Creativity finishes first at UltraCraft.
In many ways, The UltraCraft Co. can be described as unorthodox. It is a high-production cabinet manufacturing facility that produces mostly semi-custom and custom work; it encourages creative input from its production workers; and while it boasts a very high-tech machining process, it is even more proud of its specialty finishing room.
It is this final item that has made the biggest difference over the last year at UltraCraft.
"What makes us stand out as a cabinet company is our dedication to quality and the breadth of product and finishes available - glazes, old world and distressed finishes," said Ray Waite, vice president of manufacturing at the Liberty, NC-based cabinet company. "When thinking about how we could improve our finishing operation, we discovered that if you always go with automation you can handcuff yourself. A high-tech finishing system is not the answer for our wood finishing operation. So we came up with our own solution that gives us the flexibility we needed."
A Race to the Finish
John Najera, manager of finishing operations at UltraCraft, is no slave to the mentality that the only way to make a production facility more efficient is to make it more automated.
"A flatline finishing system is great for people who produce the same thing over and over again," Najera said. "But our customers in the cabinet market want custom kitchens. Everyone wants their kitchen to be just that much different than their neighbor's kitchen. This level of customization and high-quality expectations forces us to look at our finishes one part at a time while still meeting the challenge of keeping our finishing cycle time down."
UltraCraft's solution to this challenge was a custom-built wood finishing operation that can be described as a people-intensive model of a curtain coating system. The system was designed and built in-house with input from employees. The main attraction is a long overhead conveyor system with hooks positioned every 3 feet.
Some 40 people are employed in UltraCraft's new finishing department, performing a variety of tasks. One of the keys to the success of the finishing room at UltraCraft is that the employees can perform a variety of tasks; Waite stresses the importance of cross-training employees.
"When every employee understands how the entire finishing department is operated, they can become creative with finishes and can come up with even more efficient ways to run their part of the line," Waite said. "There is no down time on the line while one section is waiting for the other to catch up. Anybody can step in to help keep things moving."
Understanding the entire finishing process is not an easy task at UltraCraft. The finishing department takes up 40,000 square feet of the facility's 155,000 total square footage. It is divided into three sections: the white wood prep area, the regular finishing room and the "specialty" finishes room.
The white wood prep area is home to a handful of stations at which employees use hand-held orbital sanders to perform final prep sanding prior to finishing, Dust collection tables built in-house draw the free dust particles down away from the operators and into the plant's dust collection system.
"The white wood prep room has recently become part of the finishing department because we found that incorporating it helped employees understand how important sanding is to a good finish," Waite said.
As wood parts leave the white wood prep room they are bung on the overhead conveyor, which takes them to the finishing room.
The bulk of the finishing department consists of UltraCraft's regular finishing room. This room is manned by employees armed with HVLP spray guns from Binks, DeVilbiss, and Graco, and air-assisted airless guns from Kremlin. The employees apply conversion varnish and toner, stain, wipe, spray sealer, sand sealer and topcoats, and remove the parts from the conveyor after they have travelled through the closed-loop oven and had a chance to dry.
"Over the last year we've reduced waste and learned to control our line speed. We're working on keeping it simple, but that's not easy when we have more than 50 different combinations of wood door styles, finishes and species available," Waite said.
Although the line can be described as custom for a company the size of UltraCraft, its functionality lies in its versatility.
"There were a lot of dropped jaws among our vendors when we first decided to build this line. It's kind of unconventional for a company of our size," Waite said. "But once we had it up and running, we worked the kinks out of the line within three days and since then we've at least doubled our finishing capacity."
Currently, as cabinets finish drying either in the regular finishing room or in the "specialty" finishes room, there are employees who keep track of all the parts for a single job. UltraCraft is in the process of computerizing its parts tracking system.
Since its new wood finishing line has doubled capacity, UltraCraft is now turning its attention to increasing the potential output of its machining room. By the end of this year, Waite expects to have a new computer-integrated manufacturing cell up and running.
The new cell will be configured according to the "Factory of the Future" layout from Stiles Machinery.
What this means for UltraCraft is a new Holzma panel saw followed by two Homag single-sided edgebanders and one Holz-Her edgebander, and ending at a new Weeke BP12 point-to-point boring machine, which has already arrived and is operational. The entire cell will be programmed using Holzma CutRite software, and bar codes generated at the panel saw will be implemented to "streamline our operations, reduce inventory and provide for quicker response times," according to Waite.
All of this is in addition to UltraCraft's existing manufacturing cell, which is still considered the main machine processing room and begins with a Giben panel saw. Once the second cell is installed, the original cell will be used for running stock products and the new cell will be used for custom work.
Customized kitchens or baths, a diverse selection of finishes and quick turnaround times are difficult manufacturing goals to reconcile when taken together. The challenge of giving the customer all of these services at the same time is one faced by all cabinet companies, and it is a challenge that UltraCraft is meeting by applying some creative solutions.
"We're a service-oriented company. We don't want to sell to a customer just one time - we want to sell to him again and again," Waite said. "The way for us to do that is to maintain a high level of quality, take advantage of our resources, most importantly the creativity and dedication of our employees. We need to address each challenge one at a time and find solutions that work specifically for our company and help us meet the goals that we have set for ourselves. That is how we will continue to grow."
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|Title Annotation:||profile of UltraCraft Co, cabinet manufacturer|
|Publication:||Wood & Wood Products|
|Article Type:||Company Profile|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1997|
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