A Sweet Acquisition

August 20, 2007
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SPRINGLAKE — The acquisition of Grand Rapids-based Sweetwater Products could have broad implications for how office furniture-maker izzydesign creates its products.

While on the surface level Sweetwater Products makes furnishings relatively similar to those already in the izzydesign portfolio — flexible, freestanding furniture suitable for a wide variety of environments — the manufacturing process behind the company's wood-based casegoods, tables, work surfaces and other offerings is a generation ahead of its contemporaries.

Sweetwater Products has found particular success integrating information technology and manufacturing systems to create engineered-to-order products, what the firm refers to as "parametric" technology.

"We think this is the future of our business," said Chuck Saylor, founder and president of izzydesign. "What they've done is create a system that allows you to create custom product that behaves like standard product while it's going through the plant. You can make customs and specials more effectively, very efficiently and quickly. It allows you to make everything more efficiently and quickly."

Sweetwater Products was launched in 2001 by furniture veteran Brad Stevenson, who will now take over operations of izzydesign's local manufacturing facility at

17237 Van Wagoner Road
in SpringLake. Stevenson launched the firm with some manufacturing processes he developed at his former company, Custom Innovations, a now-defunct supplier of laminate and wood panels sold shortly before the beginning of the furniture industry downturn.

"The basic idea is that we're running a manufacturing facility in a part of the country that is not even the most cost-effective part of this country to do manufacturing," Stevenson said. "We're not going to win the cost war; other parts of the country and the world can make things much less expensively. So you have to be very creative if you want to survive as a manufacturer."

Sweetwater Products built on lean manufacturing principles and small batch processing with a zero inventory business model. Every product is built to order.

"Feeding components to OEMs was one thing," Stevenson said. "Offering to make finished furniture products in any configuration you want as a customer, then distributing it nationally and cost effectively — that's a much different game."

The parametric process integrates all of the company's design and manufacturing processes onto a single virtual computer platform. Specifications made at the design phase are automatically channeled throughout the factory, providing a robust means of mass customization.

"Now I can compete," Stevenson said. "They're mass produced; we're mass customization."

While Sweetwater Products and the company's other brands will still exist in the marketplace, izzydesign products will also gain many of the features available through the Sweetwater manufacturing process.

"We're ready to roll it out on a much larger scale," said Stevenson. "Our model is extremely scalable, and we're looking forward to rolling it out in a larger organization with larger distribution, more customers and more volume."

Sweetwater Products will close its 70,000-square-foot Grand Rapids operation at

3903 Roger B. Chaffee Drive
by the end of the year. Manufacturing equipment and parametric technology systems will relocate to the SpringLake facility. Stevenson's partner, Scott Sikkema, will work with izzydesign on strategic sourcing opportunities. The 30 current Sweetwater employees will have the option of working at the SpringLake facility as employees of temporary staffing agency EmploymentGroup, with the possibility of eventually becoming full-time employees.

One Sweetwater Products offering that will remain in stasis through the acquisition is the Go-Desk: a complete, nine-square-foot workstation self-contained in a wheeled suitcase. Primarily marketed to military users, the trademarked product has been sidelined by defense budgets favoring basic combat expenditures.     

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