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Building a Stronger Hardwood Economy with Customized Products

Customized options for kitchen cabinet doors including species, style, and finish. Photo by Matt Bumgardner, USDA Forest Service

Demand for individually customized products, where customers are enabled to choose their own design features, is increasing in the broader U.S. economy. USDA Forest Service research analyzed this trend and found that it offers opportunities for the hardwood industry to enhance its global competitiveness if the associated manufacturing and supply chain challenges can be overcome.

Researchers from the Northern Research Station and the Pacific Northwest Research Station teamed up to expand knowledge of U.S. hardwood industry competitiveness. Scientists conducted an extensive synthesis of the literature related to customization of wood products, lean manufacturing processes, and efficient supply chains. The findings indicated that manufacturing models that enable customers to configure products to their own desired specifications are effective strategies in regions where production costs are relatively high. Examples include the U.S. cabinet industry, where import market share remains low, and clusters of small furniture manufacturers have maintained their competitiveness in North America and Europe. Such models also enable use of new kinds of product features, such as character-marked wood, which are difficult to mass produce yet appeal to some consumers. For U.S. sawmills, this competitiveness of local wood manufacturers is beneficial in terms of generating hardwood lumber demand. However, it also creates challenges for sawmills by demanding more services (e.g., sorting lumber for width and color, just-in-time orders, quicker delivery) as the downstream manufacturers they supply seek to become leaner and more customized. Ultimately, a culture of customization requires changes throughout the supply chain, but it is essential to the future success of the hardwood industry.