Art Raymond

Historically the commercialization of new technology has preceded higher labor productivity across the world economy. With productivity in the U.S. growing by only 1.3 percent annually over the past decade, economists are looking to the latest deployment of high-tech gizmos to give our economy a kick in the pants.

Advanced industries like automotive, aerospace, and energy that are the first to catch the latest wave of technology have seen their labor productivity nearly double the national average. To do so, they steadily invest heavily in innovation and savvy technical employees to drive its application. While the furniture and cabinet sectors are typically first adopters, we must begin implementing some of their applications. The health of our economy, its job market, and our standard of living depends on it.

Let’s look at two such technologies that are already being implemented in the furniture and cabinet value chains.

A major cabinet manufacturer has deployed a RFID-based system tracking millions of parts and products.

RFID

In highly discrete manufacturing environments like cabinetmaking, tracking materials, components, and end products is a huge challenge. Without the ability to monitor the flow of these items, managers struggle to produce the right products at the right time to satisfy their customers. One tool for solving that dilemma is radio-frequency identification, better known as RFID.

Enabled by electronic tags or chips that contain key digitized descriptive data, readers for collecting that information, and the necessary software, the resulting system can track the flow of attached materials, components, and finished goods through a complex manufacturing process and provide valuable information that support on-time and complete order execution.

Cabinet manufacturer American Woodmark has deployed a RFID-based system that tracks millions of parts and products annually at seven of its plants plus ten suppliers to enable efficient inventory control, real-time shop floor management, and fast problem solving. Prior to the implementation of its RFID-based system, American Woodmark relied on its workers to identify the right components for a specific customer order on sight. The result was a 6 percent error rate that adversely impacted cost and customer satisfaction.
 

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Recognizing the benefits of accurate data, the company retained system integrator Northern Apex to provide the necessary technical expertise. Together they developed an information system that relies on a RFID tag attached to each component. That tag becomes a digital license plate that identifies the component, survives the rigors of the production process, and is invisible to the end user. As needed, the identifying data can be updated as a part transitions from white wood through the finishing process. The system crunches the collected data into reports used to track work cell activity, manage inventories, resolve shortages, and monitor quality.

American Woodmark correctly acknowledges that RFID technology alone is not a remedy but rather an enabler of process optimization across its entire value chain. The company continues to leverage its RFID data stream to optimize its operations and produce a continuing return on its investment in this technology.    

Advanced robotics

With costs declining and technical improvements accelerating, robotic technology continues to expand its usefulness in automating tasks now delegated to humans:

No longer are safety fences required to isolate robots from people. The new generation offers on-board cameras that enable a robot to be aware of its surroundings thus allowing collaboration with humans. Other features like a sensitive ‘skin’ can cause the robot to stop if touched by a worker

Programming has become more user-friendly. Today’s generation can more easily be reprogrammed to complete different jobs. In addition, some models are portable thus enabling use in different locations in a plant.

A wide range of end-of-arm equipment is available including common tools like drills and grinders as well as more sophisticated devices such as five-finger human-like ‘hands’ and texture-discriminating fingers.

Some models have vision systems and ‘intelligence’ useful in making decisions about the size and geometry of objects, quality, and object orientation. These systems can also provide status reports and the like via wi-fi thus enabling sophisticated shop floor control.

These capabilities make robots more autonomous – able to make choices and work independently using their own ‘brainpower’. Consultants at McKinsey say that 45 percent of the activities that people are paid to perform can be automated through the combination of current artificial intelligence and robotic technology. And robots can work 24 by 7 without a vacation.

Robots can be found in the furniture and cabinet industries in traditional functions like spray finishing, tending process machines, and packing finished products. Applications for the apparel industry offer significant promise for the automation of cover sewing in upholstery plants. Softwear Automation, a provider of robotic sewing equipment, has developed a series of work cells that assembles shirts and other garments. The key is a high-speed vision system that identifies individual threads of fabric being sewn. Using this capability, the machine measures fabric by thread count to determine the correct stitching position. Any mis-alignment of the work piece caused by the needle is accurately determined, and the robotic feeder system makes continuous adjustments to keep the seam smooth and even. Their vision system can also handle applications requiring pattern matching thus enabling the use of this technology in the manufacture of high-quality products.

Another sewing automation specialist, Henderson Sewing Machine Company, supplies robotic sewing cells for production of upholstered panels. The process consists of a lay-up station where the exterior and backer fabrics are fed by a one-armed robot which then feeds the lay-up through the sewing cycle. A single lay-up worker can tend three such cells thus replacing three skilled seamstresses with a lower-cost operator. Engineering full automation of the seamstress’ job is well underway.

Bottom Line: While the cost of applying these technologies in our industry makes justifying their purchase a challenge, in many industries the future of RFID and robotics is now. Those costs are falling. It’s not too early for you to better understand the economics and potential utilizations of these technologies. Step one is to learn how more advanced companies are justifying their applications. Do your homework by connecting with technology providers and early adopters inside and outside of your industry sector. You can bet existing and new competitors in your marketplace are doing so.