Product development has always been the key factor for the growth of a company that believes in automation as a tool for improving the process and not for replacing human resources, which are fundamental to achieve the utmost from each machine. In fact, the union between a skilled operator and a BLM robotized bending unit has revolutionized the production cycle of chairs.
While throughout most of the United States a big snowstorm is creating difficulty, we are in Torrance, near Los Angeles on a splendid sunny day with a pleasant temperature. However, our interest is not in sunny California or the "Studios", but in a decisively important industrial context; as Jerry Farrell Corporate Director of Technical Operations explains, Virco is the largest manufacturer of school furniture for "grades K through 12"in the United States.
The company was founded by Julian Virtue in 1950. The first customer was the Los Angeles Unified School District. The company then expanded and acquired a table producer in Conway, Arkansas, followed by the production of chairs and other furnishing articles that are manufactured in Torrance and Conway.
Virco has multiple facilities, including its newest lovation in Conway, Arkansas, covering an area of 120,000 sq.m, 40,000 sq.m of which are the manufacturing facilities and 80,000 sq.m of which are the warehouse and assembly shop. Then another two facilities in Conway Cover an area of approximately 25,000 sq.m where compression-molded plastic products are manufactured in one and pre-assembly is performed in the other. Last, but not least is the facility in Torrance that covers 45,000 sq.m and in which more or less the same things as in the Conway facilities are manufactured, excepting a few differences regarding some of the production processes. As mentioned in the beginning, with 190 million dollars worth of orders, Virco is the leading manufacturer of school furniture for "under 18s" in the United States. The company is still family-run. Bob Virtue, son of Julian Virtue, is the current President, CEO and Chairman of the Board. Bob's son, Doug Virtue is Vice-President. Both believe in the fundamental values that have no doubt been handed down from father to son: voice, dignity, equity, leadership and merit.
Not by chance, Virco has led the school furnishing industry in the certification field for emissions as regards quality of indoor air, being the first company to obtain the Greenguard ® for Children and Schools indoor air quality certification for classroomfurniture,
Customers who contact Virco turn to them for quality and, needless to say, for price. As to quality, what is intended is also the ability to offer a vast range of products. "We offer many different solutions such as colours and styles to meet the market demands", explains Jerry Farrell, who guides us on the visit through the company. "Our market has changed considerably over the years and we are not the type of company who imports the whole product from China, although we are aware that some of our competitors do. To resort to increasingly lower costs is not our job, but, on the other hand we always try to find the best compromise and this is why we have chosen a BLM tube bending machine that meets our requirements in terms of flexibility and quality". "One thing that I strongly encouraged in our facility right from the beginning was automation with the use of robots in the assembly process and generally throughout the facility".
"I took this road 17 years ago by installing the first welding robots and today we have more than thirty operating robotized stations. The BLM machine was delivered in 2008 and, it revolutionized our production process". "When we purchase new machines, we do it with the aim of improving the process. I can give you an example of a chair that we make in three different sizes". "Before purchasing the BLM bending unit, five different bending processes were necessary. It was probably the most complex article that we had ever bent. Now with the BLM tube bending unit, we can do it in one single process". "When selecting a machine, the decision is well weighed out and assessed. What follows is a very close relationship, almost like a partnership with the machine supplier leading to longlasting cooperation, which is what has happened with the BLM Group".
"When Virco purchases a new machine, the selection is not made on the basis of the cheapest price alone, but it is made according to the possibility of it being inserted in the production process that we intend to implement. Important features, such as programming ease and after-sales service/technical assistance are evaluated.
As regards competition with the markets like China and others that are growing such as Thailand and Vietnam, Virco strategically focuses on three main issues: good service, good quality and the ability to meet the customer's every need with new products. "When a customer requires new articles, we are able to respond very quickly," emphasises Farrell. "At the end of June, a school requested a completely new product for delivery by the beginning of August. We designed, manufactured and supplied it in less than two months. To achieve these goals, it is fundamental to have the right people. If not, then there is very little you can do. Therefore, automation at Virco is not to be understood as a way of replacing human resources, but of improving the process and to do so competent people are needed"
Production is carried out mainly at the Virco facilities seeing as there are various divisions, however, there are still some small jobs that are outsourced. "Some parts of our products are laser-cut" - continues Farrell - but before thinking of installing such a system, I have to have the right people. Today, the problem of outsourcing lies in programming; if you want to run a just-in-time production to meet the customer's demand precisely when required, outsourcing creates a problem. Of course, there are also advantages, but with the increasing flexibility of the machines, we should aim at doing more in-house and outsourcing less. In the future, we should, therefore, invest in the process".
Virco considers the assistance that it offers its customers of utmost importance, starting from the support offered to school managers for purchasing furniture on a large scale, thereby saving time and money, and continuing with scheduling collection to recycle the old furniture. Our program "Cash for Cardboard" has allowed the school community in the Conway area to recover more than 100,000 dollars through recycling. We at Virco are proud to be renowned for our continuous commitment towards quality, which includes employment and the environment", concludes Farrell.