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Multi-Dimensional Design: B&N requires creativity at every desk while making impactful, artistic panels

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Headquartered on the San Francisco Peninsula, close to Silicon Valley, B+N manufactures and distributes panel systems that carry a local sensibility to a global customer base. The collections are funky, eclectic and unique. The underlying processes boldly wield existing and emerging software, equipment and material technologies. B+N’s guiding principle of being “design-driven” comes through in both object and method.

A little background.

Now known as a manufacturer and distributor of eye-candy panel systems for retail, hospitality, healthcare and commercial environments, B+N Industries got its start in the early 1980s as a supplier of consumable retail goods: labels, tags and hangers. When B+N Industries President and CEO Brad Somberg brought his executive branding experience to the family business in the mid-1980s, two things were clear to him: 1. Retail buyers were frustrated with the selection of uninspiring fixtures available in the segment. And 2. He did not want to do what the company was doing.

“I spent the next 10 years evolving B+N,” Somberg said. “We started importing product, but the existing lines were boring. We wanted our customers to be able to brand intelligently and create a wonderful experience for their clients.

“So we built an in-house creative team and in 1995 purchased a facility that was manufacturing slatwall. We looked at those basic capabilities in creative ways to blow up scale and imagery, to make impactful products that can be standalone pieces of art. I like to think our offerings disrupt a fairly stale industry, that we make a difference through design.”

It’s a subtle but powerful distinction. Aspiring to design cred is not new. Many of B+N’s manufacturing methods are familiar. In fact, the company can and will bang out traditional panel products as necessary to complement their signature lines (and as capacity allows; no sense in downtime). The difference lies in B+N’s approach.

“Designing creatively by no means to us is just related to a product. It is related to being creative in all of our processes and at every desk within the company—from engaging clients, to project management, to accounting, to distribution,” Somberg said. “We’re not just a commodity house. We differentiate by having wonderful design and making it available. When clients like it, price is secondary.”

Looking forward, B+N’s latest initiatives combine great product design with UXD (user experience design) to take panel processing to another level of customized, customer-centric production.

Designing Products

B+N offers 13 distinctive systems supported by an 80,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and 90,000 square feet of distribution space in Northern California. Production is centered around three Heian CNC machining centers and a Wemhöner variable press Eagle 3D, running in conjunction with a West Coast Spray Systems spray booth. Showrooms in New York (including a sales and design office), Houston, Northern California and Tokyo serve as touchpoints to a global customer base.     

Initially developed for retail, the product lines run the gamut of necessary branding bling: magnetic graphics, plug and play LED systems, glass, metal and more. Some, such as the 1224 System, are hardware solutions designed to allow easy change-out of different sized panels in different configurations. This modular system serves as a vehicle for stunning panels products.

The Iconic panel series features large-scale designs routed into MDF panels and then membrane-pressed with 3D laminate films. Some patterns are more intricate, or have large smooth surfaces, so panels of various thicknesses are laminated together to create different relief patterns efficiently. B+N uses 3D laminate films from American Renolit, Omnova, Dakor, Ambtra and Riken.

“The designs are so integral that achieving an aesthetic we are comfortable with requires very specific engineering,” Somberg said. “Buying a press doesn’t put you in business. We spent months reviewing data analytics of different glues, material thicknesses and finishes. Then we fine-tuned through trial and error to create a very precise menu of processes to ensure we have the right temperatures and run times to make perfect product, regardless of the pattern or film specification.”     

Iconic panels are made with an MDF core from Arauco, which can be specified for performance characteristics, such as fire rating, water resistance, LEED-qualified or NAUF. The finished product is durable and seamless. It didn’t take long for multi-disciplinary architects and designers to begin specifying the panels into other high-traffic segments, such as hospitality, healthcare and commercial interiors–where the aesthetic and performance benefits are amplified by the ability to easily change out panels for an entirely new look.

B+N’s Infused Veneer collection delivers big visual impact by infusing imagery into various wood veneers. Unlike digital printing, which is a topical process, Infused Veneer is produced by opening the wood pores, depositing pigment and re-shrinking the veneer, which is then hand-finished with a wax coating. The process allows the natural woodgrain to show through the graphic, and because it is embedded into the material, the imagery is less susceptible to superficial damage.

The extensive offerings of both series are in part due to collaboration with renowned designers from around the world.

“I’m passionate about what we do because I love the visionaries we get to work with,” Somberg said. “Our first collaboration was with Rex Ray, an American artist best known for his innovative pop aesthetic in fine and commercial art. We’ve also worked with Jamie Durie, an Australian designer famous for bringing the outdoors in.

“What you see in the end product of the Iconic and Infused Veneer panels is the execution of good design, the best choices in materials and process to execute a vision.”    

One of B+N’s latest product offerings, Fortina, also brings the outside in—as well as the inside out. Developed by innovative Japanese printer Toppan, Fortina is both an interior and exterior grade architectural film. Fortina is made by wrapping a non-PVC, printed polyolefin film around an extruded aluminum louver. The resulting product is strong and lightweight, allowing for large beams and ceiling treatments. Available in over 150 finishes and more than 50 different aluminum profiles, Fortina films can be exactly matched for interior components. B+N is the exclusive supplier in North America.     

Designing Experiences

“Over the years, our clients have taught us to pay attention to every detail. There is a cultural shift with the way people expect to interact with technology. We want the entire experience to be good design,” Somberg said. “Our current initiative is to allow the client, whether a single consumer or a huge brand, to enter their design concepts into our interface, and ultimately our software will render their request and translate it to our processes. We will be a complete custom house.”

B+N’s proximity to the engineering/programming faction of Silicon Valley is a big advantage.

“Anything we can dream of we can quickly test and validate,” Somberg said. “We’ve moved our entire company to the cloud. It gives us increased security and tremendous flexibility. Exclusive portals provide access from anywhere in the world. Clients can review prototypes. We can monitor operations to optimize workflow and ensure QC even remotely. It’s all parametric, responding in real time to eliminate steps in information transfer and reduce risk.”

While some components of the system make use of existing technologies—such as Solidworks for 3-D renderings, MasterCam for CNC milling and Salesforce for customer management—much of the interface and integration software is proprietary.

“I said to myself very early on, I would love to run the operations of my business on a flow chart and a graph—and spend most of my time on the strategic and creative side,” Somberg said. “I think the most important part of being a design-driven company is our manufacturing capabilities are really based on our design process and what we want to present to the world.”


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