Furniture manufacturing - The need for specialization Viewpoint
By: Dr. Chatterpaul Ramcharran
Guyana Chronicle
April 26, 2004

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FURNITURE manufacturing in Guyana dates back to early 20th century. In those days it could not even be described as a 'bottom house' operation. The tradesmen who practiced the art of making furniture were referred to as 'Joiners' as apposed to carpenters. Carpenters worked on houses or large structures. Joiner regarded as mere skillful worked on producing furniture, which required not only skills but an eye for detail. This distinction exists today.

As the years passed, the 'joiner shop' emerged as the place where the joiners operated. This was usually a small enclosed area, underneath his home. Joiners were not geared for mass production. Whatever they produced was by order and for a specific client. These orders were seasonal in nature, at Christmas, a wedding or an anniversary.

The late 1950s and early 1960s, saw the opening of several new local retail outlets and the introduction of a type of metal furniture. Unfortunately, due to their inability to mass produce, they could not take advantage of the potential that existed to supply the retail outlets, and the importation of furniture continued.

In addition, the introduction of a type of metal furniture which proved to be cheaper and more readily available impacted negatively on the local furniture manufacturers, forcing many of them out of business.

The majority of furniture manufacturers in Guyana produce low coast furniture for the local market. Each manufacturer or manufacturer/ retailer produces a similar range of furniture types. Most local manufacturers produced small batches of many different products. By manufacturing such diverse range of products, manufacturers were not able to become specialists in any one activity and improved product quality and manufacturing efficiency. Intense competition in the local market has created a glut of similar products. Companies have not specialized in one or two areas to create market niches and improve the consistency of their products.

The local market also has a history of custom made furniture and cabinets. Smaller manufacturers and one man operations produce one off client based furniture, usually from magazine images or catalogue pictures and kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Contracts for very low cost school furniture are common.

Smaller manufacturers could improve design quality, save materials, streamline industrial production and lower labor costs by specializing in a smaller number of products. Companies whose market is divided between the custom market and batch production for the local market should make those delineations clearer by developing standard product lines that use systems of parts that can be stocked and used as needed. The creation of market niches, for example one company specializing in spindle cabinets and plant stands, would allow for the development of better production techniques and would result in higher quality products.

Many local manufacturers expressed an interest in expanding to foreign markets. It would be suggested that some of these smaller manufacturers look to indigenous furniture types, like the Berbice Chair, for development. It must be understood that this would be a long term project and would have to include a strengthening of the infrastructure around availability of materials and kiln drying facilities. Proper prototyping and testing would have to be instituted.

Today the furniture manufacturing sector consists of five relatively large establishments twenty five to thirty medium size and several small bottom house operators. The classical 'joiner shop' remain a thing of the past.

Most of the furniture produced is for the domestic market. The large and medium size operators would supply the retail outlets and possibly do some exports to the Caribbean. One of the large operators manufacturers exclusively for export to the United Kingdom (UK).

The small operators would depend essentially on a community based market.

With very few exceptions the quality of the locally produced furniture is extremely poor, with very little if any attention being paid to design, product development finish and ergonomic considerations.

A few years ago Courts (Guyana) limited, introduced a program where they invited the furniture manufacturers to join with them, in an attempt to revitalize the sector.

Courts (Guyana) Limited provide all the technical assistance needed and would in turn place orders with the manufacturers. Once the items were up to the standard required by Courts, items would be purchased and used to satisfy the demand at the Courts outlets within the Caribbean.

The evidence seems to suggest that the success of the Courts initiative, fell short of expectations. The Courts initiative started with approximately twenty five enterprises supplying them with furniture and the number appears to have dwindled to less than twelve enterprises.