Mechanisms: motion's unsung heroes
Larry Thomas -- Furniture Today, February 18, 2013
HIGH POINT - As furniture manufacturers and retailers have watched motion furniture sales grow despite a recession and weak consumer confidence, one of the key reasons for that growth has been all but ignored.
Styling, comfort and price obviously are critical, but none of those things make reclining chairs recline and motion sofas move.
That title would go to the mechanism, a maze of metal that is hidden beneath the seat for much of its lifetime. Even when activated, only a small portion is visible to the naked eye. And as long as it puts the seat in the desired, relaxing position, few even notice it then.
Call mechanisms the unsung heroes - the offensive linemen, if you will - of motion furniture.
"Not many people notice what we do unless something goes wrong," quipped Steve Hoffman, CEO of Ultra- Mek, a mechanism supplier in Denton, N.C., that focuses on mid priced and upper-end upholstery producers.
But Hoffman and his peers get excited when they discuss the finer points of the design and development of mechanisms, which consist of dozens of metal parts, springs and wires that are intricately arranged to allow the seat to recline smoothly.
First used in reclining chairs, they're now commonly found in sofas, loveseats and sectionals. And as the popularity of motion furniture has soared in recent years with the explosion of flat-panel television sales, companies supplying the mechanisms have benefited as well.
"The motion category is still growing, and it has been a good, stable business for us for a long time," said Pat Loch, vice president of sales and marketing for home furnishings components at Leggett & Platt, the largest U.S. mechanism supplier.
Leggett produces mechanisms at factories in Tupelo, Miss., and Litchfield, Ky., and some of its other components plants assemble mechanisms using parts produced at those two sites.
That system, Loch explained, enables the company to keep its furniture industry customers throughout the country well stocked - often on a just-in-time basis.
"It's important for us to be able to ship components to our customers rapidly," he said. "We can supply them out of multiple locations."
Once assembled and ready to be installed in a reclining chair or sofa, a mechanism often looks like the product of a 1960s Erector Set. But each piece of metal is there for a specific purpose - to make the seat recline and return to its upright position smoothly. And believe it or not, there are dozens and dozens - maybe even billions and billions - of ways to accomplish that.
Leggett, Ultra-Mek and Hickory Spring Mfg. each have dozens of U.S. patents attesting to the uniqueness of certain aspects of particular mechanisms. And with the influx of Chinese-produced mechanisms in the past decade, the companies say they're constantly on the lookout for inexpensive knockoffs.
"A patent is a worthless piece of paper unless you defend it," said Hoffman, who holds 32 patents himself. "But defending one gets very expensive very quickly."
He said he has seen customers replace one of Ultra- Mek's products with a knockoff that costs $5 less, and he gets especially frustrated by the almost constant fixation on price.
"Sometimes, people just don't care anymore," he said of the difference between U.S.-made goods and less expensive knockoffs. "If it looks good on the outside, they're going to buy it, regardless of what's on the inside."
Not only is it expensive to defend patents, it's expensive to merely create a mechanism, executives say.
Once a design has been finalized, a die has to be created for each piece of metal so the pieces can be stamped out of rolls of steel. A single die costs at least $5,000 to make, and a single mechanism can require as many as two dozen dies.
And that's not counting the costs of the sophisticated stamping machines, fabricating equipment and laser cutters that are needed.
"It's a very capital intensive business," said Loch.
That's one of the big reasons Leggett, Hickory Springs and Ultra-Mek make the majority of mechanisms sold to U.S. upholstery producers. However, three major motion furniture producers - La- Z-Boy, Lane and Franklin - make most of their own mechanisms, and they're convinced it gives them a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
"We see it as one of our core competencies," said Darrell Edwards, La-Z-Boy's senior vice president of operations. "We are able to react more quickly to changes in the marketplace."
La-Z-Boy has dedicated mechanism plants in Dayton, Tenn., and Nashua, Mo., that supply its upholstery factories, while Lane uses a single factory in High Point for its mechanism needs.
Lane's High Plant is technically a separate company called Royal Development that was founded in the early 1960s by Steve Hoffman's father, Frank Hoffman Jr., and sold to Lane in 1972. (Steve Hoffman f ounded Ultra-Mek in 1983.)
Lane President Dan Masters said the Royal Development plant gives the company numerous advantages in the marketplace because it not only provides better control over product development costs, it gives product designers more freedom to design a seat without worrying whether an outside vendor has an appropriate mechanism.
"We can make the mechanism fit the style, rather than make the style fit the mechanism," Masters said.
"We control the mechanism development process."
Such control has been especially important during the past two years as the popularity of power mechanisms - which have motors that controls their movements - has soared.
"We've had to adapt some of our designs rather quickly to include power," Masters said. "We had the ability to react quickly and control our own destiny."
Chuck Tidwell, vice president of merchandising and product development at Franklin, said his company got into the mechanism business in the mid-1990s as part of a push to be vertically integrated.
Tidwell believes the costly investment pays for itself because its mechanisms cannot be found anywhere else (it doesn't make any outside sales), which gives Franklin sales reps and retailers a major selling point.
"It becomes less of a commodity because we don't have the same thing everybody else has," he said. "It makes it easier for us to achieve what we're looking for in terms of style and comfort."
Franklin produces its mechanisms within its upholstery manufacturing complex in Houston, Miss. Tidwell said about 100 of the company's 1,250 employees work in the three-shift mechanism operation.
"There are other companies out there that make a lot of good (mechanisms), but we feel that making our own is a real big advantage for us," he said.
Going forward, Tidwell and other executives believe power mechanisms will continue to increase in popularity regardless of where they are made. (Mechanism producers buy motors from outside vendors, often in Europe or Asia.)
"We liken it to the automobile. Almost everybody has power windows today," said Loch. "So they easily understand the concept of power motion."
He also believes power mechanisms resonate with older consumers and women of all ages. Women traditionally have shunned motion furniture and recliners - often objecting to the handle or button on the side of the seat. However, since most power mechanisms are operated by a discreet button, usually on the arm of the chair or sofa, he said it eliminates that objection.
Loch said motion furniture designs also have improved in recent years as Leggett and others suppliers have developed mechanisms that accommodate a variety of looks.
While traditional mechanisms have also provided the legs for reclining chairs, he said several "off the floor" mechanisms have proven popular recently because they allow the chair to rest on three- to five-inch legs. In other words, it delivers motion upholstery that looks more like stationary upholstery.
"That allows the chair to have cleaner lines and more fashionable designs," said Loch.
And since it's no secret that consumers - particularly American consumers - aren't getting any smaller, mechanism producers have started producing models that hold heavier people.
"We used to test all of our mechanisms for 250 pounds, but we have expanded that to 300 pounds, and in some cases, to 350 pounds," Loch said. "As the population ages, we have to have a higher weight capacity."
|A laser cutting machine at
Ultra-Mek is used to make
many of the smaller metal
Ultra-Mek CEO Steve Hoffman with some of the mechanism patents his company has been issued.
|Lift chair mechanisms
such as this power model
by Leggett & Platt have
grown in popularity as
the population ages.|
|This power glider mechanism
mounted on a swivel base is one
of Leggett & Platt’s more popular
|Instead of the typical furniture
manufacturer’s lineup of fully upholstered
sofas and chairs, Ultra-Mek’s showroom
focuses on the inner working of the