Charge of the Youth Brigade Udaipur’s I.EVO promoters set new benchmark for furniture factories in India

A family of well-to-do entrepreneurs repeatedly comes up against a wall when searching for good quality loose and fixed furniture for their spanking new upmarket clubhouse in Udaipur. Either the woodworking workshops cannot match their requirements, or importing furniture is beyond their budget and delivery schedules. Frustrated, the youngsters decide to set up their own manufacturing unit. Déjà vu?! Dhananjay Sardeshpande shares with you their story of learning, development, challenges, philosophy and dreams of the future.

Training and development at I.EVO is not limited to machine operators and carpenters; it includes techno-commercial and management skilling programmes.

We are talking about Iraj Evolution Design Company (I.EVO) in Udaipur and its promoters, Saurabh Khetan (Managing Director), Manan Khetan and Astha Khetan (both Directors).

They have been running a clutch of successful businesses out of Udaipur, some of them established by their forefathers before they were born. Although they had no prior experience in woodworking, the demand for quality furniture egged them to start their own industrial venture.

In 2012, I.EVO began with a “laboratory”, a 10,000-square-foot industrial shed on the outskirts of the town, in which they began prototyping. The promoters are accompanied by Rahul Mehta, CEO of I.EVO, and Danish Khan, who is the privately-owned company’s Lead of People Department.

Initial furniture consisted of chairs, tables and bedroom units aimed at the hospitality sector. It must be noted that Udaipur and major cities in Rajasthan are big on heritage tourism. The company took on a variety of small institutional and individual projects – even if some of them were not profitable – to be able to learn about technology, nature of solid wood and wood-based panels, and to understand the market.

Says Manan, who is the numbers-crunching expert in the company: “We did not undertake a market survey or order a techno-feasibility report. Instead, we spent money and time on experiential learning for a whole year.”

The stress was on understanding quality, learning design, establishing and following processes, achieving scales of production, and living up to project completion deadlines. So the machinery and material were ordered to suit these aims.

Learning at exhibitions

So how did the present-day, scientifically planned, 1,10,000-square-foot factory come about? Saurabh and his team of dedicated managers and carpenters scoured the country for knowledge, which was largely met by attending the two most relevant and important trade fairs in the country: IndiaWood and DelhiWood.

“Exhibitions are a great place to learn, understand the ecosystem and meet people from the industry. IndiaWood and DelhiWood are concentrated platforms that have technology providers, materials and machinery suppliers and consultants on board,” says Saurabh.

Ligna (in Hannover, Germany) was also a big learning experience for Saurabh. “Since all industry competitors are present under one event umbrella, it is easy to extract knowledge, compare products, understand pricing and arrive at better decisions,” he says.

And that is how, during DelhiWood 2011, he met Marc Pfetzing of Schuler Consulting-India. It resulted in a full-fledged, professional contract to set up a modern factory. Along the way there were representatives from Homag, Caple Industrial Solutions, Felder, WoodTech Consultants, and Biesse Manufacturing that helped the I.EVO team understand the pros and cons of the woodworking industry and market needs.

“Because we were all learning, and did not have any pre-conceived notions about furniture-making, we could make good use of all the information that came our way,” Saurabh recalls. “In fact, some of these suppliers are now good friends and guides,” he adds.

Says the People Department Lead, Danish: “Even now we regularly send 20-odd carpenters, machine operators and managers from our factory to IndiaWood and DelhiWood. They are primed beforehand, and are debriefed after visiting the exhibitions.”

Market segmentation

I.EVO is now a self-contained “interior solutions” company, with its own R&D laboratory, design studio, prototyping and product testing centers. Within the main factory, there is a sofa and upholstery unit, coating and finishing section, metalworking section, a lighting studio and an artisan centre.

The company graduated from its experimenting stage with a clear focus on the hospitality sector. It accounts for 70-80% of I.EVO’s business. “We are best placed to cater to this sector,” says Saurabh. “We have solid wood and panel processing capabilities, a team of good designers and interior decorators, expertise in upholstery and metal working, plus an effective delivery team.”

He believes clients in the hospitality sector are a lot more focused on what they want, are professional in their dealing, and financial transactions are timely. There is very little competition in this sector, because not many OEMs have such wide-ranging capabilities or production capacities.

There is another encouraging trend: clients increasingly prefer Indian OEMs to Chinese contractors! In fact, apart from executing several prestigious top-end hotel projects across India, I.EVO has bagged contracts for four hospitality projects in the US: two have been executed already and the others are in various stages of completion.

According to Astha, “This is an exciting, creative and challenging market. What is more, it is growing exponentially!” She should know, because she also runs ‘The House of Things’, an online portal started in 2017 to cater to curated furniture, art and interior decoration.

With the advent of furniture giants like IKEA into India, she adds, there is a better understanding of good design. I.EVO also caters to high-end homes – a spillover from the hospitality projects – and builds kitchens and offices.

Machines & material

All processes in the I.EVO factory are directed at production scalability along with product quality and engineering precision. This has necessitated that its panel and beam saws, routers, presses, edge banders, finishing and coating equipment, etc. are 100% automated.

In the learning phase there were machines from Jai Industries. But as the factory and business grew, the management inducted CNC precision machinery, tools and coating booths from Altendorf, Biesse, Felder, Festool and Homag.

I.EVO’s sourcing of timber, panels, laminates, glues and coatings are predicated on similar factors.

Seasoned wood – mainly Steam beech and White ash from France, Germany and the US – is supplied by timber trading houses in the port city of Gandhidham (Gurajat). While these species are supposed to be good for surface finishing, the factory uses kiln-dried spruce-pine from Canada, mainly for internal frames for sofas.

The factory also consumes Douglas fir, Red cedar and hemlock in varying quantities. But the blind demand for teak continues. “The fascination for Burma teak still thrives,” says Saurabh, adding: “In India, anything that looks like teak – especially hardwoods from Africa – sells as teak!”

So far as furniture fittings and hardware go, it is mostly specified by clients in the hospitality sector. However, Hettich has a huge range to choose from; Hafele is good at architectural hardware; and Ebco takes the lead in the office furniture and automation segment, says Saurabh.

In the category of consumables, the promoters stress on formaldehyde-free formulations from Italian and German manufacturers. For example, it is Kleiberit for adhesives, Jowat for edge banding glue, Rehau for edge bands, and ICA, Kupsa and EVA paints and coatings.

Automation & training

The I.EVO factory started out with AutoCAD; then graduated to Homag’s Wood CAD/CAM. However, the latter gelled well only with Homag machines, says Saurabh. Pytha’s software suite suffers from machine integration and has no default library; so it is used for prototyping and small-batch production.

During DelhiWood 2016, I.EVO signed up for Imos, after experimenting with it for 6 months. “It integrates very well with machines of different makes; it has a default library from all hardware makers, which is updated periodically; and Imos has a fun-filled, user-friendly training programme,” Saurabh recalls.

Training seems to be the mantra for I.EVO’s progress; its employees are not only passionate about work, they are constantly being assessed and their skills upgraded, says the company CEO, Rahul Mehta.

“We prefer freshers, because it is difficult to make experienced carpenters unlearn some outdated practices. Young carpenters and machine operators pick up correct techniques very quickly, understand and follow processes willingly, and are eager to deploy their skills at work,” notes Rahul.

Freelance carpenters are earning more than they did running their own business, says People Department Lead Danish. “While they bring some skills and understanding of wood, the factory exposes them to scientific processes and mechanized, error-free manufacturing.”

With the onboarding of members of the manufacturing community, the Furniture and Fittings Skill Council (FFSC) of the Union government has well-thought-out training modules that will benefit more and more self-employed carpenters. I.EVO is a member of the Steering Committee (for training expertise) and an active participant in the programme to train the selected candidates for the World Skills International competition coming up in Russia later this year.

The training is not limited to machines and carpentry, Danish notes. It involves techno-commercial and management skilling programmes, to meet the acute shortage of qualified professionals in the industry. “The aim is to train technology leaders, future managers and marketing professionals for the entire industry in India,” he says.

Mind games

What were the obstacles the young entrepreneurs, newcomers to furniture-making, had to overcome? There was a huge wall to overcome in terms of the mind sets of technology and material suppliers, as well as specifiers such as architects and project consultants.

“Until recently, everything was geared towards the retail market. There was no thought by panel manufacturers and hardware suppliers to cater to organised, factory-made furniture manufacturing by OEMs in the country,” recalls Saurabh.

Even the working methods of furniture designers, interior decorators and architects were skewed towards projects being manually executed onsite by freelance carpenters. The decisions of many were clouded by consultants and the lobby of suppliers. This has somewhat changed to accommodate OEMs, Saurabh adds.

“Product definition is not a habit among Indian designers, manufacturers or consumers,” the Managing Director notes. “So furniture making keeps changing all the time for each project in terms of raw material, design and execution.”

Then there is the government machinery that eyes all businesses with suspicion, says Manan. “While the bureaucratic attitude is slowly changing for the better, it will take time before they understand that there are players who are law-abiding tax payers and aspire to grow their businesses by ploughing back the profits to make it grow – the days of hoarding (black) money are gone,” he emphasizes.

Government must allow businesses to act freely, especially if it cannot help the furniture industry through policy intervention, or financial support, or business incentives, Manan believes.

India story

What next, for I.EVO and Indian industry? The company has plans to expand manufacturing capacities in the near future – but more on that at the appropriate time! Its focus will continue to be the hospitality sector, in India and abroad. But the immediate plan is to become a bigger OEM for brands in furniture retail, says Rahul.

While I.EVO is already manufacturing for more than three well-known brands, the management plans to take it to higher levels, and is soliciting collaboration to that effect, the CEO adds (email Rahul [email protected]).

On the India story, the promoters are excited and gung-ho. “India needs hundreds of good factories to meet domestic demand. The industry needs to get organised and regulated first,” Manan emphasizes. “We need scientific and process-driven manufacturing. The ‘organised chaos’ in which we function is self-limiting.”

Agreeing with the prognosis, Saurabh says, “India imports 90% of its furniture needs from China and South-East Asia. Given the potential in the market, woodworking can become the single-largest employment generator in the years to come. It can become the basic building block in the ‘make-in-India’ story.”

Already many American and European customers are looking to India as a substitute to China as a sourcing hub, Astha reiterates. There should be a conscious call to the country to earn a reputation as a high-quality supplier.

The company’s CEO, Rahul concludes: “As Indian manufacturers, instead of competing with each other we need to collaborate for organised working, setting standards, skilling and best practice sharing.  It is not just ‘hard work’ or ‘smart work’ but ‘teamwork’ that we need today to compete and rise in the world market.”

   

 

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