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New system helps Ashley expand laminate "library." (Ashley Furniture Industries Inc.)

A double-sided, continuous laminating line is Ashley Furniture's newest finishing medium.

Ashley Furniture Industries Inc. did not get to the top of its game by waiting for an elevator. The Arcadia, Wis.-based home furniture manufacturer has climbed the ladder of success and become a household name not by merely changing with the times, but by trying to stay at least one rung ahead of them.

Thus, in the mid-1980s when many other U.S. furniture manufacturers were pressing their Congressmen to stem the flow of furniture imports from Taiwan, Ashley formed a joint venture with a Taiwanese company to produce furniture there. And while other manufacturers shrugged off the polyester look as a fad too bothersome to mess with, Ashley embraced it, learned it and profited by it. Last year, Ashley's Milennium division, distinguished by its sleek high-gloss furniture finishes, turned over more than $100 million in sales in only its fourth year of production.

Not content to rest on its laurels, Ashley recently installed a double-sided continuous thermo-laminating press line manufactured by Hymmen. The press enables Ashley to produce thermo-fused panels, which because of their melamine saturations and topcoats, are resistant to mars, scratches, stains and moisture.

Like many of the company's capital investments, the decision to add a new laminating line was initiated by Ronald Wanek, Ashley's CEO, who has a keen interest in staying on top of technological developments. In an interview published in the Apr. 12 issue of HFD, Wanek said, "Equipment is now obsolete every five years. You have to keep up with the technology, with the changes, with the new tastes in the marketplace. If we are going to succeed in the future, a total commitment is required."

Wanek's commitment to investing in Ashley's future was a key factor in the company being recognized as the 1990 Innovator of the Year, an annual awards program sponsored by the Woodworking Machinery Importers Assn. The commitment also helped the company exceed $200 million in sales last year for the first time. Now, Wanek's sights are trained on hitting the $250 million target this year.

'A larger library'

About four years ago, Ashley converted a consignment warehouse into its laminating plant. In late January, a Hymmen RollPress, fresh from a showing at IWF '92 in Atlanta, became fully operable. The thermo-lamination line runs parallel to a Harlan laminating system used mainly for pressing vinyls.

"I instigated the purchase to offer our customers a higher value product," Wanek said, adding that Ashley's sense of value includes laminating unexposed, as well as exposed parts. "Using melamine papers allows us to offer a more durable product," Wanek said. "Melamine is great for embossing, which we do a lot of."

Rick Bryson, lamination manager at Ashley, added, "The Hymmen lets us select from a larger library of overlay suppliers and a wider selection of colors, patterns and designs. We use about a forty-sixty mix of woodgrains and solids, including a lot of high-gloss black, that we purchase from a variety of sources worldwide." Bryson added that Ashley also uses an equal mix of 5/8-inch particleboard and medium density fiberboard. Particleboard is primarily edgebanded and MDF is edge finished after laminating, he said.

Anatomy of the press line

Sandwiched between Wemhoner automatic loading/unloading devices, the entire installation spans about 180 feet.

Actually, the Hymmen press occupies only a fraction of the total length of the line, reflecting a trend by equipment manafacturers to integrate advanced electronics into their products to make them more efficient and compact. Bryson noted that the line was installed without having to create a concrete pit in the floor.

Depending on the type of substrate and the thickness of the material that is used, the system operates at 50 to 85 feet per minute. Thicker papers, unsurprisingly, require a longer pressing time, thus slower feed rate. "We try to push the system to its capacity," said Bryson, adding capacity translates to about 450 panels per hour.

The press begins to roll after a bunk of dimensioned panels is forklifted to the Wemhoner side-to-side push feeder. The automatic device methodically loads one raw panel after another onto an electronic roller conveyor. Throughout their journey on the conveyor, panels are electronically monitored for gaps to ensure that the panels flow in sync with the laminating system each step of the way.

Panels quickly enter a series of brushes that clean edges, tops and bottoms. The first set is an abrasive brush that removes nap fibers. Next, a Tampico brush with very fine bristles removes particulate dust and dirt.

The clean panels enter through a preheating zone, which blasts both surfaces of each panel with 260C of forced air. Preheating the panels better prepares the surfaces for the next leg of the journey -- glue application. Ashley uses a two-component glue system comprised of a Maleic acid catalyst and urea-formaldehyde resins supplied by Borden Chemical. The two adhesive components are applied separately, as follows.

First, a solution of water and the acid catalyst is applied when the panel passes between a pair of top and bottom rollers. The solution is about 0.5 wet mil thick when it enters the first of three infrared heaters. The heaters immediately begin flashing off the water from the catalyst to eliminate any possibility of grain raising.

Next, the panel enters the second board coater, where UF resin adhesive is applied. The union of catalyst and adhesive results in a crosslinking and hardening of the resin. The Hymmen web coater used by Ashley has separate troughs for PVA and EVA glues for fast changeover of glue types and easier maintenance. In addition to melamine saturated papers, Ashley laminates transfer foils and other materials with the Hymmen.

The panel then enters a thermal oil heated nipping roll, a 20-inch die chrome roller, that helps flatten the glue line and attach the paper to the board. Ashley added a smaller silicone rubber roller immediately after the chrome roller "as an insurance policy" to tighten tolerances, Bryson said. "Most of our panel suppliers can hold up to our five-thousandths of an inch tolerance, but not all the time," he added.

The papers are dispensed from unwinding stations located above and below the conveyor. Ashley's system is equipped with two pairs of unwinding stations. Having an extra station above and below allows a new roll of paper to be loaded and readied for action while the system is operating. The top unwinding stations are loaded via an overhead crane while the bottom stations feature a pull-out tray. In addition, an in-line splicer further facilitates quick roll change, which Bryson said averages about five minutes.

Two more pairs of top and bottom thermal oil heated calender rolls flatten the paper to the board. The combination of heat and pressure bonds the two instantly. An in-line guillotine cuts the overlay between panels. Ashley tries to maintain a maximum gap of 25mm to 30mm between panels to reduce material waste and speed production.

The finished panels exit the Hymmen press and enter a Wemhoner edge trimming and cleaning machine. Segmented hogger heads shave the panels ever so slightly to leave a clean, square edge. The end of the line comes when the panel reaches an automated Wemhoner vacuum suction cup unloader. Stacked laminated panels are immediately ready for further parts processing.

'This is important'

The Ashley laminating system is manned by four employees -- two material handlers and two operators. "We can get by with only four people because of the high-degree of automation," Bryson said. "The automatic in-line guillotine alone eliminates two people and the automatic stacking eliminates two more."

Bryson, who spent three weeks in Europe visiting laminating installations before the system was purchased, said one of the biggest challenges to successful lamination is finding the right mix of temperature, pressure, cycle time and glue thickness for various mixes of substrates and overlay materials. "I think the most critical element for overall quality is the substrate," he said. "This is important. We find that we get the best results from a smooth, tight, hard closed surface."

Bryson said Ashley has experimented with water-based adhesives for pressing papers and vinyls but still finds that for papers, urea formaldehyde-based adhesives are "the most cost-effective and highest performing thermoset glue." Bryson added in contrast to the nearly instantaneous bonds attained with UF glues and melamine papers, cure times for epoxies with vinyl films can take 18 to 24 hours.
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Author:Christianson, Rich
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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