KD manufacturing: from European technology to mortise-and-tenon construction

Marshall Erdman manufactures the Techline line of contemporary KD furniture in Madison, Wis., with the latest European machinery and technology. With machinery made in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Sweden, he is now producing pieces of furniture that are accurate to one-tenth of a millimeter.

''We have the machines that can put out 800 pieces an hour,'' Mr. Erdman says , ''and we do that with a small manufacturing staff, which is 10 percent highly skilled and 90 percent unskilled labor. We send our skilled people to the factories in Europe to learn how to use and maintain the machinery.''

Mr. Erdman studied architecture at the University of Illinois and worked later for Frank Lloyd Wright. ''Mr. Wright,'' he recalls, ''always wanted to build a $5,000 house for the common man, which he never achieved. My objective now is to produce high-quality, simple, and well-designed furniture at a low price.''

It was while working as a consultant to the United States government in Tunisia, Gabon, and Nigeria that Mr. Erdman discovered the European technology that makes such manufacture possible. One of his assignments in Africa was to help set up some building standardization and to find a system whereby these countries could utilize unskilled manpower to build components for clinics, schools, and housing.

''I took a trip,'' he says, ''from Sweden down through Italy and visited many factories. That was when I discovered that the US was technologically many years behind the Europeans. I also saw what we might do with such machinery in my plant in Wisconsin where I was producing lab furniture for medical clinics.''

He brought in the first generation of systematized machinery from Europe in 1968. ''We were then using 50 people to manufacture about a half million (dollars') worth of lab cabinets a year. The new system enabled us to produce a million dollars' worth of cabinetry per year in 20 percent of the time, and using but seven people.''

In 1972, he was asked to produce a line of KD furniture for Sears, Roebuck & Co. to that company's own specifications and designs. He is still producing the furniture for Sears, but four years ago launched the KD furniture of his own design, which he calls Techline. He is now showing at the Southern Furniture Market.

In Raleigh, N.C., Bruce Sauls is the 32-year-old company president of Contextural Contemporary Furnishings, a Southern manufacturing company, which in five years has grown from four self-employed partners to approximately 80 employees. This company specializes in ready-to-assemble furniture made of oak and pine. ''We use our experience in building solid wood furniture and our expertise in mortise-and-tenon construction,'' says Mr. Sauls of his company, ''and we strive for a simplicity of style that will have lasting appeal. We just keep looking at current needs of people and trying to come up with pieces that meet those needs. We think KD furniture results in the lowest possible cost to the customer.''

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