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Working with a dwindling resource

THE furniture industry is first to admit it has long enjoyed the luxury of converting thick slabs of timber into furniture.

But times change and the sector is slowly coming to terms with the realities of working with a soon-to-be scarce resource while remaining a viable, thriving industry.

High-volume furniture producers have recognised that if the industry is to continue to have a future in the competitive international market, it will depend on improvements in both the design and technology of furniture manufactured in Western Australia.

Producers such as Clarecraft, Inglewood Products and Slatwood are introducing more steel, laminates, aluminium and tiles into their outdoor furniture design ranges to reduce the proportionate amount of timber used.

Design is king in terms of adding value to the resource, with medium sized furniture manufacturers such as Jah Roc adding anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 on the value of a cubic metre of native hardwood. 

To its credit the State Government has recognised the importance of design, albeit with minimal funding, and has sparked two initiatives that appear to be having some success in preparing the industry for its future challenges.

Established a year ago, Craftwest’s Designing Futures project is working to educate the industry about design so that the furniture products become less to do with jarrah and more to do with design.

Craftwest executive Lynda Dorrington believes the timber restrictions are a positive thing because they force the furniture sector to become more innovative.

While she says it is an exciting time to be at the face of change, the industry will need further support if it is to remain viable under the new timber allocations.

But Ms Dorrington says the furniture industry needs to be more entrepreneurial and be more pro-active if it is to attract funds.

“The FIA (Furnishings Industry Association of Australia) haven’t demonstrated leadership,” she said.

“Crying out ‘we want more ’cause we want to do it the same way’ isn’t going to change things.”

Ms Dorrington said Scandinavia and Italy, both leaders in the multi billion dollar global furniture market, had faced similar rationalisation of their timber industries and had “turned it around” thanks to greater a design focus.

She said there needed be an over-arching government policy to address design from the forest floor to the factory floor to ensure the future viability and success of the industry.

Craftwest industry development manager Kris Brankovic said the Designing Futures program was about attaining the highest value add, the highest designing skills and most innovative use of the resource.

He said that, unlike the east-coast market, the WA market did not show as great sophistication and willingness to pay for fine furniture.

“There needs to be more appreciation of what is an important sub-sector of the timber industry,” Mr Brankovic said.

The Furniture and Design Centre, run out of the University of WA School of Architecture in collaboration with the Furniture Industry Association of WA, has been established to link high volume and small volume manufacturers with designers. The centre hopes to develop well-designed furniture prototypes and practices that can be applied at the large-scale commercial end.

Manufacturers taking part in the program include Antrey, Clarecraft, Fremantle Furniture Factory, Inglewood Products Group, Jarrah World, Glen Holst Furniture and Burgtec.

These companies are working not only with designers from the university but with timber technologists, forestry managers and sawmill operators to develop furniture prototypes with minimal resource waste.

Director Professor Patrick Beale said the project was not about designers showing manufacturers how to do their job but rather about coordinating the different skill groups. Ultimately the project aims to find ways in which greater design techniques, such as veneering, micro lamination and different ways of bending timber, could be incorporated into a large scale operations.

“It seems to me that if the WA furniture industry is to survive it has to stop using timber in the quantities it is currently,” Professor Beale said.

He said that, because cheaper imports were always going to outprice locally made products, it was a matter of necessity that the industry starts designing and producing for the more sophisticated export market.

Another key to the industry’s survival is additional funding for timber technologies and industry research and development.

Karri timber, for example, is regarded as an untapped resource. The fibrous wood is difficult to process, polish and glue, but an 80-year-old karri tree yields three times more volume that of a jarrah tree of the same age.

Professor Beale said that, given the right timber technologies, karri could be more widely used in furniture production.

 “While it is really fantastic that the government has supported the project with seed funding, we are rapidly approaching the stage where further resources are required if the development of the furniture industry is to be accelerated,” he said.

“I feel as far as the furniture industry is concerned that, if you can develop technologies you can continue to grow the industry, even with a restricted resource.”

Forest Products Commission manager of industry development Terry Jones said the commission was involved in Innovations in Wood Technology, a nationwide project that was researching microwave drying, space and building technology adhesives and timber bending technology.

Research is also being undertaken that links the industry from resource to mill to manufacturer, and then matching it to the market and profit produced.

Mr Jones said that, to try and free up more funds for research and development, FPC planned to shift its timber research operations in Harvey to joint facilities at the University of WA and Swan TAFE.

“By relocating the timber research to the metropolitan area into UWA we don’t have to cover all those overheads and gets us closer to the manufacturing industry,” he said.

Mr Jones expects the commission to relocate in the next six months as its greater focus on practical research for the industry intensified.

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