Retrieve. Scan. Place. Repeat. Demonstrating both precise accuracy and flexibility, the robotic cell at Custom Cupboards builds face frames for the company’s line of traditional cabinetry. Launched several months ago, this fully automated production cell is the first of its kind in the United States, says Lance Johanson, vice president of operations for the Wichita, KS-based manufacturer.

The robotic cell is currently being used with bar code scanning, although it has the capability to utilize RFID (radio frequency identification) technology. Custom Cupboards worked with Stiles Machinery on integrating the cell and RFID technology in its plant.

Face frame are staged in a queue, then retrieved singly by the first robot, explains Andy Palmer, director of manufacturing. After scanning, the robot readies the part for glue application. Meanwhile, the second robot readies to place the stile into correct position. When the final stile is positioned, Palmer adds, the first robot picks up a sponge and cleans the glue nozzle in preparation for the next frame.

At full capacity, the robots should be able to build as many as 400 face frames a day.

Currently, face-frame cabinetry accounts for 85 percent of Custom Cupboards’ production, with frameless accounting for the remaining 15 percent. The company manufactures a full array of kitchen cabinetry, ranging from builders lines to full custom, as well as cabinets for the bathroom and other rooms. All told, Custom Cupboards offers nearly a half-million cabinet options through combinations of nine species, 120 door styles and 600 colors available.

“This allows us to cover many designs, giving us a big marketing opportunity,” Johanson says.

“Technology is driving this ability, allowing us to keep it all managed, give information to customers and supplying us with the information needed for the workers — while keeping it paperless,” he adds.

Connectivity in the Shop
Custom Cupboards credits its ability to manage the data, real-time workflow monitoring and equipment usage — in one integrated system — to its usage of iConnect software from Stiles Machinery. Plans call for the company to eventually have the entire 217,000-square-foot plant — from rough mill, panel processing, solid wood machining all the way through assembly — managed under iConnect.

“iConnect controls the shop floor automation,” says Jason Harris, chief information manager. “The RFID is just a tool.”

A passive RFID tag and/or bar code is affixed to components to track and identify the required machining processes as the parts move along the production line.
“It cuts down on rejects and reduces waste,” Johanson says.

Currently, Custom Cupboards uses RFID tags to track workflow and in the custom packaging operation, though that looks to change in the near future as the company finds ways to adapt the technology in other areas of the plant.

One of the main differences between bar codes and RFID tags is the amount of information that can be embedded, explains Harris. The data on the bar code is restricted by the size of the bar code reader.

However, passive RFID tags, such as those used at Custom Cupboards, can hold much more data, anywhere from 64 bits to 1 kilobyte, depending on the tag.
“The RFID can include the job order, wood type, stain, color, type of doors — any special notes,” Harris says.

Triggered by antennas to excite the tag and broadcast the information, the passive RFID tags can be used with handheld units as well as fixed readers, with an average range of up to 20 feet for the handheld units, and 40 feet on the fixed units.

Although bar codes remain popular because of their low cost, the price for RFID tags continues to drop as the technology develops. “They cost approximately 16 cents apiece now, compared to 23 cents a few years ago,” Harris says.

In addition to their capacity for information, another benefit of RFID tags is that they are rewritable, which means information can be removed or added as needed. Johanson notes that the RFID tag also is “practically indestructible.” The tags cannot be scratched, like with bar codes, which means information cannot be inadvertently corrupted.

At Custom Cupboards, the RFID tags and bar codes both are used to track components throughout the shop floor. That information is then fed into the iConnect workflow software, enabling Custom Cupboards to determine where orders are in process, at any given time, Harris says.

Improving Productivity with Lean
As orders come in from dealers across the nation, they are input electronically and loaded into iConnect, which creates a production schedule based on two-hour increments, explains Palmer. The company has approximately 25 jobs running through the plant on any given day.

The production process is optimized by the company’s use of lean manufacturing. Located at each production cell area inside the plant is a visual management board detailing everything from expected yields and cycle times, to employee schedules and information. The company uses a matrix to measure the daily productivity per person, per machine, Palmer says, although this soon will be done automatically by iConnect. The daily production schedule is derived from this historical data.

“If we know the Takt (time needed to produce an item) and the cycle time, we can figure out the man-hours needed, using an 80 percent efficiency ratio,” Palmer says.
In the rough mill area, for example, approximately 20,000 linear feet per day are cut on the Raimann ripsaw. Nearby, a Mereen-Johnson ripsaw is used primarily for specialty pieces and to handle any overflow.

Because the company is lean, it does not produce for inventory and instead works on a seven- to 10-day lead time. “We’re cutting just enough for that job,” Johanson adds, referencing the company’s initiative toward just-in-time manufacturing.

Nearby, utilizing the iConnect software, a special cell links Kentwood moulders with a Dimter Opticut S90 optimizing saw with inkjets, to the Friulmac TRex end-machining line for door stiles and rails. Because the equipment is connected by automatic conveyors, only two employees are needed to work the seven machines.

“There’s only two or three cells working like this in the nation,” Johanson says, that he is aware of.

Once the frames are cut, they are sent to a sanding line consisting of a Heesemann four-head widebelt, Buetfering three-head denibber and a second Heesemann two-head orbital sander. From there, the parts will meet up and be assembled prior to finishing.

“Everyone is charged with quality control,” Palmer says. The motto throughout the company, he says, is “Don’t make, don’t take and don’t send if it’s poor quality.”
In another area of the plant, wood is ripped and crosscut on SawStop table saws, then planed and shaped, before tenoning then machining on a Voorwood shape and sand edging machine. After processing on the Whirlwind saws outfitted with TigerStops, the RFID tags get affixed to the top rail.

The company has a Doucet clamp for miter doors and a James L. Taylor auto push clamp for cope and stick style doors.

In manufacturing the frameless cabinetry, parts that do not need additional processing are cut to size on one of two Holzma CNC panel saws. Those that do require processing, such as holes, dadoes and rabbets, are machined on one of two C.R. Onsrud CNC routers, which also have the capability for both X and Y cutting as well as nested-based machining.

“Everything is optimized to get the best yield,” Palmer says.

Unlike with the face-frame cabinets which are assembled and then finished, the flat panel components for frameless cabinetry are finished first on a Venjakob flatline system, then assembled with a Ligmatech case clamp.

Because the RFID tags transmit their data, the finish can be placed over them, without fear of corrupting the information or making them unreadable, Harris says.
When ready, the cabinets are placed in a queue on a conveyor line with a fixed antenna. Using a computer monitor, employees view the information contained on the RFID to verify the cabinet was made with the correct species, stain, hinge type, profile edge, etc. “It provides a dashboard for inspection,” Harris says.

Once approved, the cabinet is allowed to proceed down the queue to packaging. The fixed RFID tag reader then signals the Packsize custom packaging system to automatically produce the correct box size for the part.

A second label with instructions is automatically generated for the outside of the box. “But if it does come off, since we have an RFID tag we can always scan the box and see what’s inside,” Harris says.

He adds that the return on investment for this technology has been significant. “There’s been so much value [in improved productivity, available information, plus time and paper savings], it’s hard to put a price on it.”

Click here to see the robots in action

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