EuroCraft Ready to Spread its Wings

Republic’s EuroCraft division began producing 32mm cabinets two years ago. Today EuroCraft is ready to leave its small quarters and move into a new, larger factory.

BY BARRETT KILMER

 

When Republic Industries decided to form EuroCraft and try its hand at frameless cabinetmaking two years ago, it did so cautiously. Gene Ponder, president of the Marshall, TX-based company had seen enough established cabinet companies fail at it to know he was up against a major challenge.

“Euro-style cabinetmaking has busted a lot of great old companies -- some that used to be major players,� Ponder says.

EuroCraft’s initial production target was between 750 and 800 boxes per day, but Ponder scaled back plans by 50% as a hedge against possible failure.

“That way, if we made a mistake and couldn’t pull off producing European cabinets, it certainly wouldn’t put us out of business,� Ponder says. “It would cost us some money and teach us a lesson, but it wouldn’t hurt us.�

The first phase of EuroCraft has gone better than anyone expected, according to Ponder, even turning a profit after its first month in operation. This year he says the company will generate between $7 million and $8 million in sales. To capitalize on that success, EuroCraft recently built a new 60,000-square-foot plant to house Phase II of the company and plans to move in later this year.

Outsourcing From Within

Faced with the decision of how to produce the doors for its EuroCraft plant, owner Gene Ponder decided to keep it in the family and produce them in the nearby Republic door area. The door area produces approximately 1,200 parts per day and has made as many as 2,000, says Larry Walls, plant manager, door manufacturing.

The company uses 5/8-inch MDF on the doors as well as the other parts of the cabinets. Most of the doors the plant produces for EuroCraft are thermofoiled.

One of the unique things about the doors is the back bevel, which Walls says is difficult to do using 5/8-inch material. This keeps the workers from having to determine lefts and rights because the doors are interchangeable. It also eliminates the need to add pulls in the assembly area.

Machining is done on three Northwood CNC routers. The newest one is about a year old and features two 15-hp motors with Euro spindles and 8-tool changers on each motor. The company uses diamond tooling, primarily from Saber.

In addition to routing the doors, the Northwoods produce valences, wine racks and other decorative parts. These parts are programmed on Smart Cam software. “We make all our own drawings, and the software has a built-in code generator so we don’t have to write our own programs,� says Walls.

For nesting purposes, Walls uses Building Blocks software, which works in conjunction with Smart Cam. Walls says he has been pleased with the software and has kept up with most of the upgrades, but that sooner or later he will get to a point where software is not going to be the answer to all the plant’s needs.

“The machine’s feed speeds, RPMs and tooling will limit what you can do,� he says. “We’re not maxxed out yet, but when it comes to needing more capacity we’ll put on a second shift as opposed to buying more equipment. It just makes better sense because you never know which way the worm is going to turn in this business.�

Laminating
The laminating area is separated by a weather curtain to keep it as clean as possible. Humidity and temperature are also kept constant year-round. Walls uses American Helmitin glue and Binks Mach I HVLP spray guns.

“We go around the edges twice since 90% of the bond needs to be on the outside profile of the door,� Walls says.

After about 30 minutes of drying, the doors are sent to a Shaw Almex Thermolaminator. Walls says he tries to make sure the trays are full before the workers pull the vinyl since each pull costs about $25.
“The key is to make sure the doors are properly placed on the pedestals. If you have a pedestal sticking out that will ruin the door,� Walls says.

The membrane press features a return tray system, with trays going in and getting unloaded at the same time. Cycle times are around two minutes, depending on the material.

Learning from Others’ Mistakes
Ponder says he studied the mistakes other cabinet companies had made to improve his own business. One common problem, he says, was that companies tried to take a metric process and convert it to standard measurements so it would not confuse workers.

Another common mistake was companies trying to use American equipment to make European cabinets, he adds.

“They would buy American boring machines and try to set up all the adjustable shelf holes, hinge holes and so forth,� Ponder says. “That won’t work either. You really have to go out and buy some good European equipment that is designed for production.�

EuroCraft considered these failed approaches and decided to do things a little differently.

“We know it’s hard to change American mentality of the Imperial system to the metric system, so we decided to combine the two,� Ponder says. “Since all the equipment is designed for the metric system height-wise, we kept that system. But we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel in America. When a customer wants to buy a B-15, they know what a B-15 is. They don’t know what it is in the metric system. So we kept the Imperial system for the width of the cabinets. So if a customer wants a B-15, B-21, B-24, it is truly that size.�

New Procedures, New Machinery
EuroCraft was equipped with all new panel processing machinery, which the company bought from a variety of vendors. In all, EuroCraft invested more than $2 million in the equipment.

“We go to the woodworking shows every year to try to keep up with the current equipment and who is making it,� Ponder says.

Machinery purchases included a Holzma rear-loading panel saw, a Homag edgebander, several Gannomat boring machines, a Delmac Busellato Jr. point-to-point and a Comil case clamp.

The scaled back production plans meant that EuroCraft’s first phase would have to be housed in an existing, 20,000-square-foot building. Ponder says he had to arrange the equipment in an “S� pattern due to the limited space. Casey Decker, manager of the EuroCraft plant says that when the company takes up residence in the new, larger building, efficiency will be improved greatly.

“U-shaped lines are not efficient at all,� Decker says. “Everything is curving and bending. We’ll be half again more efficient in the new plant.�

The biggest improvement the new plant will provide is in its straight-through setup and the reduced need for material handling, according to Ponder. “We’re virtually not even going to have a fork lift except to bring material to the saws,� he says. “Everything else from that point on will be conveyorized.�

Republic’s switch from face frame to 32mm cabinetry at EuroCraft also meant workers needed new skills to operate the computerized equipment, Ponder says.

“We had to train everybody completely. The one plus that we had was a plant manager that was from South Africa. He had experience there building 32mm cabinetry. So that was a big help finding a guy who knew the equipment, knew the systems, knew the procedures and so forth. Without that we would have probably had our share of problems adjusting too.�

Laminating, Sawing and Banding
EuroCraft lays up 5/8-inch particleboard from Temple on a Monco TV-60 continuous press laminator. The Monco laminates both sides at once and operates at about 400F.

Laminated panels are then sent to a rear-loading Holzma HPL-22 panel saw. Ponder says that when EuroCraft moves into the new plant they will buy another Holzma.

“Right now our Holzma is cutting our parts and optimizing all our pieces,� Ponder says. “Our production process will change in Phase II in that the Holzma will be ripping stock in 10-foot lengths. Then we’ll have a customized Holzma that will cut off those long parts into each board that we need. It will also increase productivity on our edgebander by doing it 10-foot lengths rather than cut-to-size pieces.�

Edgebanding is done on a single-sided Homag SE 9400 with end trim and top trim. It also has an outrigger grooving saw that grooves for the back.

Boring and Doweling
Ponder says he decided to buy three multi-spindle Gannomat boring machines for EuroCraft after having such good luck with them in the main plant. Two of them are single-head machines, and the other is a Model 283 double-head Gannomat that bores both sides at the same time and inserts the glue and dowels.

“The 283 does twice the work the other Gannomats do,� Decker says. “And material comes back to the operator so you don’t even need a tailer for the machine.�

Pieces that need other machining go to the Delmac Busellato Jr. point-to-point. It is equipped with a 1/2-inch router bit for routing toekicks, a 5mm bit for boring hinge plate holes and an 8mm bit for making dowel holes. It also has a 4.5mm groover blade for the back material.

“A lot of companies cut the toekick on a router, do some other grooving and so forth on another machine, but my philosophy has always been to handle parts as little as you can,� says Ponder. “Let each machine do as much as it can possibly do. Once you equate the cost of handling something two or three times, you’re really saving money doing it on one machine even though it takes longer.�

Eurocraft's frameless cabinets are made with 5/8-inch MDF. The company currently produces them in a 20,000-square-foot plant but will soon be moving to a 60,000-square-foot facility.

The company is adding a second Busellato Jr. to keep up with increased production. The new machine will prevent EuroCraft from having to add a second shift, Ponder says.

“The Banging Area�
Once all the pieces have been cut, banded, bored and grooved they are taken in bins to what the company calls the “banging area.�

“The only thing these builders do is if it is a base or vanity cabinet that gets drawered, they put the rails on. Other than that it’s just a matter of putting glue in the holes and assembling the cabinets,� Decker says.

Assembled cabinets spend about 30 seconds in a Comil case clamp. The clamp operator then applies hotmelt to attach the back panels.

Another line of workers adds the hinge plates, shelf clips, shelves, corrugated fasteners and staples. EuroCraft uses a variety of hardware suppliers.

“With our sister companies, Sunshine Kitchens and Legacy Cabinets, we develop synergies to negotiate annual deals for materials,� Ponder says. “If you’re a price-point manufacturer, you have to be aware of every cost. We will literally change suppliers for two cents a hinge.�

A Senco Carlson D184 is used in building the drawers, which are added to the boxes at the end of the line. The drawers are constructed with 5/8-inch MDF so offal from the cabinets can be utilized.

“Our waste factors are unbelievable -- less than 5% at EuroCraft,� Ponder says.

The vinyl-clad doors and drawer fronts made at another Republic Industries plant are attached with two Ferrari machines that bore from the bottom, then push the hinge plates in.

The company uses a Samuel strapping system that orbits around the boxes with plastic wrap. The wrap has the added benefit of keeping the boxes from getting damaged by sliding around in the trucks because the boxes tend to stick to one another.

Preparing for Phase II
Ponder estimates that in the last quarter of 2000, EuroCraft will be ready to move into the new plant. He figures production will roughly double to 700 cabinets per day, which is what he planned on initially.

The increased efficiency due to the straight layout of equipment will improve an already efficient operation which averages more than 11 boxes per employee in an 8-hour shift, according to Ponder.

Standing outside the new plant, which currently houses lumber for the main plant and cabinets for the on-site retail outlet, Ponder’s son Kenny, senior vice president of manufacturing, reiterates his father’s thoughts on starting the operation on a trial basis.

“If we had decided to shut down that little operation, it wouldn’t have cost us more than $1 or $2 million dollars,� he says. “If we had gone into full production right away we could have been out as much as $10 million if it didn’t work out.�

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.