PETALUMA -- Automating labor-intensive tasks associated with the final production of wood and metal doors has made KVAL, Inc. a leader in its industry.

The company specializes in designing and manufacturing computer-controlled, high-production custom equipment used to finish architectural doors for commercial use, as well as residential prehung door and jamb preparation machinery. The machines perform many operations simultaneously, from finishing a jamb, cutting a strike plate and boring lock holes to mounting door hinges with screws.

[caption id="attachment_76714" align="alignleft" width="315"] Zack Kvalheim, mill manager and marketing coordinator for KVAL, with one of the firm's 147 classes of door finishing machinery that bores key holes and hinge plate recesses, installs screws and hardware along with other operations. (image credit: Gary Quackenbush)[/caption]

KVAL (kval.com) also builds specialized equipment for entry doors, patio door assemblies, bi-fold door hinge applications, automatic trim saws as well as door feeders and stacker machines that help eliminate costly handling.

"Our company has been serving the worldwide millwork industry since 1947," said Zack Kvalheim, marketing coordinator for the company. He's also the great-grandson of founder A.A. Kvalheim, a skilled furniture and cabinetmaker who turned to machinery manufacturing after emigrating from Norway to the U.S. in 1940.

The company takes pride in its family-oriented culture. A long list of relatives -- and nine currently -- have worked in this business over the years. In addition to promoting the business and creating sales and training videos to educate clients on how to operate their equipment, Zack Kvalheim, 27, also runs the core mill and sources parts not made by KVAL.

"We make 147 classes of machinery as well as custom, or one-off, machines we designed to handle virtually every door-related manufacturing process," he said. "Our focus is primarily on serving clients in the U.S., but worldwide sales are growing. Australia is our biggest foreign customer. Brazil is ramping up sales, as are our customers in Chile and the U.K."

KVAL had sales last year in the $6 million to $7 million range, moving the firm into the black. The company has 52 employees today. That's up from a low of 25 but still well below its all-time high of 130 in 2004, when the firm had a 12-month backlog of work.

"We've been hiring one person a week for several months and hope this trend will continue," Mr. Kvalheim said. "Our business is tied to housing starts."

The U.S. Department of Commerce reported that housing starts broke the 1 million mark in March for the first time since June 2008. Apartment construction is also at levels not seen since 2006.

The hallmarks of KVAL include quality, durability and integrity. The company makes heavy-duty machines that are still in production after 40 or 50 years. That's one of the reasons why KVAL maintains a large legacy parts department.

KVAL machine-tools in house almost all the parts used in its equipment -- with the exception of computer numerical control, or CNC, electronics and some software. It can turn around a part for a customer in less than two days and maintains a parts reserve for up to 15 machines.

The company has a technician located in the Midwest and serves East Coast clients by sending a factory tech from Petaluma.

"We offer free service and phone consultations and always send a technician to help a firm install, run and learn to operate our equipment," Mr. Kvalheim said. "They know they can count on us to be there for them."

KVAL also sells used equipment, provides tuneups, rebuilds existing machines and assists customers in designing and integrating new factory production lines.

"Speed and reliability are what drive sales," Mr. Kvalheim said. "When a manufacturer can make more doors per shift and increase productivity from one unit a minute to one every 30 seconds, their customers can depend on getting the doors they need quickly."

With greater demand for higher throughput speed comes higher prices for faster KVAL machinery and the need for more automation. While the firm still makes manually operated machines, the trend is toward computer control.

The company manufactures machines in a price range from $6,500 to $250,000, depending on options and customization.

While some door-finishing equipment suppliers are cutting prices to attract new customers, the real test is comparing durability benefits, not component-to-component costs, when determining value, according to Mr. Kvalheim.

"We want our equipment to last so our customers can be profitable over the long term. They stay with us because they see how durable our machines are."

The business is changing with the arrival of new technology and customer demand. KVAL is switching out controllers to achieve greater versatility and to increase faster tool paths. Pneumatic controls are being replaced with servo controls for greater speed.

"Small door manufacturers are a growing market. We are looking at designing reduced volume machines for boutique shops that cost less without sacrificing quality. We build to order, which can take two to three months, and don't carry inventory. This keeps us flexible as we focus on providing options and features unique to each customer," Mr. Kvalheim said.