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“I want to show American manufacturers that there are other ways to compete than letting manufacturing go,” Birnbach says.

For a manufacturing operation as antediluvian as Rowe’s, the 10-day sofa is an audacious goal.

Also on sale are strips of photographic slides that show attractions of the California desert, booklets that sing of the glories of the dates that Floyd and Bess Shields began to cultivate and sell in 1924, and other assorted desert souvenirs.

For free, you can step into a small theater to the side of the showroom and enjoy a film titled ‘The Romance and Sex Life of the Date,’ which explains the life cycle of what the narrator describes as “the least understood of all fruits.” There are a few old wooden booths in the showroom, where visitors can sit and enjoy the two prepared foods available at the counter: date ice cream and date shakes.

The new lines, dubbed “focus factories” because they’re meant to be self-contained within the larger plant, eliminate wasted floor space and greatly reduce unnecessary walking and material handling.

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Despite all the inefficiency, management demands high productivity, and that means Rowe is a tough place to work.

It’s just that for Birnbach, the president and COO of Rowe Furniture Inc., the dining room represents a vision of a future he’s struggling desperately to avoid. Because these can come in so many styles and fabrics, they’ve proven tougher for exporters like China to reproduce in bulk.

Still, trouble is looming: Imports have snagged about 16% of this market, compared with 9% five years ago.

If you’ve ever ordered furniture, you know that interplanetary missions have been planned and launched in less time than it takes to produce a made-to-order armchair or sofa.

Before 1983, Rowe could take up to six weeks to produce and deliver a sofa.

The goal is to have the maximum amount of work in progress, with batches of inventory for other departments.

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