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The Performance Principle

For over 400 years, chairs have been produced at Polstermöbel Oelsa’s facility in Rabenau, which is why historians refer to Rabenau as the cradle of the European sitting furniture craft. Oelsa makes around 140 models of upholstered furniture, from traditional styles to modern, based on ingenious just-in-time production.

The company has adopted vertical production, though not entirely voluntarily. The production method is dictated by the company’s hillside location, which has provided a major advantage, with production spread over three floors. The new six-story building was opened last June. 

“We are doing well, our order books are full,” says Dr. Andreas Käppler, Director and Proprietor of PM Oelsa. “Despite a highly competitive market.”

The supplier gives consumers just what they are looking for with a wide range of modular-based upholstered seats and recliners, TV chairs and relaxation solutions. For planning and production, the modular concept entails 270 different types of fitting, 6000 foam parts, and 55 different leather grades and colors. Currently, 240 workers make 100 to 110 pieces of furniture per day, working on each item individually. All production is based at Oelsa – only part of the frame is out-sourced from a local supplier. 

Polstermöbel Oelsa serves the mid to high price points: “A segment in which the competition, for example in Poland, Rumania, and Hungary, have set very aggressive prices,” says Production Director Sven Herdmann. “To stay competitive here, we play our trump cards of efficiency and quality.” 

GERBERcutter DCS 3600Two automated GERBERcutter® DCS 3600s, with conveyor, are used to speedily cut the upholstery fabrics – as per the optimized depalletization and order queue for stitching. The demand for leather upholstery has risen sharply, recently to 25% – compared to 18% in 2008. Two Taurus™ leather cutter systems – also from Gerber Technology – are employed here to ensure the best possible quality selection and flexibility.

The cutting of upholstery materials in the company is now 100% automated. With these huge efficiency gains, Polstermöbel Oelsa is able to ensure speedy repayment – bearing in mind there are 4000 model variants each with seven to nine pattern sections. “Even the cutting of the patterns and foam is automated,” says Walter Stange, who now works as a consultant after 40 years at the company.

“We are in no way tied to standard parts due to automated processes, so we have much greater freedom in development; there are no limits to innovation.” 

Polstermöbel Oelsa always tries to invest in high-tech machinery, where it makes sense and benefits material efficiency and precision. Nonetheless, Polstermöbel Oelsa products are far from mass-produced goods. Mass-production methods are tightly knit with the skills of the craftsman, and the key to the company’s success is the combination of the two. With the future in mind, the company currently has 18 stitching and upholstery apprentices and takes on timber technology students in various age groups on work placements. 

Companies need time to adapt to drastic changes, but back when Polstermöbel Oelsa was restructured into a limited company on July 1, 1990, time was not something the company was given. The company’s future was in the hands of the Berlin Treuhandanstalt, the agency responsible for privatising GDR (German Democratic Republic/East Germany) agencies. At the time, the VEB (Volkseigene Betrieb – the legal form of industrial enterprise in the GDR) had 1600 employees, representing one of the three biggest upholstered furniture firms in the GDR. 

In April 1992 Andreas and his fellow directors were given an ultimatum – privatize in four weeks or close. After a potential acquisition partner bailed out, and thanks largely to Andreas’ entrepreneurship coupled with plenty of courage on the part of its three partners, an ad hoc financing program was worked out with the banks to ensure the company’s survival. This is just one chapter in the annals of Polstermöbel Oelsa. The management team around Andreas and his employees coped bravely with the abrupt transition to a market economy. And so, of 140 erstwhile GDR upholstered furniture companies, only the Rabenau firm remains and prospers. 

Oelsa Chair“We finally broke even in March 1993,” says Andreas. He remembers the days of the turnaround in the market economy. To expand and protect Polstermöbel Oelsa’s competitiveness, in the years that followed it had to make effective short- and medium-term capital investments, combined with an innovative spirit and often unconventional ideas. “Without doubt, passion and craftsmanship are some of our most valuable assets.” 

Andreas cites permanent and multifunctional employee training which ensures highly-skilled staff, as another pillar of the success strategy. Yet, it is not always easy to implement in the Sächsischen Schweiz region of the Eastern Ore Mountains. All this and a whole series of sustainability measures – for example, 40% of the company’s electricity needs are provided by its own solar energy generator – contributes to an upholstered product that is highly prized by consumers. 

For distribution, Polstermöbel Oelsa has eight salespersons who manage sales in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and at the main office showroom. The company also exhibits its products at IMM in Cologne and MOW in Bad Salzuflen, making good use of the purchasing association fairs. 

Visitors can experience it all in the German chair-making museum in Robenau which – unlike the German chair museum in Eimbeckhausen – concentrates on craft and industrial chair making. Specific tools and machines used by the chairmakers can be seen, including a demonstration of the bentwood technology used to bend solid wood into chair parts.

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