Continental Woodworking Co.’s new management sees machinery as the key to reach its goals of doing bigger projects and achieving more creativity and enjoyment.

Continental Woodworking Co., Elk Grove Village, IL, knows all about handling changes and challenges. In fact, change has been integral to its ability to tackle more challenging architectural woodworking projects.

When awarded a recently completed multi-faceted office project in Chicago for Vankampen, a financial firm, this architectural woodworking shop knew it could do the job.

But like any project it brought challenges. Vankampen wanted an entirely new buildout of its lobby and ninth floor reception area, with wainscot and full panels along with a reception desk and hot and cold food service stations, completed in an eight week time frame. In other words, Continental Woodworking was asked to do a project in eight weeks that would normally take 12 to 14 weeks to complete.

 

     
     
   
    Before the introduction of its new Northwood CNC router from Stiles Machinery pieces like this reception desk and hot and cold food service stations with louvres on the side, would have been difficult and time consuming to create.

“We have done projects within this tight of a time frame before,” explains John Eiden, owner and president of Continental Woodworking Co., “but it does put a tremendous amount of pressure on your organization and stress on your people.”

Technology Makes the Difference

When Eiden purchased the company four years ago, a project like Vankampen, would have been difficult for the company to complete because the company was still very labor intensive. But Continental Woodworking has risen to the challenge through substantial investments in automated equipment. That new equipment includes a Northwood CNC router, Striebig vertical panel saw, Brandt KD-68 edgebander, Altendorf F-45 sliding table saw and a Butfering Vega widebelt finish sander, all recently added to Continental’s shop.

“If we had not had the commitment of our people and had not had this new technology, I’m not even sure I would’ve bid this job,” says Eiden. “Without the new machines we would not have had the human capital or the budget to be able to accomplish the Vankampen project using the old paradigm of our manufacturing processes.

“But now with our new machines, we’re able to do the $750,000 to $1 million projects whereas before we may have only had the capacity to do up to $500,000 projects.”

How It Began

In 1981, two cabinetmakers from the Chicagoland area who had worked previously for other cabinetmaking and millworking companies decided to start their own business, Continental Woodworking Co. The shop started by Fritz Brueggeman and Rudolf Koller was originally 1,500 square feet with a handful of woodworkers. It has expanded in terms of its size and number of people in 1981 to 25,000 square feet and 35 to 50 people total on a project basis.

The year 1996 brought the retirement of Brueggeman and Koller and a major change. John Eiden current owner and president bought the company. And he brought with him a new way of getting things done.

“When I acquired this business four years ago, the former owners had no computers, not even for bookkeeping,” says Eiden. “They kept everything in their heads and delegated to everyone on a daily basis. What we did first was put the company’s business management on a computer system. For instance, all of the accounting such as general ledger, balance sheets, income statements and payroll systems were added to the computer system and that has lead us to a better level of efficiency and accuracy.

“The second part of my business plan was to automate project management through the use of computers and a LAN. The third stage was to start to move toward external uses of the Internet right along with the rest of the world.

“The fourth and biggest stage, which took place a year ago this past August, was the selection of and implementation of CAD and CNC machinery,” explains Eiden.

Before the investment in and implementation of new machinery, Continental performed nearly all of its operations by hand. At the time of Eiden’s purchase of the company in 1996, 80% of the company’s projects came from two customers and 20% from various other customers. Both John Eiden and Bob Merkel, the plant manager, realized to stay competitive Continental needed to spread out its projects among more companies and add more machinery and larger materials, to increase productivity and to streamline its production flow.

“We needed to add each of our new machines and develop a new layout in our shop in order to stay competitive. We also needed the machines so our workers could keep up with the work, to do all of our own work and to modernize,” says Merkel. “We wanted to let the machines do most of the work and take it from there. So it has saved us a lot of time.”

“From a productivity efficiency standpoint adding new machinery had become a necessary to increase productivity and work flow,” says Eiden.

 

     
     
  Seeking Harmony Between Man and Machine

Change can bring with it fear and anxiety for people. This can be especially true in some industries such as architectural woodworking. Today good workers are hard to find and sometimes even harder to keep, especially if they fear being replaced by a machine. John Eiden, president of Continental Woodworking, takes the challenge of balancing employee concerns with the implementation of new technologies head on. He takes pride in his employees and confidence in their abilities and makes sure everyone knows it.

Some of Eiden’s first dealings with the fear and anxiety of his employees’ came about when Continental was preparing for and implementing its new manufacturing processes.

“Humans do not manage change well. I wanted to anticipate the fear, uncertainty and doubt that could occur and did occur in the minds of some of our people in the sense of ‘Is this machine going to replace my job.’ My assurances to them in advance of the implementation of the new technology was to proactively seek out employees and tell them we were purchasing and implementing this machinery for the purpose of enhancing our abilities not to eliminate someone’s job but rather to redeploy people’s talents, skills and abilities. While also explaining to them that it would reduce physical strain and create more mental effort.”

The next kink in the chains that needed to be straightened for Continental was the limited amount of computer knowledge many of Continental’s employees had. Obviously, this is a challenge when implementing new computerized technologies.

“There were really only two to three people in our management organization of seven people that had any orientation whatsoever to computers. Some had never really turned on a computer so I sent them to school along with three other individuals in the company, and they learned CNC programming. They returned within a week and the machinery was delivered and installed at the same time.”

John Eiden watched his efforts and that of Bob Merkel transform Continental’s employees’ fear and anxiety into pride and amazement. Both Eiden and Merkel along with the entire company were amazed at what their woodworkers were able to do once the machinery was put to work.

“We were told, ‘You’ll be cutting rectangles and squares maybe in a couple of months.’ But we wanted to immediately get into advanced designs because there is a lot of that requested in the marketplace. Somewhat by accident and somewhat by design, we started falling into that.

“We were told maybe in eight to 10 months from the implementation of the new equipment we would be embarking on curvalinear designs. That is if we paid attention and did our homework. We blew the doors off of the Stiles Machinery trainers because in three or four days we were cutting curvalinear geometry and trigonometric designs. So Bob and the other members of our staff have become quite adept at the use of our new machines, and it’s only nine, 10 months later.”

Eiden chalks up Continental’s success, ultimately, to the people that have chosen to work at Continental.

“I think what truly makes Continental work well is the people that have chosen to work at Continental. They’re here every morning. We don’t have a high absentee rate. I believe they’re here because they want to be here. I know any of these people could choose to work wherever they want and they would be welcome. I have to say it’s definitely the talent and commitment of our employees that makes any company, but ours in particular, unique.”

Bernadette Freund

 
     

“Basically the machinery allows us to take the other jobs now that we used to stay away from,” explains Merkel. “Jobs, like Vankampen, that would take more machinery work or tons of detailed work. We can now add bigger projects such as projects with more curvalinear type designs.”

Continental has not only been able to add bigger and more lucrative projects but also larger size materials. The company currently works with select hardwoods, specialty veneers, plastic laminates, decorative architectural metals and acoustical fabric systems for wall panel systems primarily focused on office interior buildouts. Without the new machines the company would not be able to handle all of these materials especially the larger size materials.

“Our materials have changed in that we’ve been able to change over to larger size materials,”says Merkel. “The machines have taken over much of the machining from employees, and they are able to do more of the assembly processes.”

Redesigning the Plant Layout and Process Flow

Now Continental can do the bigger jobs, but how did the company prepare for the introduction of these new machines. Ultimately, to get the most out of the new machines it would have to redesign its entire shop’s layout to produce the most streamlined production flow possible.

“We actually ended up redesigning the entire shop’s layout and in doing so we created more storage and created more floor space,” explains Merkel. “That gave us better efficiency flow of materials through the line.”

“Material is actually received premachined instead of being distributed to the workers and then the workers selecting the panel stock individually the way it used to happen. All of the panel stock used to be stocked differently to the way it is now so we were only getting about 50% utilization out of our storage racks,” says Eiden. “Bob laid out a new plan so we could optimize every bit of storage racking space. Now we take panel stock and bring it by forklift directly to the machine areas, and the machine operator merely loads the material onto the machine bed. He in turn cuts it there and then moves it on A-frames to the assigned bench of the individual who’s going to assemble it.”

Continental produces a variety of parts including those with curvalinear designs on its new Northwood CNC router from Stiles Machinery. It features an eight-position tool changer with a Euro spindle which is part of the drilling head, drill heads for pinholes, a saw head and horizontal boring tool, which was specially made for cutting mortises in doors. The router takes work that used to be spread throughout the shop and streamlines it to one centralized area of the shop.

“Before we had to use a hand router to set dados. Now we can lay a 4-foot by 8-foot or 5-foot by 10-foot piece of melamine laminated with plastic laminateon the router table and machine parts from it. If we received an order for cabinets today, which we are making for IBM, we could probably cut the material for these panels in 10 minutes. The programming would’ve taken 45 minutes, and the assembly could get done in an hour,” says Eiden. “The old way to do this might take a day. So we’re seeing some increases in production occasionally reaching 100%.”

“As a another example, we made two hot and cold food service stations from straight grain cherry for Vankampen,” explains Eiden. “The louvres on the ends of these stations are one item we used to have to make by hand. It was one of those, ‘Look what I made the other day on the new machine.’ kind of things. To make louvres like these are very time consuming and takes someone with a great deal of experience. Our machine operator was able to make these on the machine in about an hour. Before it would take someone probably about 10 hours by hand. So it has significantly streamlined our production time for this process and enhanced our precision quality for this and other projects.

“With Vankampen, we are also making custom doors,” Eiden points out. “Before adding our Bütfering widebelt sander, also from Stiles, our cabinetmaker would have sanded the same wood door by hand, and it would’ve taken about an hour and a 1/2 for all sanding processes. But the widebelt finish sander completes the same processes in about seven minutes. That’s about a 95% increase in productivity.

“Another new addition is our trucks. Trucks are also key to this business because we’re moving very expensive pieces of millwork that have to get to the site intact without any damage whatsoever. So our trucks are built for us in terms of the frame structure with e-tracks on the interior sides to be able to secure the materials in the best possible manner. Each one also has a hydraulic lift gate to prevent injury. The transfer for finished pieces to installation is much safer and smoother now.

“Before the machining processes were done by individual assignment that involved a great deal of material handling and movement and a much slower and less streamlined process. With our new layout, we are able to receive materials and to cut and machine them in a more centralized location and distribute it to the individual cabinetmakers and assemblers, which allows them to have less downtime, material movement and more productive time in terms of casework assembly. Efficiencies are being realized continually as the cabinetmakers realize these machines are not a threat to them but an enhancement to how they do their work. Automation reduces material handling and this has resulted in our cabinetmakers having less physical stress and strain on them.”

Building on Veneering

Continental is unique not only for the short time it caught on to reengineering its plant and manufacturing processes, adding new machinery and learning how to utilize its new machines, particularly for the use of curvalinear designs, but also for its veneering department.

 

         
         
       
  This office hallway at Barton, Inc. displays the expertise and precision of Continental’s veneer department.    

“We have our own veneer department. Most companies our size don’t have their own veneering department,” explains Eiden. “We also have our own veneering specialists with a Burkle 53-inch by 130-inch hot platen veneer press, a Josting 143 inch veneer guillotine and a Kuper FW 1200 veneer splicer.

The company has developed an excellent reputation from its customers and competitors for veneering. In fact, Continental does all of its own veneering in house and has such an excellent reputation that it performs veneer work for various other companies.

“Most of the millwork that we manufacture requires veneer and veneer matching. We have in the neighborhood of 18 to 20 species of wood in stock including anigrey, oak, mahogany and walnut. We do all our veneer work in house and have built such a good reputation for veneering that we actually perform work, such as cutting, matching, gluing and pressing veneer, for other companies, including competitors.”

Continental’s reputation for high-quality veneer work also can be added to the list of factors that have helped the company grow. Veneering has provided Continental with the means to better serve the marketplace and spread the word to other potential customers about its quality products.

“Our veneering department has helped the company grow in the sense that we have a reputation for continually responding to the specific needs of our customers. Our reputation for veneer work, ultimately, has developed as a result of architects spreading word to other specialists in the field that we do high quality work. By doing our veneer work in house we are in direct contact with the customer and know his/her needs. So, the customer knows about abilities and that gives us the customer’s confidence in our ability to match, figure and grain when matching the customer’s existing environment as well as creating new ones.”

Shaping the Future

The company has grown and changed greatly in the past four years and throughout its 19-year history. But the redesign of the shop, new machinery, streamlining of the processes, addition of larger materials and some new people have most importantly allowed for more creativity and vision for the future along with the opportunity for continued growth and membership in the Architectural Woodworking Institute.

“Essentially our corporate goals encompass the idea of continued growth,” says Eiden. “First, we want to continue to manufacture our products in fulfillment of AWI’s 7th edition Quality Standards manual. Because we were recently awarded AWI premium quality certification.

“Second, we want to continue the enhancements to our manufacturing processes. By that I mean, we have improved production work flows which allows us to increase our capacity in the plant without need of additional personnel. Our manufacturing process enhancements have also improved work flows and reduced liabilities associated with safety issues related to material handling and hopefully will continue to do so.

“The third goal would be to grow according to our ability to manage our projects well. To grow the business in a manageable sense, not to just grow for the sake of growing. We are trying to grow with our customers needs rather than just growing for the sake of growing.”

Both John Eiden and Bob Merkel see the future for Continental as a future where more fun, involvement and education will continue to be and has been brought back to the jobs they and their employees do everyday.

“The addition of machinery has brought back a lot of the involvement with a project,” explains Merkel. “It makes you think a little bit more too because machinery has changed the process of manufacturing. But now the workers are taking it a step further and saying, ‘Hey I can make this design on this machine and I can make it a different way and more quickly.’ The machinery has brought a lot more fun into this job because after you do something for years one way it can get boring. Now we’ve been able to turn to a more creative approach.”

“One thing lead to another when we added the machinery and changed our shop layout,” says Eiden. “I think from a personal development standpoint it has brought us back to the fun of it and to learning. We’ve tried to reinvent the company in regard to serving our customers better and to serve more customers. Every week Bob will come to me and say, ‘Look at what we just did. You know we were not be able to make this item before the machines or only this one particular individual knew how to do this and do it efficiently.’ So I’m constantly being shown new ways to manufacture things by machine that we used to have to make by hand. So that adds a lot of excitement back into our work.”

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