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A Holistic Approach to Finishing

27. August 2019 10:38

I am reminded of a scene from the old movie Unforgiven where Clint Eastwood looking to exact revenge walks into a saloon and asks who owns it. The bar tender raises his hand and claims to be the owner, and Eastwood shoots him dead.

Gene Hackman who plays a corrupt sheriff exclaims that Eastwood just shot an unarmed man, to which Eastwood replies, “He should have armed himself.” To remain cutting edge in finishing we need to always “be armed” with the best information and questions.

In the first couple of articles we focused on the “How" questions we ask and the ways they shape our worlds. We also noted how some parts of the woodworking industry have become so specialized that they are their own world.

Don’t get stuck unarmed in an obsolete world. Let’s remember the best answers come from the best questions, and the best questions provide the deepest understanding.

We will start with finishing as it always seems to be the most popular area of concern. The future isn’t what it used to be. Industrial wood finishing in regards to chemicals and equipment has changed more in the last 25 years than it had in the previous 100. You can expect it to continue to outpace the rate of change for other parts of the wood industry due to increasing environmental regulations, demand for higher performance, usability, and the effort to lower costs.

In the last five to 10 years there have been major coatings and technological developments in curing and application, so the future will most likely never be what it used to be. That's why you should adopt a holistic approach to stay abreast of technological developments that can create the highest value for your wood finishing processes.

Some may question if there is a high-level holistic process that really applies to all wood finishers. I would say yes, unequivocally.  Let me say that every year I hear or experience first-hand wood finishers who order equipment or make plans to move to a new coating and don’t do the environmental due diligence and or don’t develop a coating that performs at a high enough level to meet the customer's expectations.

Sometimes the equipment waits for long periods of time before it can be used due to environmental permitting. If the finishing journey doesn’t start at the starting point, eventually the environmental regulatory agency or the customer will bring it back to that starting point.

That said, to be a leader in finishing and create the highest value, every question in regard to a successful finishing journey is best asked from the standpoint of what would be game-changing and revolutionary in regard to creating the highest value for the organization and the customer. 

A finishing journey that starts by asking how others are succeeding in finishing and then seeks to emulate them,  assumes too much.  The value of another’s experience is to give us hope not, to tell us how or whether to proceed.

Holistic Wood Finishing Process Cycle

No great finishing system was ever created by copying another finishing system. That said, many small- to medium-sized wood finishing operations who want to scale up don’t start at the starting point. Sometimes they don’t even realize the environmental permitting they follow. I have seen shops make major coatings plans and investments before considering it. This occurs with larger wood finishing operations as well though less often.

The good news is there have been more innovations in coating formulations, coating application and curing technology and environmental controls in the past few years. Harnessing these innovations using a holistic approach is the key. Sometimes we delude ourselves into thinking that following a holistic process like this with good questions and understanding will take too long and cost too much. If that is a concern, I want to share a few good reasons for why it is better to use holistic approach:

a. Most wood finishers don’t know their target and true transfer efficiency or track it on a regular basis. Just like rough mills live and die by hardwood yield the best finishing operations live and die by transfer efficiency.

b. An estimated 80% of the perceived value in finished wood products comes from the performance and aesthetics of the finish. The average amount of time, effort, understanding and organization in wood finishing operations isn’t proportionate to the perceived value.

c. The majority of accounts/customers that are lost due to quality are issues are classified as finishing defects.

d. Finishing equipment has the highest rate of obsolescence in cost and time compared to other woodworking machinery.

e. More wood products are being sold unfinished than ever before or are being purchased as pre-finished components then sold with other components and larger assemblies.

f. Ignoring environmental regulations and permitting thinking that it costs too much will always result in higher costs and potential other business/operational problems down the road.

g. The highest value finishes are the ones that help create a brand and have the value and performance that get and keep customers excited. This isn’t a cheap fast process.

Let’s look at how to get started with the holistic process in the graphic above. Let me first say that this process is most successfully done with a combination of leadership and technical knowledge and that is why there is an abstract picture of leadership in the middle of the graphic.

1. Start every question in the context of what is game-changing and difference-making; first ascertain the value, performance, aesthetics, and cost that would make a great finish for the wood products that are being brought to market. What finish would help make a difference in the brand? If the new or revised finish doesn’t do these things it probably won’t make that big of a difference.

2. Have discussions with several coatings suppliers, equipment suppliers, and other design and technical specialists. Engage the marketing, brand, product development, and manufacturing leaders in the organization to develop key insights. Use third-party labs to perform tests. Sometimes for high performing finishes, these test results can be used as marketing materials. What we want to do is develop a winning strategy for finishing.

3. Make up a one-page document that states how the winning finish will perform, aesthetically appear/feel and what value it will have in cost to manufacture and what the customer would be willing pay for in the context of experiencing a great finish. It helps to make this as objective as possible.

When this process isn’t used many people just ask how can we do what we have been doing better? Very seldom does an improvement of an existing finishing system in simple formulation or application make a big enough difference to be a difference-maker or game-changer.  I encourage everyone who has a stake in creating game-changing/difference-making finishing systems to create something new! The next four articles will dive into specifics for each step in the holistic process from the graphic above.

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