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Panel processing technology: cell vs. system.

Equipment suppliers debate the pros and cons of the cell vs. systems approach to panel processing.

The future is looking smooth for the panel processing industry. With the economy beginning an upswing movement, consumers are increasing purchases of furniture, cabinets and other products made from panel products.

Industry reports show consumers are buying more furniture and cabinets, including more made with particleboard and medium density fiberboard. Developments on the manufacturing side are also progressing smoothly.

For the purpose of this article, a cell is defined as a single multi-function CNC machine, usually for mechanical operations such as boring, routing, etc., which can be integrated with a robot, saw, or edgebander. An integrated line system consists of separate machines, linked through computer controls, to a single source for computer programming. These separate machines can be connected by conveyor to form a feed-through processing line.

"We see a lot of companies making due with what they have, while still showing interest in becoming more productive," said Riccardo Azzoni, president of Atlantic Machinery Corp. "Having the right equipment out there and making it more affordable is what is going to get people moving in the right direction."

Cell vs. integrated system

It is a common assumption that trends shown at the biennial Ligna Hannover Fair find their way into U.S. plants within two to four years. However, with regards to panel processing machinery, the opposite may prove true, according to Stephan Waltman, vice president of sales and marketing for Stiles Machinery Inc.

"The indications that I saw in Europe (Ligna) tended to reflect the machining center philosophy. But I wonder if the economic reality isn't more for integrated lines," said Waltman. "The first half of 1993 showed a huge resurgence of lines -- the largest amount of integrated lines in our history."

Choosing an integrated machining line or cell depends on the parts or product processed, said Kurt Waldthausen, president of Holz-Her U.S. "It depends on individual cases. What are the customer's needs? Where is the company now? And where is it going?"

According to Jerry Perry, sales coordinator for Roger Stiles & Assoc., office furniture manufacturers tend more toward the cell approach because they cover a number of different types of product lines. Cabinet and RTA manufacturers, however, may lean more toward the line approach because they perform a large number of single production runs. "On the average, more and more smaller and mid-range companies are going to cell area and larger ones are sticking to systems," said Perry.

Overall, panel sizing cells and systems are becoming more prevalent for a number of reasons. First, the cost of solid lumber is a big factor, Azzoni said, spurring increased usage of composite boards. Second, the equipment has become more affordable. Technology too has enabled much of the computerized centers and single machines to be downsized for smaller shops, while retaining many of their capabilities.

Although machining centers can perform mechanical operations including cutting, shaping, drilling, routing and hardware insertion, edgebanding and panel sizing are still mainly performed on separate machines explained Gianni Cavassa, president of Biesse America.

Giordano Checchi, president of Giben America Inc., said, "Panel saws are already considered to be machining centers in and of themselves because of their CNC capabilities. Bar coding, too, is already a reality and is widely used on many of the systems."

To this end, panel saws will most likely never be integrated into a center, ala combination boring/routing and hinge inserting machines, said Werner Deuring, president of Schelling America Inc. "Panel saws should be flexible enough to link into a cell environment, but to integrate a panel saw, boring machine and router into one machining center -- from a production standpoint -- is not feasible and could lead to a bottleneck."

So what does the future hold for the panel processing industry? "I think that the lines of research and development have been drawn and it's only a matter of making the machines more cost effective and more affordable to a larger sector of users," Cavassa said.

Perry agreed with the assessment that technology improvement rates will slow down. "Improvements in panel processing applications are not as rapid as they were about five years ago. We've reached the point where we can't go too much further."

Machine selection should be based on common sense, said Willy Volk, president of European Woodworking Machinery Co. "Sometimes you can accomplish something on a simple shaper but you find people buying a $200,000 machine when they don't need one. You still need standard, dedicated machines to use alongside the flexible machines."

Scott Broughton, sales manager at Hendrick-RWH Industries Inc., said, "Companies have to decide whether a machining center (vs. integrated line) is efficient for what they are doing. Depending on the type of work, it could lead to a bottleneck; tying it up for something that could have been done on a dedicated machine."

William Pitt, vice president and general manager at Holzma-U.S., a division of Stiles Machinery Inc., also noted greater benefits with systems. "I envision systems becoming more flexible through mechanical linkage. If you figure one machine is 95 percent reliable, then five machines in a cell will only be |95.sup.5~ (95 to the fifth) percent reliable, or approximately 75 percent. However, if the individual machines are linked, and one goes down, then there are other alternatives."

But despite the popularity of integrated lines in the United States, the machining cell maintains an important role in U.S. manufacturing. Benefits of cells include the integration of individual machines into a single system to rationalize flow, cost reductions, space reductions, and in some cases, shortened delivery times with regards to JIT manufacturing, said Ezio Stefani, executive vice president/CEO at Tekna Machinery.

"I think big, expensive lines for batch production are not really feasible anymore. (For JIT) you need flexible centers," Stefani added.

The general contention is that CNC machining centers are not driving the change toward just-in-time, said Waltman. Rather, they are an eventuality of the change.

Thus, the burden is on the machinery manufacturers to supply the industry with state-of-the-art equipment, for either just-in-time manufacturing or production processing, at a reasonable price. Equipment choice, whether a machining cell or integrated system, is dependent upon how the wood products manufacturer defines his product line, business, and his basic approach to marketing, i.e., delivery, costs, etc. "Once he understands how he wants to compete, then he can implement the correct approach," said John Park, general manager at Stefani Group America.

"The shops that are going to be on the forefront are those that will eliminate labor and speed up production," said Broughton, "because the only other cost affecting business is the raw material."

Limits to computerization?

Computer programming is integral not only for the machining process, but in linking the separate systems together to form an integrated line. The panel processing system is an integration of processes, starting with order entry, all the way through shipping, said Stefani. With Computer-Integrated Manufacturing systems, at any moment of the process, companies can track the order in terms of sizes, quantities and location. "It is absolutely important to receive this integration -- to be prepared mentally. A majority of workers will have to be re-educated to work with integrated systems," he added.

"I like to think that we are going in the direction of more dependency on machines, and less on workers," said Deuring. To that end, computer programming will play a bigger role in the future, Volk added. "There's a new generation that wants to make everything on the computer."

Younger people are more apt to pick up on the CNC technology, said Pitt, because of their familiarity with computers through video games. A major force in driving companies toward computerization will be the desire to decrease overhead through employee reassignment or layoff, Pitt said, adding, "The challenge is that with technology, there are many reasons to replace people, and few reasons to hire."

"To a certain degree," added Warren Wade, president of Servatek, "we can have computerization in woodworking. But you're still going to need people -- and not some 'conehead' in the office, plugging in information."

Re-educating the worker

As machines become more computerized and therefore more technologically advanced, there will be a need for higher skilled manpower -- someone who is computer literate. There also will be a need for more skilled workers to run the menu-driven software, said Rusty Denson, SCMI's sales and product manager for panel processing. "You won't need to be a rocket scientist, but there is a need for more skilled labor," he added.

Cavassa said, "Any modern factory needs computer literate people, a good system of communication and monitoring of machines. The days of unskilled labor in industry are definitely numbered."

"Education will take a completely different profile," Waldthausen added. "We may not see the cabinetmaker in the shop as there will be more emphasis placed on programming knowledge and computer communications."

Checchi disagreed slightly with the assessment. "The operator won't simply be a computer engineer, but a woodworker who becomes a computer engineer. Those who think they can run a woodworking business without knowing anything about wood or wood technology, are dreaming."


By definition, just-in-time implies production of a product after the order is sold. This requires a coordinated effort on the part of raw material, hardware and finishing suppliers, in-house production and shipping. Depending on the company and the product line, JIT can imply anywhere from 1 hour to 10 days production time, with delivery ranging from 10 days to four weeks.

JIT manufacturing has gained popularity, primarily in the furniture industry, due to the economic necessity of reducing inventory overhead by manufacturing parts on an as-need basis. Although JIT is applicable to both types of manufacturing systems, equipment suppliers noted that this philosophy has promoted interest in the manufacturing cell concept.

"There seems to be a trend that the order volumes have not necessarily decreased, but that the size of orders are now smaller," said Warren Wade, president of Servatek. "The JIT manufacturing philosophy is based on build-to-order, and the versatility of machining cells offers that feature.... What people want most is the maximum amount of machining versatility and the ability to rapidly react to orders."

Job specialization and customization also plays a part. "It seems as though companies aren't doing as many large jobs, but more custom ones, using JIT, so they need a more flexible machining system. Machining centers are becoming more popular for smaller shops, which have a space consideration. Large shops however, are looking to integrate machines into existing lines," said Rusty Denson, SCMI's sales and product manager for panel processing.

Kevin Walsh, sales manager for Richard T. Byrnes Co. Inc., agreed with the assessment that machining centers are gaining popularity in the small to mid-range production shops, while lines remain popular for high production. "We're also seeing, more and more, a need for interconnecting of lines. It goes from design stage, to machining lines, using AutoCAD, labeling and bar coding. There's more automatic handling equipment, going from the panel saw, to the edgebander, etc.," Walsh said.

"A company which is going to compete in today's market will have to understand the importance of integrating the correct solutions. The next phase in panel processing will be linking the office to the machines, via PCs; only then will we have complete automation," said John Park, general manager at Stefani Group America.

"A lot of machines have internal computerization in addition to the ability for integration," said George Force, president of Force Machinery Co. "Most of what we're seeing now is individual machines linked, with the addition of material handling systems."

"What we're also seeing is a trend toward more (product) specialization by the wood manufacturers themselves. Part of it is a result of the sophistication of the machinery. You almost need to be a specialist in order to justify the cost of the machine," Force added.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Vance Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:the pros and cons of cell vs. systems approach to panel processing
Author:Koenig, Karen Malamud
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Previous Article:Cabinet doors are this company's specialty.
Next Article:Brandom develops winning combination.

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