furniture maker in the world

Ashley Furniture is using technology to expand production in a shrinking labor market.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

Ashley Furniture is the largest furniture manufacturer in the world. Traditionally, the company has been subject to the whims of labor markets. But a forward-thinking approach to automation that relies on robots and 3D printing technologies has helped the family-owned company thrive in a shrinking labor market.

"We're doing 10% more business out of our Arcadia facility alone with probably almost 15% less labor," said Vaughn Pieters, senior director of casegood operations. "Automation has really allowed us to remove some of that heavy physicality that manufacturing has had the stigma of over the last 50 to 60 years. We don't have employees doing that heavy bulk work all day long anymore."

Also: Everything you need to know about 3D printing and its impact on your business 

Ashley installed its first robot on the manufacturing floor five years ago, making it a slow entrant to the industrial automation game. But it's since taken a flying leap into robotics, and by leaning into 3D printing to help retool its manufacturing line, Ashley has expanded its automation footprint while sidestepping traditional constraints of industrial automation, such as minimum orders and long retooling times.

To dive a little deeper, industrial automation has traditionally been very good at making products at scale. But the furniture business often requires shorter runs of items. Retooling robots on a line is costly, requiring custom orders from machine shops. Downtime for retooling can make smaller runs impractical.

But in-house 3D printing offers a solution. Instead of outsourcing the dozens of small parts necessary to equip robots with the right tools to make a certain kind of sofa, Ashley has found that it can create those parts in-house and in real time. The realization came after the company upgraded to a Form 2 3D printer from Formlabs, which makes high fidelity enterprise printers.

"We realized that we were looking for a little better surface quality and closer tolerances. The Form 2 allowed us to create things like snap fit features for different fastening components," said Ashley Furniture production engineer Brian Konkel. "One of the nice options with the Form 2 is the variety of materials that are available. We could start printing a component, and if that particular material was not exactly what we're looking for there are other options available."

3D printing also lends itself to quick line changes and adaptations. For example, Ashley uses a simple bin system to organize jig components, which workers can swap in quickly when working on different pieces of furniture.

"Previously, we had been building each individual jig for a specific product line. With the 3D printing of the parts, it's just simply replacing parts to adapt to different SKUs. We've literally replaced fixtures that are three feet by six feet with a simple bin system; it's a two-minute setup time." Konkel said. "It frees up jig builders from repetitive tasks to work on more pressing issues, from busy work to looking at more challenging items."

In the end, the cost savings are the most compelling case for in-house tooling with 3D printers. For example, alignment pins, which are necessary to hold pieces in place during manufacturing, previously cost Ashley $10 apiece with a minimum order of 1200 from a machine shop. Turnaround time for the order was typically 3-4 weeks.

Using in-house printers, Ashley pays $5.90 per part with no order minimums. Turnaround time is a matter of hours, not days or weeks.

"Having the Form 2 and the ability to 3D-print parts has allowed us to steer away from some of the traditional ways that we develop fixturing and tooling," Konkel said. "It gives us the ability to quickly adapt to any suggestions or to any needs that we have, and create geometries that we're not traditionally able to manufacture or machine. We're able to do things that weren't quite possible several years ago."

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