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Fit and Finish

Custom Cupboards, a manufacturer of kitchen, bath and office cabinetry, turns to RFID to streamline production.
By John Edwards
Feb 09, 2009—When brothers Dan and Ron Henry founded Custom Cupboards in 1981, they had no idea their Wichita, Kan., company would one day grow into a $34 million-plus firm with more than 300 employees. Rapid, continuous growth has been a constant theme for the national manufacturer of kitchen, bath and office cabinetry. The company outgrew its original 3,000-square-foot building in just two years, and expanded beyond its second building a few years after that. In early 1994, Custom Cupboards built its present manufacturing site, featuring more than 200,000 square feet of space, as well as adjacent land for future planned expansions.

Today, Custom Cupboards supplies cabinets to a national network of more than 180 business partners in 30 states. The company offers its clients more than a half-million design possibilities, spanning nine wood choices, 120 door styles and 600 colors, and each order the company fulfills is unique. "When customers place an order with us, they get to choose the wood type, the stain and color, the interior finish, the hinges—up to 1,700 modifications," says Jason Harris, the cabinetmaker's chief information officer.

The company places one tag on the face frame of the cabinet.

Meshing a vast product array with the need to reach and maintain a high production volume has been an ongoing challenge for Harris, as well as for his management colleagues. "What makes us unique is the fact that we have such a large product offering," he says. "It's not a situation that many other manufacturers face—at least, not to the same extent that we do."

The fact that radio frequency identification technology has been able to accelerate production across a wide swath of industries, ranging from automotive manufacturing to meat processing, was an inspiration to both Harris and his firm's management team. The cabinetmaker was even able to draw a parallel to the health-care industry. "In health care, they have a part—maybe a medicine—that feeds into their system," Harris observes. "We have parts that feed into a cabinet—there are a lot of similarities there."

Building a Plan
Custom Cupboard's RFID strategy began taking shape in late 2006, when the company's production system provider, Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Stiles Machinery, first suggested the technology. "They thought of it," Harris says. "They had some ideas about how RFID could be used in cabinet manufacturing, and they wanted to know if we would like to work with them to prove out some of their ideas."

Stiles proposed an RFID implementation that would precisely track major cabinet components, such as frames and doors. The technology would enable production-line workers and managers to track the location and availability of specific components, as well as the status of parts still within the production process, and ensure that orders were fulfilled in accordance with customers' requirements. "Most importantly," Harris states, "we wanted to be able to automatically trigger audit points within our manufacturing flow.,
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