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Study abroad: thirty-five U.S. woodworkers recently got a first-hand look at some of Germany's most successful, and efficient, wood products operations. Here's what they picked up along the way.

Earlier this fall, Stiles Machinery Inc. hosted another of its Tour of Technology events and Wood & Wood Products was fortunate enough to tag along for the ride. The Sept. 22-Oct. 1 journey through Germany exposed 35 representatives of the U.S. wood products industry to some of the best woodworking practices that Deutschland has to offer. The tour's attendees came from all walks of the woodworking field. Both the custom and commercial cabinet sectors were well-represented, but specialists in windows, doors, casework and millwork also brought their knowledge to bear. This same variety was also found in the German companies that were visited throughout the tour, with plenty of insight on everything from panel processing to cabinet construction to employee retention.

When the eight-day trip concluded, most of the attendees seemed to agree on a few central points of interest that were hit along the way. The most prominent among them may likely have been the amount of automated material handling seen. Production flows seemed to be controlled by conveyor systems far more in Germany than the attendees had witnessed in the United States.

"I don't know exactly how many forklifts I saw on this trip, but it wasn't many. Everything is moved from work cell to work cell on conveyers," said Wayne Jansen of CSI Millwork.

Employment issues, such as training and retention, also came to the forefront after a few plant tours. The education system in Germany is set up with apprenticeship programs that feed into various trades, woodworking among them. In addition, many tour attendees said they were struck by how German employees are given a larger stake in their companies, and thus more responsibility.

"It was amazing to see the amount of business information made accessible to employees," said Larry Sayles of Cabinetec Inc. "Everything throughout the plant is labeled and there are production scoreboards letting people know where they are, and where they need to be."

Other points of interest included the overall cleanliness of most shops visited--even more important in Germany where shop space is at a premium. For instance, the tour stopped by a Duravit production facility located at the base of a mountain, thus making future expansion of that facility nearly impossible. Because of these space constraints, tour attendees also noted how shops focused on dust collection, and just-in-time material supplies and storage, along with low levels of waste.

The trip included plant tours of seven different woodworking operations; what follows is a brief description of each. For information on attending future Tours of Technology, contact Lorraine Bush, manager of corporate events for Stiles Machinery, at (616) 698-7500, ext. 1223.

Brockmann

The first stop on the tour was a visit to Brockmann, a manufacturer of both windows and doors, and kitchen cabinets. The company, which employs 160 people, just recently made a $2.4 million investment for a new panel processing line in its kitchen division, according to Johannes Brockmann.

The full line from Weeke and Homag, which includes edgebanding, drilling and CNC machining equipment, all moved by a Bargstedt automatic feeder, has helped Brockmann increase its kitchen cabinet production by 20 percent. The company now produces 40,000 to 50,000 ready-to-assemble cabinets per year.

Driftmeier

Driftmeier has been in the wood products game since 1934. Today, it is one of Germany's most successful bedroom furniture manufacturers, employing more than 250 people in its 400,000-square-foot facility.

What came as a surprise to some tour attendees was that all of Driftmeier's furniture comes from veneered parts. All of the veneer is scanned for quality and then organized according to species. Attendees also clamored to watch a Ligmatech robotic arm move panels to the glue applicator before veneer is laid up and finally moved down to the Wemhoner press. Glued panels are then left to dry for two days before being machined.

Profiform

Membrane pressing is the name of the game for Profiform, a 160-employee cabinet front and component manufacturer. Tour attendees were made privy to the company's panel processing methods (including nesting done on a Homag BOF 511), but the doors to an in-house membrane pressing department are closed to the public.

After panels are cut, they are sanded to various depths, depending on the panel's next application. Diamond tooling is then used to cut door profiles. From there, panels are brought to the company's membrane-pressing division. The average Profiform employee earns a salary around $14 per hour and the company runs three shifts a day, five days a week, with Saturday reserved for maintenance.

Nobilia

Originally, the tour of Nobilia was only going to include a visit to the kitchen manufacturer's expansive showroom. Upon arrival, however, the group was granted a rare tour of one Nobilia production plant (they have two, turning out more than 300,000 kitchens per year).

Among the more impressive areas of the plant was the automated storage facility that houses the 1 million cabinet doors Nobilia has on hand at any given time. The plant's automation was also impressive, as some attendees noted the high level of machinery and low level of employees. It was clear to see how Nobilia managed to bring in more than $700 million in 2005 alone.

Hettich

The 76-year-old hardware manufacturer, Hettich, was the only hardware company included on this year's tour. Attendees were given a tour of the company's showroom, which included a number of European design elements that have not yet been seen in the United States.

Hettich breaks its product categories down by kitchen, bath, office, residential and do-it-yourself. The plant visited on this trip employs 1,300 of the company's 5,000 total employees, all of which helped Hettich earn nearly $820 million in 2005. The Hettich showroom did serve as a good example of how soft-closing hinges and slides have now become the industry standard for all European cabinet and drawer design.

Ackermann

Like many of the other stops on the tour, Ackermann has a long-standing family tradition in the German woodworking industry. Unlike many of the others, however, Ackermann has remained somewhat small--12 employees and just under $6 million earned last year. The company serves as a jack-of-all-trades for other companies in the area, handling small custom jobs or aspects of larger projects.

Along with a panel processing department, Ackermann also creates specialty curved pieces of gypsum board, cabinet frames, store fixtures, garden sheds and whatever else comes its way. The company even allows access to its CNC machines to colleagues in the area, charging their work by computing the number of hours spent on the equipment. A key for the company has been including the employees on equipment purchasing decisions. In fact, Ackermann recently sent its plant manager and two employees to Homag for machinery education prior to buying a Holzma Optimat BOF 311.

Duravit

A high-end bathroom furniture manufacturer, Duravit works with well-known German designers to create cutting-edge, artistic design. The production of its products in Germany, however, happens in a relatively small facility, and as a result, Duravit has had to optimize its production flow and bring in a good deal of customized equipment to fit its purposes. For instance, a rotating Ligmatech case damp can damp multiple boxes, with various sizes, at one time white only needing the footprint of a single machine.

In order to keep storage space to a minimum, some material is kept in a tent outside the actual facility. Every morning, the material needed for the day is brought inside, sorted and bar coded according to project and color, thus allowing the production flow to be continuous during the day. A Bargstedt lift loading retrieval system simply locates the desired materials and brings them to the front of the production line to begin manufacturing.
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Title Annotation:TECH TOUR HIGHLIGHTS
Author:Jenkins, Andy
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Dec 1, 2006
Words:1288
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