...And relax, how Norway exports chairs to the world with little or no stress. Simon Robinson reports.
It is traditionally hard to scratch a living on the west coast of Norway. Historically, people fished in the cold waters, or farmed on the narrow strips of land between the sea and the mountains.
It must have been a high-stress environment when the crops failed or there was a storm at sea. So the idea of a chair that could remove all the stress from the person sitting in it would have resonated very strongly with the design team at a local furniture maker.
A number of furniture makers were in the village when Jens Ekornes started his spring-making factory in 1946 with NOK5,000 of capital, equivalent to about US$1000 at the time. The company moved from springs for mattresses into polyurethane upholstered furniture in 1960 when the site in Sykkylven became home to the first Laader Berg CF3 foaming machine to be made. This machine was constructed from the ground up, and installed by Laader Berg himself at the Ekornes factory. It was in use until 1972 when they installed the newly patented Maxfoam machine, Per Henning Vaagen, Laader Berg’s CEO, said on a tour of the Ekornes plant earlier this year.
The foam from that machine was used in Ekornes’ Stressless range of reclining chairs, said Sveinung Utgaard, Ekornes’ manager of foam production.
The company has grown considerably since its foundation. Ekornes now has four factories in Norway, one in Lithuania, one in the US at Morgantown, North Carolina, two in Vietnam, and one in Thailand. The Sykkylven site employs 900 people from 35 countries, out of a total of 3300 across the business.
The company replaced its original Maxfoam line with a new Maxfoam 5020 model in 2000, and this was upgraded with a new control system two years ago, Vaagen said. Once foamed, the material is cut to 12x2x1m blocks and moved to a storage facility with room for 60.
‘Up to 30 blocks can be made in a single run,’ said Mateusz Balon, chemical engineer at the plant. The site aims to produces 1500 chairs/day.
Once the blocks are called into production, they are crushed on a Hyma machine and passed to Fecken-Kirfel saws for cutting, Utgaard said.
About 30% of each block becomes in-process scrap, which is rebonded. This rebonded foam is used to make less critical cushioning parts such as footrests. Alternatively, it may be sold to third parties.
As well as its Laader Berg block machines, the Ekornes plant moulds seatbacks, arm rests and cushions using Danish-built Saxe Polyfa machinery. A series of oval racetrack and carousel machines handle the production of seats and backs. Typically, it takes the 12-carrier carousel 8-10 minutes to complete a full cycle. This gives workers time to spray the moulds with a water-based release agent, and fit metal parts that will be encased in moulded PU and pass the finished parts on for further processing.
Where multiple layers of foam are needed, they are glued together with either a water-based adhesive or a hot melt. Some of the newer seatbacks for the dining range use a three-plate mould to produce a hollow moulding that can be pulled over a thermoplastic frame. This is so that it will make recycling the furniture much easier, said Utgaard. ‘We’re thinking ahead,’ Utgaard said.
Ekornes formulates its own recipes based on raw materials from two or three suppliers. ‘Seat cushions are more dense than back cushions, and our R&D focus is on improving quality rather than driving down the cost of foam,’ Balon said.
Utgaard explained that as they are based in a high-cost country, making high-margin furniture is essential. ‘We believe in good quality and hard work,’ he said. ‘We started with a lean production system 12 years ago and have increased quality. Product is monitored thorough checkpoints.’
Automation and robotics
The company makes use of automation and robotics to reduce the cost of production as far as it can. Utgaard believes that about 10% of Norway’s industrial robots are in use at Ekornes.
Self-reliance goes beyond formulations, as the company designed the grippers the robots use for different jobs in-house. This may seem to be a small thing but, Utgaard said, they believe it is a competitive advantage. As well as using robots to help improve product consistency, the company tries to improve quality by giving its employees some variety in their jobs. People work in production cells and can move between tasks. ‘This helps with their health, morale and our ability to cover for sickness,’ Utgaard said.
Sykkylven is the pathfinder plant for the company, which liked Laader Berg machinery enough to install a second machine at its second plant in Felsund, Norway, in 1969. It is building a range of dining chairs, and the goal is to make about 400 a day at the site.
The company now has Chinese owners. ‘It has been very positive for us,’ Utgaard said. ‘We have a new industry-driven strategy with more sofa production.’
Some design ideas come from the company’s offices in China for the market there, but Utgaard said the strategy is to keep production in Norway and, for some sofas, in Morgantown, North Carolina.
‘We have some sister products made at our site in Lithuania under the IMG brand, which Ekornes bought in 2015,’ he said.
Normally, the plant’s location, 600km to the northwest of Oslo, does not pose logistical problems but, Utgaard said, things were tight in June/July last year, with TDI and polyol stocks coming close to running out. ‘A ship with a consignment for the factory developed an engine problem, and it took a week to repair it,’ he said.
Ekornes rode the wave of lockdown purchases in 2021. According to the company’s latest annual report, gross operating revenue rose from NOK3.5bn ($360m) in 2020 to NOK4.3bn in 2021.
The company’s EBITDA grew from NOK666.6m to NOK833.3m. Ekornes said the growth was largely driven by sustained high consumer spending on home furnishings as demand surged during the coronavirus pandemic.
The company operates in three segments. There is the Stressless high-end furniture brand, the entry-level IMG, and Svane mattresses and bedding. It ended 2021 with a ‘record high’ combined order reserve of NOK1.4bn. This is up from NOK1.3bn the year before.
In the Stressless division, powered seating products performed well in the US last year. These did well in Europe, but so did recliners, sofas and the newly launched Stressless Dining. Demand was sufficiently strong for the company to increase prices to help offset the rise in materials and shipping costs.
Sales in the IMG division also rose to record levels in 2021. It also performed well in the US in the year.
Growth in the Svane bedding business was hit by tough competition in its Scandinavian heartland, and EBITDA fell in 2021.
Ekornes was listed on the Norwegian stock exchange until August 2018, when it was bought by Chinese furniture manufacturer and retailer Qumei Home Furnishing Group. Despite, or perhaps because of, its remote location on the edges of Europe and the Arctic, Ekornes has been forced to produce innovative products to survive and grow. There’s no sign of that stopping.