- During the pandemic, many people stuck at home picked up puzzling, causing an estimated 300% spike in demand for companies like Buffalo Games, the largest puzzle manufacturer in North America.
- But just as demand was taking off in March, the manufacturing facility in Buffalo, New York, was shut down because it wasn’t deemed an essential service.
- Once the factory was able to reopen in May, it ran nonstop to make 2 million puzzles a month — double what it normally does.
- Business Insider visited the Buffalo manufacturing facility to see how the company doubled its output, now expecting double the sales for 2020 despite a two-month shut down.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Narrator: A $10 puzzle can keep you busy for 10 to 15 hours.
Nagendra Raina: It’s yoga for your mind.
Narrator: And all 3 million puzzles in this factory could mean 45 million hours of staying busy. And that return on investment is why there’s been a resurgence in puzzling among younger generations and people stuck at home during the pandemic.
Nagendra: Category of jigsaw puzzles has grown at a rate of about 25% over the last five years. And Buffalo Games has shouldered 80% of those growth dollars.
Narrator: That’s Nagendra, the CEO of Buffalo Games, the largest puzzle maker in North America.
Nagendra: We sell in over 30,000 locations across US and Canada, and we’re selling to Walmart, Target, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kroger, and others.
Narrator: But this whole process only got harder during the pandemic. Because puzzling wasn’t considered an essential service, the New York state mandate closed this factory in March, and Nagendra had to furlough some manufacturing personnel.
Nagendra: We were shut down for two excruciating months. Given our agility, given that we are a nimble business, we were able to modify some of our supply chain, and we started getting product from overseas.
Narrator: But the team was able to continue designing puzzles from home. So when the Buffalo factory was given the green light to start manufacturing again…
Nagendra: We were humming from day one.
Narrator: Today, due to the coronavirus, Buffalo Games is facing the largest demand spike it’s ever seen. The company went from selling 1 million to 2 million puzzles a month. So how do they make sure no tiny piece falls through the cracks?
Well, it all starts with the puzzle design. Buffalo Games has six full-time designers. Some of the puzzles start as sketches in-house, which are then digitized. For other puzzles, designers build upon famous works of art, like this one from artist Charles Wysocki. Here’s the artist’s original image.
Rebecca Carden: So, if you move across, you can see some of the things that we’ve added. We’ve added this anchor. We’ve added a beautiful sailing ship in the background. We’re definitely not trying to change the original intent that Wysocki had for his piece. What we’re trying to do is create a more engaging puzzling experiencing and to give those puzzlers those incremental victories.
Narrator: Once they’ve got a design, the team will print it out and overlay a cut pattern on top.
John Bell: To see how the image is gonna break into individual pieces.
Narrator: They’re looking to make sure there’s no, say, giant unsolvable sections of blue.
John: You don’t want to have an important element of the image cut off at the wrong spot.
Narrator: And it’s not an easy task.
John: 1,000-piece puzzle, all 1,000 of those pieces would be unique. Our teams will look at each of those cuts just to make sure that it’s got the right, the width and the angles to really give you that satisfying snap. You can actually pick up our puzzle, and the pieces will hold together when you complete it.
Narrator: This team created 500 new puzzle designs in a matter of months to meet the demand during the pandemic.
Nagendra: And that’s about two to three times of what we would have done in a normal year.
Narrator: Once a puzzle design is approved, it heads to manufacturing. Here, everything from 250-piece classic images to 2,000-piece “Star Wars” characters are cut up. The biggest puzzles can take about 30 hours to make, from an uncut image all the way to a finished puzzle.
First, that uncut puzzle image comes in from the printing company in Canada.
David Rice: This is about a week’s worth of puzzle board.
Narrator: That puzzle image is glued to a cardboard backing so it’s sturdy.
David: The mounted images are put aside until the glue is fully cured, usually a few days, before they’re forwarded on to the cutting presses.
Narrator: Then it’s time for the puzzle images to be cut.
David: This is one of our cutting workstations. We take our puzzle mount images that are ready to be cut, they’ll feed through the other side of the machine, get cut into 1,000 pieces. We trim away the scrap automatically.
Narrator: That scrap is launched from this machine into a recycling bin. What’s left are thousands of puzzle pieces. They get blown apart and dropped into an awaiting box underneath. That box is folded together on the other side of the factory.
David: This cutter cuts boxboard into box planks, the main component of the puzzle boxes.
Narrator: So, how does Buffalo Games make sure no piece gets lost?
David: Each puzzle, after it’s cut, goes through an automatic inspection system. Cameras are placed on the discharge of the cutting press to make sure every single piece has been cut clean and available for packaging. This is the finished puzzle on the discharge of the cutting press.
Narrator: All of those puzzle boxes are sealed up, stacked, and packaged together.
David: This machine is our automatic case packer. Automatically sorts the different images into the corrugated case, getting it ready for shipment.
Narrator: Then they’re sent across the street to the warehouse to await delivery.
David: This is about 400,000 puzzles in the facility. That’s a couple weeks’ worth of shipments. These are put in our warehouse and then packed out to our customers. Health screen all people visiting and entering the facility. We had to make modifications to our production schedules. I also had to redesign a few work centers to maximize social distancing throughout the workplace.
Narrator: Even with all the pivots, Buffalo Games couldn’t work fast enough to meet the demand of millennials and pandemic puzzlers.
David: With the increase in demand this year, we’ve been running the factory the full year, both before and after COVID, at 100% capacity.
Nagendra: We wish we had the product, because we think the actual demand would have been about tenfold.
Narrator: And even with a two-month shutdown, Nagendra says the company will still double its sales for 2020.
Nagendra: As a result of COVID, we believe there’s been a massive influx of new customers into the category. I’m talking about families that may have puzzled 10 years ago, but there are people that have never puzzled in their lives. But I think there’s going to be a robust demand for these products for a long time to come.