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April 2006 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal

 

VALUE-ADDED MANUFACTURING

A final VALUE-ADDED product

The Quebec-based Victoriaville Group draws on a wide array of sawmills and
does its own custom drying and cutting for the wood components it uses to
manufacture a broad range of caskets at its plants in Quebec and Ontario.

By Martine Frigon

In 1948, sawmill and furniture factory owner Joseph-Adélard Dumont inaugurated his new casket factory in Victoriaville, a mid-sized town in central Quebec. Almost 60 years later, the modest- sized company has grown to become the second largest casket manufacturer in North America. In 1990, Alain Dumont became president of Fournitures
funéraires Victoriaville, marking the third generation of family ownership.

Today, the company has several divisions: Cercueils Vic Royal of Victoriaville manufactures standard caskets in several varieties of wood; Victoriaville Caskets, also of Victoriaville, makes high end caskets; Cerco in Montreal specializes in caskets without metal parts for Orthodox Jews; and Premier Caskets, in Mount Forest, Ontario, makes standard production caskets and special caskets for the Asian and European communities in central and western Canada.

When you hear the word casket, wood, of course, immediately comes to mind. Louise Tessier is senior buyer at Victoriaville Group and is in charge of buying all of the wood for the group’s branches. “I used to work in the automobile industry. But the same business practices are carried out here, except that the raw materials I’m working with have changed.”

Working with components including a wood box, box mouldings, a cover and cover mouldings, 400 employees in the company’s Vic Royal factory make more than 1,300 caskets a week on two shifts.

Victoriaville Group buys wood mainly from New England, except, of course, exotic woods such as mahogany. However, wood is also sourced from Quebec sawmills, mainly those situated near Victoriaville. “We have about 40 suppliers, Quebec wholesalers and sawmills,” says Tessier, adding that she practises a business strategy that gives her negotiating power: “We strongly maintain confidentiality on each of our suppliers,” she says.

Aspen is the wood most commonly used for casket manufacturing, representing 45 per cent of the company’s wood purchases. It’s followed, in order, by red oak, plain oak, ash, hickory and cherry. As well, Tessier buys birds-eye maple, mahogany and grey elm in very small quantities, which are used to make more expensive caskets. “We buy a total of more than 10 million board feet of wood a year,” she says.

Most of the wood, particularly aspen, red oak and cherry, must be dried. Victoriaville Group has 10 dry kilns, representing a capacity of 488,000 board feet. Red oak requires a longer drying period—one month—while all other types of wood need between 10 and 15 days.

It can be difficult to obtain wood supplies, depending on the season. For example, Tessier explains that during the summer, sawmills mainly cut species that could quickly discolour when exposed to high temperatures. But in the winter, on extremely cold days when the temperature can hit -30 degrees Celsius, Quebec sawmills can have problems operating and can be forced to close. Rain and mud during the spring thaw makes work in the forest challenging, so logs can sometimes not be delivered to sawmills. Tessier says that leaves autumn as the best period for obtaining the wood they need.

To ensure stock does not run out due to seasonal problems, “We have stockpiled a supply of every species we use, enough for a month of production. And if we have a problem with our drying equipment, we’ll buy the dried wood.”

Since the company began, it has used the same species of woods. Only one change has been made, in the type of mahogany that is used. “We had to make this decision if we wanted to offer a product with the same quality while maintaining costs,” Tessier says.

Once the wood is delivered by suppliers, it is placed in an area of the plant’s lot for grade and size verification. “A team of five people, including an experienced scaler, verify the grade and the length,” says Tessier. Victoriaville Group uses the “#1 common and better” grade that is the most popular for casket manufacturing. Given that two-thirds of its surface does not have knots, it is suited for the making of casket covers.

After verification, the wood goes through the dryers. In the summer, however, it can be dried outside.

A casket is made with a box, box mouldings, a cover and cover mouldings. In the Vic Royal factory alone, 400 employees work on production, and they make more than 1,300 caskets a week on two shifts. Using particleboard, the company also manufactures boxes used for cremation.

“At the Vic Royal factory, the wood is dried and forwarded to our integrated cutting centre,” says engineer Gilles Beaulne, vice-president of operations at Vic Royal for the last two years.

“We use Grecon equipment, which provides a cutting speed of 2,000 board feet per hour. We flatten the boards on both sides, and after they go through our vision system, which searches for knots, they proceed to edging optimization, and then we rim them. They then go through marking and cross-cutting (butting),” says Beaulne.

Boards are then assembled in panels using high frequency gluing equipment. Some boards will not be processed like this, however. Those that will be used for covers are forwarded directly to a planing and grooving machine, because the covers require boards in full lengths.

“There are several models of mouldings,” explains Beaulne. “For casket covers, we use boards of 3-3/4 inches in width. For the other mouldings, we use boards from one inch to 6-1/4 inches in width. The finish of the mouldings is done with a Technolego sandblaster, which assures a standardization of tints.”

The Vic Royal factory makes subassemblies for its own line as well as for other factories in the group, such as Cerco and Premier Caskets. Base components are forwarded to the assembly line where boxes and covers are joined. Units then proceed to the paint shop for surface finishing, and for installation of the bedding in the caskets, as well as ornaments and handles.

In addition, a branch of the group does the sewing for beddings. “We’ve reached a very good level of efficiency in the sewing division. With the co-operation of seamtresses, we’ve implemented a pull system, which is a very effective operational model.”

At Vic Royal, the management and supply of parts to workstations and the distribution of components to assembly units are carried out using the Kanban method, a Japanese model applied to production lines. One definition of Kanban describes it as a communication tool in the “just-in-time” production and inventory control system which authorizes production or movement. It is said to have been developed by car maker Toyota.

Working with components including a wood box, box mouldings, a cover and cover mouldings, 400 employees in the company’s Vic Royal factory make more than 1,300 caskets a week on two shifts.

Given the high number of ways in which wood mouldings can be decorated, the Kanban method allows the company to, among other things, reduce the complexity of materials management, and assure supply to their factories without breakdowns or shutdowns. “This basically improves our efficiency,” says Beaulne.

Working on a casket production line at Vic Royal requires no particular specialty. Employees receive on-site training, depending on the workstation where they will be posted. “Students who’ve graduated from cabinetmaking schools are not really interested in coming here because we work using a moving band production. They won’t make the entire piece and that’s not a challenge for them,” says Beaulne.

Victoriaville Group’s customers are spread throughout Canada and the US. Delivery in Canada is handled through four supply centres in Moncton, New Brunswick, Laval, Quebec, Toronto and Mount Forest, and in the US by affiliated distributors.

On the international scene, “Chinese manufacturers are now among our main competitors. They previously specialized only in veneer funeral products, but they’re increasingly making more upscale products. At the moment, it is particularly US manufacturers that have suffered due to this new competition,” Beaulne says.

“Our strategy, in the face of Asian competition, is to deliver good products as soon as possible and at the best price, all of which is supported by high quality customer service. In addition, the fact we are near the Canadian and US markets is a strong advantage. Our funeral home clients keep small inventories and require fast service. Our distribution system and stock management have to be effective.” Beaulne credits customer service, innovation and production speed as attributes that differentiate Victoriaville from its competition.

As for new business potential, Beaulne sees good medium-term opportunities. “The demand for cremation and the use of funeral urns are increasing, instead of steel caskets. On the other hand, the North American demand for wood caskets remains rather stable with an increase foreseen in upcoming years, due to the aging population.”


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