It’s not often that you get the chance to use the word ‘unique’ and get away without being accused of exaggeration. But Plumbs of Preston claims the right to be described this way.
Although there are plenty of local and even regional companies in the market, Plumbs is the only manufacturer of fitted furniture covers to offer a nationwide service. Each week about 25km of material is converted into more than 1000 made to measure loose covers for armchairs and sofas.
Started some 45 years ago and still owned by the Plumb family, this Lancashire factory has over 300 staff on the payroll. But this is only part of the story as there are another 150 self employed consultants who deal with customers in their homes. Consultants show customers fabric samples and photographs demonstrating the different fabrics on offer and generally giving advice on the available options. After agreement is reached, the consultant measures up, sends in the details and will ultimately fit the products once complete and shipped.
With over 1000 orders a week to process and at least 200 designs and colourways to contend with, it follows that holding stock of raw material is hardly practical. Instead, Plumbs uses its experience to forecast the likely demand for each fabric and colour alternative which it then passes on to its four major and 16 minor suppliers. It takes around four to six weeks to process an order, from the moment measurements come in from the consultant to the point of delivery. The first stage of the process is to check the measurements and set up the documentation. During this time we expect the material to be delivered from the supplier just in time to go straight onto the Lectra cutter.
In a process still very much dependent on skilled sewing machine operators, of whom the factory employs more than 70 plus a few other machinists installing zips and making-up valances, there is a limit to how much automation is possible. But over the years Plumbs has invested heavily in state-of-the-art automatic cutters from the French manufacturer, Lectra - machines that even ten years ago had a £100,000 price tag. “We have worked closely with Lectra for 15 years,” said production director Arthur Diamond, “and now have seven of their cutters. Because each order is unique, every job has to be cut single ply, but even so our productivity in this area has risen enormously.”
It’s not as simple as saying the Lectra machines have made a four-fold improvement in productivity as savings at the cutter need to be offset with time spent in the firm’s drawing office working on CAD systems to feed the cutters with digital data. But, overall costs and training timescales are down, plus, by using a computer to arrange the numerous pattern pieces on the fabric, maximum material utilisation is being achieved.
One of the biggest problems Plumbs has is appealing to a younger market. When they think of Plumbs loose covers, many people think of the brown knitted stretch fabric on granny’s favourite chair. However, with the continuous development of polyester knitted fabrics, a high quality cover with little stretch is now available with all of the easy-care benefits and they still account for 50 per cent of sales. But nowadays there is much more interest from the market in cotton fabrics which has seen the Traditional Cotton brand grow enormously.
For those customers who want a tighter fit from their covers, but without going all the way to re-upholstery, Plumbs is busy building a network of what it calls ‘technical designers’. So far there are 155 of these independent re-upholstery specialists who receive firm orders, generated in the normal way, but who make the covers to much tighter tolerances. Rather than have the field consultant measure up, details are passed to the technical designer who takes his own measurements.
There is an increasing demand for full re-upholstery which Plumbs now offer as a service throughout the United Kingdom.
Plumbs has a terrific reputation, as a completely dependable, friendly, family run business. An obvious extension to the loose cover range are curtains; not the imported, ready made variety, but rather a top of the range product complete with a full design and fitting service. Currently, curtains such as these account for around twelve per cent of the total sales which includes our internet curtain ordering service.
The life of an order in the Plumbs factory can be seen here