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Trends in factory automation: Q&A with Stiles President Peter Kleinschmidt.

Q: Can you give us an update on the Stiles' Advanced Technology Center and its contribution to the woodworking industry?

A: The most gratifying aspect of opening the Advanced Technology Center has been the extensive utilization of the facility for planning and implementing new ideas and new projects. Our customers and potential customers have been able to meet with our specialists and technicians from our suppliers, to discuss and review new technologies in state-of-the-art facilities. We've combined the right working environment with today's most advanced software and woodworking machinery.

The new facility has also allowed us to expand on our long-standing commitment to education by creating a refreshed environment for the Stiles Education Center. We have the only center in the United States for practical training in the operation and maintenance of today's high-tech woodworking equipment. The improved classrooms and enhanced presentation capabilities provide an excellent learning atmosphere for individuals attending the SEC.

Q: What types of woodworking companies are coming to the ATC for training?

A: The ATC has something to offer for everyone. From the largest manufacturers of office furniture, cabinetry and RTA furniture, to small and medium-sized companies in store fixtures, architectural woodworking and other wood specialties, we've had visitors and have trained individuals from across the entire industry. Even the company that builds our trade show exhibits sent over employees for training.

Q: What is ahead for the ATC?

A: The expansion of our training facilities is nearly complete, it is absolutely critical to meet the increasing demand for training. We are also expanding our commitment and staff in the areas of software and manufacturing integration. Changes in our industry are occurring much more quickly in the areas of design for manufacturing, and software, than in hardware. Therefore, we will help our customers take the next steps in automating their production processes with our integration team.

We are also broadening our capabilities in remote diagnostics for machinery. Our software experts are able to communicate directly with the machine control to solve manufacturing problems. Similarly, we are working with our suppliers to increase the quantity and quality of machinery manuals available on CD-ROM to replace the cumbersome binders customers have been using until now.

Finally, we are committing exceptional resources to video conferencing throughout our organization. We will now be able to communicate face-to-face with our customers and satellite offices with these new capabilities. We will also be working on remote service options using this new technology. In the future we will be expanding to include smaller Advanced Technology Centers in key regions to bring these services closer to our customers.

Q: In what areas of panel processing are we seeing the greatest productivity gains?

A: The pace of automation at the small to medium-sized company is truly significant. Size is no longer a barrier to the implementation of CNC equipment, so many smaller companies have caught up to more "industrial" operations in terms of manufacturing capabilities.

Certainly, the companies who make the greatest gains are those investing in their workforce. Education is the key component in getting the most out of today's equipment. With the prevalence of CNC equipment, changes in software, workcell automation, and increased competitive pressures, knowledge and flexibility are critical.

Q: In light of these productivity gains, what areas offer the greatest room for improvement and why?

A: Finishing is a bottleneck in many plants. There is a great deal of new finishing technology that improves quality and reduces material waste, but it has not been widely embraced by the industry. Introducing a new finishing process sometimes requires a certain degree of re-engineering. Changes in the manufacturing process or workflow are sometimes necessary to take advantage of new coatings and applications technologies. However the savings in material and labor are exceptional.

Assembly and packaging are two areas that offer great opportunities for improvement and cost-savings. Many plants have made good progress in manufacturing and scheduling to reduce work-in-process. However, there is an enormous amount of labor and space committed to assembly and packaging, particularly considering their relatively low added value to the product.

Q: What other trends do you see in factory automation?

A: Trends are the result of marketplace demand, particularly for flexibility and just-in-time or "unit of one" production. Because of the pace of business and the expectations of today's customers, successful manufacturers must reduce order turnaround from weeks to just days. This can best be accomplished with increased automation and more efficient utilization of manufacturing capital.

To address the "unit of one" requirement we are already seeing a wide acceptance of the workcell concept. This integrates several CNC machines such as a panel saw, edgebander and machining center through optimization and production control software. With a single set of production parameters entered in the office, all shop production is managed, jobs are tracked and even a single unit becomes profitable. I believe we will also see increased implementation of robotics and material handling equipment to improve productivity and reduce labor costs. Robots are becoming useful not only for loading and unloading equipment, but for positioning and manipulating parts during manufacturing as well. The robot becomes part of the machining process. This technology is used extensively in metalworking and plastics.

Robotics can increase efficiency in all areas, allowing U.S. manufacturers to adopt "lights-out" manufacturing. This involves automated material handling, transfer, storage and retrieval systems, machining and assembly, as well as packaging equipment. Once again, these processes are used extensively in metalworking and plastics manufacturing. In woodworking, the ever-increasing costs of labor and the production efficiencies necessary to pay out capital equipment will necessitate 24-hour utilization of manufacturing operations.

Q: Laminate flooring has made significant inroads in the North American market. Do you think sales will explode as many predict? Why or why not?

A: Laminate flooring has had an impact on the floor coverings market. However, it continues to be relatively small as a percentage of the whole. Market share for the product will increase as it becomes accepted for other areas of the home beyond entryways and kitchens. In Europe laminate flooring is used throughout the living space, in bedrooms and children's rooms. Here, carpet still dominates the market for these areas.

Laminate flooring is very affordable, attractive, and virtually maintenance-free. I believe much of the acceptance of the product is simply a matter of customer education. In Europe, laminate is utilized in public and institutional areas such as hospitals where health considerations are important and carpet is considered hazardous. As customers learn more about the advantages of laminate flooring, the selection of substrates increases, and patterns become more attractive and varied, the market will grow. Additionally, there will be changes in the geometry of the product. Tiles have been the most popular in the U.S.; the plank market will increase as the product is accepted for other areas.

Q: Do you see any other "hot products" or technology trends on the horizon?

A: Electronic commerce will change the way our customers market their products, just as it has for so many other goods. Ready-to-assemble products, which are increasing market share with new and more attractive furniture, will be heavily affected by these changes - for the better. No longer will the customer and retailer need to struggle with unwieldy products at the store level. With a click of the mouse products can be delivered via UPS or other shipper directly to the customer. Similarly, the market for RTA upholstered goods and modular home furnishings will increase.

We see continued improvement at the design level for the panel processing industry as well. Our machinery has been capable of manufacturing contoured shapes and softer edges for quite a long time, and the desire for these products is now found at all levels; office furniture, RTA furniture, store fixtures, cabinetry and the like. Stationary processing machines capable of sizing, shaping, routing, boring, and edgebanding or t-moulding parts are found at all levels as well. We can also address the need for swift production of contoured, edgebanded parts in a throughfeed operation for higher output requirements.

There is also significant interest in alternative substrates of biofibers such as wheat board, straw board, rice board or soy-based materials. These may be effective in addressing some of the weight and strength concerns about more traditional particleboard and MDF as the electronic commerce distribution system develops.

We are also examining the future of manufactured construction. In conjunction with the Homag Group, we can now offer equipment to manufacture structural walls and other home construction components in a factory setting. This is not the low-cost modular or manufactured housing as it is traditionally thought of in the U.S. In Europe, middle-market and high-end homes with individual architecture are also "manufactured" versus totally site-built. The house or other building is bolted together on site. The customer gets a product with greater structural integrity. It has never been exposed to the weather as is the case with site-built homes. Also, an entire home can be assembled on-site, in less than a week, often eliminating the need for a construction loan because the timeframe for completion is a matter of days rather than months.
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Title Annotation:Stiles
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Article Type:Interview
Date:May 1, 1999
Words:1526
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