June 2003

Distribution Channels
Inner Workings of the Millwork Industry

Upward Bound
How the Stair-Parts Supply Chain is Evolving
by Allen Dyer

The landscape of the stair-parts industry has changed significantly during the last 15 years, from a nearly exclusive commodity business to one that must now rely on the best supply chain combination of both international and domestic manufacturing to succeed.

Stair parts that are imported through a manufacturer contracting with offshore producers for high-volume parts offer a competitive advantage to distributors. Offshore production offers lower costs on ‘commodity’ parts while the manufacturer uses his domestic production to maintain a plentiful selection of parts and to assure consistent service on the parts made in another country. In effect, a stair manufacturer, in this example, may have become a “super distributor” that is capable of not only importing many parts from international markets, but is also capable of managing the logistics of receiving and processing significant quantities through shipments ordered in advance.

New Pressures
However, this new link in the supply chain has placed additional pressures on the domestic manufacturing side because the run quantities within United States stair-parts plants have dropped as has the overall quantity of domestically made products. To stay competitive in both volume and product quality, successful stair-parts companies have had to put their resources into upgrades to existing plants and into strengthening efficiencies. The scenario in which stair-parts companies have long runs of product over which to spread their overhead is disappearing.

For balusters to align properly and still be in compliance with the new building codes, a major change in the way balusters are made will be necessary. Companies are trying to address these new manufacturing challenges in various ways.

Choices to Make
A stair-parts manufacturer’s choice of the proper export partner is absolutely critical in the ultimate success of the company’s stair program. Tight specifications on exactly how the product is made overseas must be in place and clearly communicated. A strict quality-control compliance program must also be in place to prevent problems within this part of the supply chain. If a stair-parts manufacturer receives a product that does not meet quality standards, it is too late to fix such a problem because the customer would likely have to wait a long time for the re-supply to happen. International and domestic manufacturing must work together to ensure the smooth supply-chain connection that will offer seamless service and top-quality products. 

One advantage of importing stair parts from international markets is that customers enjoy low cost while continuing to see the quality to which they are accustomed. And, importing products also has meant that some new products (which were not practical in the past due to cost) may be offered. This would not have been a feasible product to provide if it were not for a successful mix of both international and domestic manufacturing and the resulting cost efficiencies of doing business in this way.

Another aspect that is driving change within the stair-parts industry is the changes in building codes, including a narrower handrail, wider tread minimums, the 4-inch sphere rule and high handrail heights. The 4-inch sphere rule is a decrease from 6 inches to 4 inches to bring the balusters closer together. With this new measurement, many installations of two balusters per tread will not pass the new, stricter building codes. 

The new tread run requirement of 10 inches means that very few stair installations will meet code unless three balusters per tread are used. When the new minimum tread run requirement is combined with the 4-inch sphere rule, very few stair installations will meet code unless three balusters per tread are used.

The evolution of the stair-parts industry continues, with international manufacturing becoming a vital ingredient in the changing supply chain. This international and domestic relationship is imperative for a stair-parts company to succeed in providing the large number of components and the healthy inventory that distributors demand today. 

Allen Dyer is president of ECMD Inc., a building products manufacturing and distribution company headquartered in North Wilkesboro, N.C., with production operations that include EastCoast Mouldings, Crown Heritage Stairs and A&H Windows.


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