(Cabinet Maker Magazine - 9th September 1994)
RELIANCE TURNS OVER ANOTHER NEW LEAF
OVER THE YEARS Reliance Veneer has carved itself a solid niche across a broad section of the International woodworking sector.
The last British cutter of sliced and peeled veneers, the company sells its huge range of products throughout the UK, to Europe, Scandinavia, the Far and Middle East and the USA, supplying furniture manufacturers from small to mass producers, car makers, coach and boat builders, panelling producers and the architectural sector.
The range of geographical spread of this customer base has carried the company unscathed through recession and, now recovery has set in, it is expanding its workforce to keep pace with demand.
All of which to some might seem like the cue for a spell of consolidation, perhaps even complacency. But not for Reliance. In fact, it's determined to develop its business, serve existing customers better and win new ones. Clear evidence of this is the on- going capital investment at its extensive north London site. Underlining Reliance's ambition further and particularly important for the furniture trade has been its recent move into mahogany curl veneer.
This is one of the most difficult timbers in the world to slice and the company has spent considerable time, effort and money perfecting the art to emerge as one of the world's premier producers.
How Reliance has survived and grown as a veneer producer is attributed by Production Director Albert Allen to a number of factors. But one of the key reasons has to be the resource of experience and expertise accumulated by the business down the decades, both in the techniques of veneer cutting and timber sourcing.
"This is a specialist and idiosyncratic business and it takes a long time to find your way around," says Mr Allen." It's not just a question of knowing how to cut veneer, but which piece of wood is suitable for cutting. Equally important is finding and keeping good suppliers. Over the years, we've been able to build up a network around the world and that means we can now obtain the best timbers at the best prices."
What has also underpinned Reliance's development has been a continuous effort to team the traditional craft skills involved in veneer cutting with new technology.
"one of the first things we did was throw out all the old machines, which were only capable of cutting eight to twelve leaves a minute, and replace them with new machines that could cut 40 to 60 leaves in the same time" says Mr Allen. " the resultant greater productivity naturally benefited both our business and the customer."
As a result of upgrades in cutting equipment since then, Reliance is now producing around 2 million leaves a year. It has additionally installed electronic measuring and computerised bar code systems to speed up and improve the reliability of sales order processing and despatch departments.
With the increased production of white and steamed beech, the company has also installed new equipment to improve the veneer flattening process.
Another key investment has been in a new dust extraction system, furnace and chimney. These pieces of hardware are primarily aimed at reducing the environmental impact of the plant. But, as the furnace burns wood waste from the production process and generates steam for the timber boiling vats, it cuts costs as well.
Also a vital aspect of the Reliance operation is an absolute commitment to quality. It starts at the outset with visits to timber suppliers and raw material selection. This is then continued with constant checks throughout the whole production process, from steaming, through sawing, cutting and drying, to storage, packing and delivery, which the company undertakes in its own fleet of vehicles.
The final ingredient in the Reliance success story has to be the sheer variety of products it offers. At any one time the company can be carrying in excess of £3 million of veneer stock covering over 120 different species from all around the world. Extending the choice, these can be supplied, depending on timber type from a wafer thin .5mm to a hefty 4mm. The former, fine cut veneers require ultra- precise machinery and give Reliance, and the customer, considerable yield and therefore large numbers of matching leaves from a piece of timber. The thicker veneers are sold to a range of customers, but are in especially high demand in the boat building sector.
The company also imports a selection of material ready cut and has a fully equipped worshop where veneer can be jointed to produce finished panels, from one offs to lorry loads.
Of the plethora of veneers available from Reliance, it is especially renowned for its burrs. These include Oak, Ash, Elm, Amboyna, Myrtle, Maple, Vavona, Poplar( Mappa), Eucalyptus and walnut. The latter is a particular speciality. In fact, Reliance ranks as one of the largest producers of walnut burr in the world.
Walnut burrs are heavily knotted cankers that form at the graft between the tree's root and trunk and the company ships its supplies from California. These are of exceptional quality and grow to huge girth, with a single piece producing £100,000 of veneer.
Mounting environmental concerns in the last few years have stopped Reliance using some of the rarer tropical hardwood species. But this loss has been offset by increased use of alternative varieties and expansion of its selection of temperate timbers which include Oak, Ash, cherry, maple, elm, sycamore and birch.
Of the latest newcomers to the Reliance range, there's little question that the most significant is mahogany curl veneer which uses timber from the junction of the tree trunk and the first branches. This is in demand among furniture makers worldwide, particularly in the reproduction sector and perfectly compliments the company's yew veneers, of which it has some 20,000m2 in stock.
Previously the French, and notably the Parisian company Hillen, were considered the master manufacturers of this material. But, after a long period of research and extensive trials using Khaya mahogany from Africa, Reliance is confident it has a veneer equal if not surpasses the very best to come out of France.
"The hardness of the wood and the complexity of grain, makes mahogany curl very tough to cut well and uniformly. You have to get all the factors just right- the length of steam prior to cutting, the slicing speed, the force with which you clamp the wood on the slicing machine and the trimming." say's Mr Allen. " But now we have and we are very happy with the quality."
Reliance, he adds, now maintains stocks of around 60,000m2 of mahogany curl veneer and, like its products, will supply material in quantities to suit all customers.
Due to a lack of awareness among furniture makers that it was on offer, the company found initial sales of the product developing gradually. However , since the news began to spread, demand has risen sharply both in the domestic market and export markets. And with the demise of Hillen last year and the start of economic upturn,
growth is confidently expected to become more rapid still.
In short, the diversification into mahogany curl looks likely to result in an even wider slice of the UK and international woodworking industry relying on Reliance Veneer.
( Cabinet Maker Magazine Sept 1994).