7 February 2018 Issue 21 Feb/Mar

Grain: ‘Just-in-time’ furniture manufacture

Furniture startup Grain has found it difficult to buy timber in small quantities.

Grain started producing made-to-order chairs, benches and tables with little start-up capital from a space in north London in 2017 around the size of a one-bedroom flat.

In order to get around the challenge of a tiny workshop and tight funds, Grain has been making its furniture ‘on demand’. The format allows the team to only order materials when they are needed, and finished products are sent out as soon as they are ready, meaning little storage space is needed. The company’s cash is also rarely tied up in inventory.

The ‘just-in-time’ model was pioneered in the 1970s by Japanese firms such as Toyota, and later became popular with western businesses. For Grain, however, using this model was born out of necessity.

Quantity conflict

But this strategy did cause a new challenge: wood suppliers aren’t keen to sell materials in such tiny amounts – timber is generally sold in half-ton pallets from wholesalers.

To get its hands on smaller volumes of timber, Grain has had to adopt a personal approach, travelling out to importers’ offices in vast suburban industrial yards in the hope of persuading them to dismantle palettes.

‘It’s a hell of a lot of legwork,’ says Robin Tyler, Grain’s co-founder (pictured, left). ‘We’ve had to sell the fact we have very ambitious growth plans, and that [it’s beneficial] to build a relationship now.’ Moving big planks of wood to London is another issue.

An articulated delivery lorry once blocked the street outside the workshop for 20 minutes, Tyler says. To avoid such scenarios now, Tyler usually transports timber in a Zipvan.

From planks to palettes

Tyler thinks Grain is paying around 40% more for timber than it would be if it was buying in bulk. The company is planning to use growing profits to move into a bigger space which can store more wood.

Once order numbers are large enough, the company will jump from ‘just-in-time’ to batching orders together.