W&WP September 2004
Edgebanders of all types are moving toward automation to make one of the industry's more mundane jobs easier.
By J.D. Piland
Edgebanders are widely regarded as one of the most complex pieces of machinery in the woodworking industry, not to mention one of the most essential.
"[Woodworkers] want a good, solid machine to help them with a tedious job that nobody likes [to do]," says Kevin Anderson, owner of Canada-based Anderson Mfg. Technologies.
With so many stations - from trimmers and scrapers to buffers and gluers - an edgebander operator is required not only to know all aspects of each station, but also to know the chemical reactions of the glue and the board, glue cure time, optional feed speed, etc.
Considering that automation is becoming second nature to nearly all woodworking machinery, manufacturers of edgebanders - from straight line to contour and manual to CNC - are integrating various technological features to help make the job easier on the operators.
Automation appears to be the main focus of edgebander manufacturers, and they are working to make the machines more user friendly and easier to set up and use.
Virtually all panel processing companies, whether it is a cabinet shop or an architectural mill, needs an edgebander. Most of those shops only require a straight-line bander. But there is at least one market that requires contour edgebanders: store fixtures.
Store fixture manufacturers are investing in contour edgebanders to band radiused components that are ever-more frequently specified by designers. Some of that can be attributed to the boom of other machinery.
"Perhaps one reason might be the growing popularity of CNC routers making designs with curved parts more popular," says Adam Lopuk, national sales manager with Adwood Corp.
Not only does contour edgebander use exist in the store fixtures market, but as Steve Jones, product manager with Altendorf America, says, the closets industry also has stake in the machines. "It runs the full range from small to medium to large shops," he adds.
Contour edgebanders are being utilized in the hospital furniture market as well, due to the need for broad, rounded corners.
While contour edgebanders have built upon their share of the market, those interviewed agree that straight-line edgebanders still occupy 90 percent or more of the market.
But no matter what kind of edgebander it is, they are all headed in the same direction toward increased automation.
Innovations of Automation
Jones agrees. "It is becoming quite common to see more program controls so operators don't have to go under the hood [to change the strip material]." After all, "labor is something [shop owners] always have to fight with. The percentage of time you save is more important to a small shop than a large shop," he adds.
Manufacturers have come up with automation innovations that are making edgebanders "very simple, very flexible and very fast," says David Lillard, product manager with Delmac Machinery Group.
This is essential to nearly all woodworkers and shop owners because trained, skilled operators are becoming few and far between. When a shop owner finds one, the cost of hiring him or her is rarely cheap. Having a piece of machinery that can set up quickly, without the operator knowing every intricacy of the machine, has relieved some of the pressure put on the shop owner.
This is where the amount of automation and integration plays its biggest role. Being able to hire a less-skilled operator will save the company money, and while the time to train the employee slightly increases, the time saved on machine setup more than makes up for it.
Lopuk says, "You can lease an entry-level machine that can run four to six hours a day, every day. This machine [could] lease for under $400 a month, that's $100 a week, and based on 40 hours a week, only $2.50 per hour. If you are doing edgebanding by hand or even with a hot air machine, you are paying more than that in labor already."
Lillard adds that the machines are becoming more flexible as well. "Machines are becoming more automatic, so rather than having to set it up manually, someone can scan a barcode, and the machine will set up automatically."
Edgebanders of the past used to be "temperamental," Lillard explains. This means there was much more to setting up the machine: knowing chemical reactions, the right temperature and the right speed, among others.
"There was more of an art form setting it up," he says. Now, that art form has given way to several technological features.
One such feature is touchscreens, which make it easier and quicker to recall set-up information. The machines with integrated barcodes, Lillard explains, will recall that information, while servo motors set up the machine accordingly, when a barcode is scanned.
The barcodes, if programmed correctly, will display onscreen the specifications for the piece to be banded. Then the operator can edit those specifications if small changes need to be made.
Helping set up the machine stations is a pneumatic positioning system. Lopuk says this air-controlled system can be preset to the specifications for two corresponding stations, virtually eliminating the need to go under the hood to make fine adjustments by hand.
"Quick changeover does not only mean pneumatic positioning but also mechanical digital readouts for anything that requires adjustments so the operator can record and then reset by simply going back to the previous setting," Lopuk adds.
One thing Jones foresees is automatic changing of the feed types, so the operator can adjust the banding without having to stop and change the settings to accommodate the banding.
But integrating these features depends on the size of the company, says Ed Moran, national product manager for edgebanding and sanding systems at Biesse Group America. "There are companies that have work cells, which use automatic panel loaders and off-loaders. In some cases with these automated lines, you will also find in the same work cell actual drilling machines or splitting units to cut these panels down to a specific size. All in all, it is to help increase productivity output, and this has much to do with batching and batch sizes."
The smaller shops tend to have varying batches and batch sizes. The need for quick setup or changeover is necessary to avoid extra labor or downtime.
"Automation helps make them become more efficient in a 'hoods-down' fashion," says David L. Harris, regional product specialist with Stiles Machinery.
"You're still going to be cutting boards," he says. "You can't [afford to] chip it. You can't break it. Otherwise, it's a loss."
Choosing the appropriate tooling for your needs, Harris explains, may help increase chip and dust extraction and produce cleaner cuts.
A multiple-profiling tool, if switching between thicknesses and band types, would be a valuable investment, Moran adds.
Furthermore, Lopuk predicts premill stations to be the next big thing in lower-level production banders, as they have already made their mark on the high-production machines.
The premill station would utilize counter-rotating cutter heads to trim 0.5mm to 3mm off the panel before the glue and banding are applied.
"This allows for the cleanest, most crisp glue line on the panel, because any scoring or chipping issues are gone and there is no time for the panel core to expand due to moisture in the air," he says.
Ahead of the Curves
However, Moran says, "We are always looking to improve upon the minimum and maximum radii."
It is all about percentages, Moran adds. The percentage of parts that need to be edgebanded determines what type of machine woodworkers need and how often they will use it. One must also consider the inside and outside radii. One question Moran suggests potential customers ask: Will the machine be flexible enough in its patterns to redo the minimum and maximums?
Steve Baldry, product specialist for the Homag group at Stiles Machinery, says different shapes and radiused parts are becoming more popular with the flat panel industry's clientele. Today, woodworkers are getting more orders for radiused parts and therefore need a machine that can rout, drill and edgeband curvilinear components, he adds.
"We as machine manufacturers are finding customers want tighter corners and more complex curvilinear components. Even two to three years ago those were not possible to do," he says. "With today's machine hardware and experience these parts are now possible to produce. Today we could do a complex 360-degree part in a one- to three-minute cycle time."
"The glue manufacturers have been on top of the innovations and research," Moran says. "There are new glues on the market which help reduce maintenance and down time. Many of these new glues offer a much stronger bond to your materials. One of the newer glues on the market is called 'non-filled' and it works fantastic on most products."
The non-filled adhesives are capable of higher temperatures than clay-filled adhesives, last longer in the glue reservoir and create a stronger bond.
"It's going to reduce maintenance because it will not burn as easily and has a longer life, because it is mostly cement rather than mostly clay," which has the potential to muck up the glue system on the machine, Moran adds.
PVC banding 3mm thick once made contour edgebanding difficult because of a lack of flexibility in the tape.
It is possible to find banding as thin as 0.4mm and as thick as 3mm, in almost all band types - from PVC to solid wood.
Customers also are interested in feed speed and maximum solid wood strip capacity.
For instance, some edgebanders have a feed speed of 33 feet per minute with a maximum solid wood capacity of 5mm, Lopuk says.
Alternative materials, such as honeycomb and composite designs, are gaining popularity, Harris adds. Honeycomb, because of its lightweight yet sturdy makeup, is used in RTA manufacturing.
Keep in Mind
Automation, shapes of products to be edgebanded, the quality of the finished product, affordability and long-term goals for the company all play a big role in the decision-making process.
While all this automation has helped dramatically decrease labor and increase production output, those same innovations may have a different effect on prospective users and customers.
Knowing that, Anderson wants to make shop owners aware of something he calls "techno-fear," meaning the machine technology may be too overwhelming so the user continues by hand.
Anderson recommends looking at the background of the company and of the machine, and getting references where applicable to ensure that both are reliable and of good quality.
Users also may utilize the company from where they bought the machine. Some companies offer a class or program that trains the would-be operator on how to use and maintain the machine.
"Past performance is going to tell the whole story," Anderson says.
Lillard agrees, but adds that potential customers should look to the future as well. "Look for life expectancy," he says. "Not just what the machine will do for you in the first year, but also in the 10th year."
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