* 1973: Initial 360,000-square-foot plant opens in Dayton's Industrial Park.
* 1986: 186,000-square-foot addition expands capacity of first plant.
* 1990: Another 270,000-square-foot plant is added on the Dayton campus.
* 1999: Another 270,000-square-foot addition for all of the plant logistics.
* 2005: La-Z-Boy completes change from assembly line to cell-based production.
DAYTON, Tenn. - The La-Z-Boy recliners assembled here are designed for leisure and relaxation. But inside America's biggest furniture factory, more than 1,300 associates and their coaches are hardly sitting still.
La-Z-Boy is assembling as many recliners, chairs, sofas and other pieces of furniture here these days as it did prior to the recession in 2007 -- and at less cost than five years ago.
"We can produce as much today with our 1,400 employees as we did when we had nearly 2,500 employees [in the early 1990s]," said David Robinson, manager of continuous improvement for La-Z-Boy.
Over the past decade and a half, La-Z-Boy estimates it has cut $50 million a year in expenses by revamping production processes, automating work, cutting product wastes, recycling materials and reducing energy use.
"Every year we're challenged to drive a few million dollars of waste and inefficiency out of this organization," Robinson said.
Such efforts helped Rhea County's biggest manufacturer to survive the Great Recession and emerge as the biggest of La-Z-Boy's six U.S. plants. The upgrades also earned the La-Z-Boy facility in Dayton the top manufacturing honor Thursday from Industry Week magazine, which recognized La-Z-Boy as one of the 10 best plants in North America for 2012.
La-Z-Boy is the first furniture plant to earn the top Industry Week award in the 23-history of the magazine award program.
La-Z-Boy had been a finalist for the IW award three times previously but never has won the top magazine honor.
"In an American furniture industry decimated by foreign competition, a determined drive for cost efficiency and continuous improvement has allowed La-Z-Boy to flourish, even during the Great Recession," Industry Week said in recognition of the Dayton plant.
La-Z-Boy operates with a just-in-time inventory and delivery system that ensures that most furniture items are sold in advance of production and then are assembled to meet custom demand. With thousands of options and colors across its diverse product line, La-Z-Boy offers up to 14 million different variations of products -- 11 million of which can be customized and built in Dayton, Robinson said.
The assembly work is done in 40-foot by 50-foot cells where teams of six to eight workers build the frames, stuff polyurethane into previously cut-and-sewn components and attach the upholstery on the furniture. Within each of 31 cells in the factory, workers immediately test the finished furniture before packing it into boxes for shipment around the world.
The entire process of assembling a batch of recliners or other furniture items takes about four hours from when the component parts are brought to each cell until they are all assembled and ready for shipment.
"This [cell production] allows us to take a much more diverse product mix and run it more efficiently," Robinson said.
Workers in each cell are paid a base hourly rate, but much of their compensation is based upon the output of each team. Some worker teams more than double their base pay through the volume and quality of their work.
"You can buy our basic recliner today for about the same as what you could in 1973," said Harold "Bimbo" McCawley, the general manager of La-Z-Boy in Dayton who started at the plant as an assembly worker more than three decades ago. "With all of the increases in the cost of raw materials, labor, energy and other expenses, how many other manufacturers can say that?"
La-Z-Boy employees usually work four 9-hour and one four-hour shifts each week. But because orders are strong right now, La-Z-Boy is working five days a week and some Saturdays this month, Robinson said.
About 40 percent of all La-Z-Boy products are made in Dayton. The 56-acre campus here includes a 360,000-square-foot plant that assembles recliners and motion furniture. Across a parking lot another, similar-sized factory assembles a variety of sofas and stationary furniture.
La-Z-Boy also operates a metal supply center than produces the metal parts used at all six of the company's factories and a wood supply facility that produces all of the hardwood parts for all residential La-Z-Boy furniture.
"We're one of the few furniture plants in America that have not just survived, but thrived in recent years," McCawley said. "We've made tremendous progress, but we've still got a lot of opportunity to improve our operations to make us truly world class and that's what we're going to do."
Other winners of this year's top Industry Week awards for 2012 are CHN Wichita Project Center in Kansas; Ethicon LLC in Puerto Rico; Harris Products Group in Mason, Ohio; Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control in Troy, Ala.; and Warren Rupp Inc., in Mansfield, Ohio.