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An aerial view of the Timberwolves basketball court.

Horner Flooring Company made the Minnesota Timberwolves' homecourt at the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis. Horner also manufactured the portable wood floor for the Minnesota Lynxs.

The floor beneath the Shaq

By Gordie Blum and Pauline Oo

From eNews, March 24, 2005; updated April 1, 2005

Though most of them are a bit short and can't hit a jump shot, researchers at the University of Minnesota, Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) and the USDA Forest Service's Forest Products Laboratory have played a highly visible role in this year's National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) basketball tournaments and the National Basketball Association (NBA) All-Star Game. In fact, they've had a major "impact" at just about all the big basketball venues, including the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis-host of the2005 Final Four.

The wooden floor underneath the action doesn't get as much attention as the breathtaking athleticism displayed on court, yet it's an important part of the game. To say it must be durable is an understatement.

The floor must withstand endless pounding (imagine having Shaquille O'Neal jump up and down in your living room 50 times a day for a few years) and it must be versatile, with a surface that's quick to set up and take apart--it's not unusual to have a hockey game, a rock concert, and a basketball game at the same venue in the same week.

One of the oldest and most successful wood floor manufacturing companies is the Horner Flooring Company of Dollar Bay, Michigan. Horner has been around since 1891, the same year James Naismith invented basketball. The company specializes in making high-end, portable hardwood flooring surfaces for many NBA and NCAA venues. Since 1983, every NBA All-Star Game and NCAA Final Four has been played on a Horner floor.

Bring on the "Dream Team" Last year, Horner approached the NRRI for help in lowering its production costs. The company was starting to feel the pinch of rising raw material prices and increasing competition from other wood floor manufacturers in the U.S.

"Over an eight-week period, we studied their product and the way they made it," explains Brian Brashaw, NRRI Forest Products program director, who led the project team that included five people from Horner Flooring and Bob Ross, a researcher from the USDA Forest Products Lab in Madison, Wisconsin.

The team employed the "lean manufacturing" strategy--which Henry Ford originated and Toyota Motors made better--of identifying "waste." And this included looking closely at "how much you move something around while manufacturing it, how many times you pick it up and set it down, how much inventory you have, and whether you are using all the talents of the people you've got," says Brashaw.

Based on the team's findings, Brashaw says Horner modified the layout of its plant so all of the manufacturing steps were closer together and implemented a new technology that improved the ball bounce and shock absorption of its floors and simplified the connection of multiple floor panels.

"The floor you're going to see on TV [during the Final Four game in St. Louis] this Saturday is made up of 200 four-foot-by-eight-foot sections, [and] one of the things we did was make those sections or panels more durable and easier to put together by reengineering the iron connectors," says Brashaw. The floor is also more cost-effective than its predecessors, he says, because Horner's new and more efficient manufacturing system allowed it to produce the many iron connectors without being affected by the 20- to 50-percent hike last year in the price of steel.

"The really rewarding thing is when you do see a lot of changes that the company tries because you showed them what was possible," adds Brashaw. "We don't come in and tell them how they have to change, instead we come in and say, 'Here are the opportunities and we'll provide you the outside expertise.' All of the work that we're doing, really, whether it be with Horner or [another wood floor or products] company, is aimed at helping the companies improve their manufacturing and retain jobs," Brashaw adds. "Horner needed to take some money out of their product and still maintain good performance to keep the jobs they already have."

For USDA wood scientist Ross, his contribution to the project was a thrill he won't soon forget.

"You watch some of these games being played, and you think, wow, I had a hand in that," he says. "It's a good feeling. And I also realize this was probably the only way a middle-aged guy like me was ever going to get on the same basketball floor as Shaq."

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