Spanish Furniture Maker Automates for Flexibility

Faus, an RTA furniture manufacturer based in Valencia, Spain, uses automated material handling equipment and flexible, multi-task machinery to speed production of large and small orders.

BY LARRY ADAMS

Conveyorized production lines appear to run throughout the factory -- in small rooms, around corners and pillars, and back upon itself. Solid wood and composite panels speed single-file along these production expressways and are flipped, spun, vacuumed-up and delivered-in-position by sophisticated material handling equipment for processing by computer-controlled machinery. Board after board march in a continuous wave over three production lines -- one for larger batch sizes and two "more flexible" lines for smaller batch sizes.

To the right, a group of panels makes its way through a U-shaped line. This batch is immediately followed by a second, wider batch with a different edgeband color, but production on the line is not slowed by this change. The boards keep coming and this would be the same if the next batch required a V-groove, inlay profile or a straight plastic edge. A boring machine is moved out of line for a tool change, but a second boring machine on conveyors is shuttled into its place and the boards still keep coming.

On a second production line, two laborers are at work -- one stationed in front and one at the back -- but from the middle neither can be seen. At this plant, machines do most of the cutting, machining, tenoning, boring, dowel inserting and postforming. Automatic pushers and pullers, grabbers and vacuums move boards around. Production software, programmed in an office apart from the manufacturing area, orchestrates the machinery in a symphony of small-batch processing.

A third production line pumps out a large order, the computerized machines processing board after board after board.

At the Heart of Success

These are the production methods at the heart of the success of Faus, a $50 million, 11-year-old, ready-to-assemble furniture manufacturer based in Valencia, Spain. (Faus was the first European furniture company recently toured by 30 American furniture executives. The tour also included plants in Italy, Austria and Germany. See sidebar.)

The company, located an hour from Madrid, produces some 3,000 cabinets per day. It employs 350 people and works three shifts, six days a week. It builds to order a "simple, flat product in a variety of colors," said plant manager Paco Costa.

Typical operations include postforming and softforming of strips for countertops and other components used in its RTA kitchen and office products. It also builds doors for its own furniture and for other manufacturers. In addition, Faus lays up melamine onto a particleboard substrate; it uses most of the panel product for its own operations but sells some excess capacity.

Eighty percent of its sales are standard products and the remaining are custom orders. Turnaround times for cabinets is about two weeks and doors can take up to four weeks depending on the style. Deliveries are made daily on a fleet of its own trucks.

Small Batch Sizes Require Flexible Production

Faus is faced with many of the same dilemmas faced by U.S.-based manufacturers. Large orders have been replaced by short runs. At the same time that labor costs are rising, Faus' clients look for shorter lead times and more value-added services while still demanding a reasonable price point. Andre Faus, the company's owner and founder, has brought in intricate material handling equipment and multi-tasking production machinery and linked them via computer programs to address these issues.

Faus features three production lines at its plant. The first line installed at Faus features a Homag KF double-sided combination sizing and edgeband machine and a Weeke boring machine. The state-of-the-art line is particularly suited for large runs of products, but does not work as quickly for smaller batches.

"Imagine a machine that is 60-feet long and boards are travelling at 120 feet per minute," explained Phil Herzog, a tour guide and the manager of Homag woodworking equipment sales for Stiles Machinery. "If you are going from a board that is 20 inches wide to one that is 40 inches wide, you have to make sure the last piece has cleared before you can open the double-sided machine up for the 40-inch board.

"From the point when a piece is introduced into that machine to where you could make the next width change can take a minimum of 30 seconds of clearing time plus set-up time. If you run a batch size of a thousand pieces then it is not too important, but if the batch size is a half dozen or less, then you have to add 30 seconds for every batch size. That could add up to a half and hour," Herzog added.

Realizing this, Faus began looking at ways to upgrade his production to make it more flexible. The company ended up installing the single-sided line KF line from Homag. The line features back-to-back Homag combination sizing and edgebanding machines, working at feed speeds in the range of 82 to 131 feet per minute, plus two Weeke boring machines and a Weeke dowel inserter. Each machine is linked to the other by computer programs and conveyors which deliver batch after batch of various-sized panels. The single-sided machines are not affected by the width change because "the conveyors will accommodate different panel widths," Herzog said. Edgebanding can be changed by switching to another material in the Homag's multi-roll edgeband magazine. At the end of the line, Bargstedt material handling equipment removes the fully-machined pieces and stacks them to await packaging and delivery.

Door edges are processed on a similar single-sided KF line. The U-shaped line features a Homag double-end tenoner which sizes the panels in-line. The cut-to-size panels are then moved to back-to-back single-sided edgebanders with a transfer in between that applies 3mm PVC edging on all four sides.

Finished Products Stack Up

Walking between row after row of ready-to-ship components, stacked several feet high puts into perspective the great number of styles offered by Faus. These stacks make the need for flexible production plainly evident.

As the company has grown and added manufacturing capacity to meet increased orders, it has found itself with three lines geared to fill large orders as well as smaller orders. Each has its strengths and weakness for producing particular parts. Together, the three lines work in harmony to produce the many varied items the company sells.

"When Faus bought the double-sided KF line they were looking to fill large orders. When batch sizes were reduced, their was a need to have more flexible lines so they increased their capacity with more flexible lines, but still kept the original line for high-volume production."

 

American Woodworkers Tour High-Tech Furniture and Fixture Companies

Faus was the first of seven European production facilities toured by 30 American furniture executives last fall. The group, representing a range of company's from Steelcase to a small custom cabinet shop, participated in the 1997 High-Tech tour sponsored by the Homag Group and its U.S. supplier, Stiles Machinery of Grand Rapids, MI. Here are some other highlights of the tour.

Remain in Spain

Creaciones Gisan, the second stop on the tour, is a furniture manufacturer based in Valencia (Faus being the first). Creaciones is a small-company with several stationary, high-production Homag BAZ machining centers that give the company the capacity to quickly produce shaped components. The BAZ machines can size, profile, edgeband, drill and groove a part -- all in one pass. A Holzma HCL 22 panel saw, which cuts up to 1,300 parts per shift, generates bar codes which help direct the machinery operations.

"We bought the machines because we are doing both flat and curved parts," said owner Nicholas Sanroque. "We could buy big fancy cars, but we prefer to buy machinery," Sanroque added, pointing at his battered pickup truck.

By Plane to Italy

Mobilservice, a Susegana, Italy-based company, was the next stop on the tour. The five-year-old company, with sales of $8 million and 19-employees, specializes in postforming melamine topped particleboard strips. The strips are sold to cabinet and bath vanity and door manufacturers.

Mobilservice postforms components in strips using a Homag direct postformer. The direct postformer mills the edge of melamine panels to leave a slight overhang, radius trims the substrate and fold the laminate over the radius in one pass. The strips are then cut-to-length on a Holzma HQP 11 panel saw that immediately follows the postforming operation.

"In the States, manufacturers quite often postform to size, rather than in strip production," said Phil Herzog, a tour guide and manager of Homag sales for Stiles Machinery. "Even though Mobilservice offered only two or three different width components, they offered the strips in a number of lengths which could easily be handled in the cross-cut saw."

From A-Z

In Austria,the group toured Eggers, a company has evolved from manufacturing particleboard to making finished products. "The thing about Eggers is that they started off by being a board producer," Herzog said. "Probably because of the high quality and reputation they earned for producing quality boards led them into the component side of the business. Two years ago they started in the laminate flooring business."

Using several Homag BAZ machining centers, as well as Homag postforming and softforming lines, the Tirol, Austria-based company has the capacity of producing postformed components, softformed components, and can supply cut-to-size, contoured and shaped panels.

German Ingenuity

Staud furniture is a privately-owned bedroom furniture manufacturer based in Salgau, Germany. The company has about $55 million in sales and has a 300,000 square feet of production space in two plants.

Staud furniture purchases cut-to-size panels and runs them through several through-feed CNC machines to produce up to 500 bedrooms a day.

"The company felt that the material had the highest value-added by running it through their edgebanders and their drilling machines," Herzog said.

The factory also features a through-feed CNC point-to-point machine that works in a circular material handling configuration.

"They can feed panels through the machine once," Herzog said. "and, if the drilling patterns is so complex they can't be completed in one pass, the material handling device bring it through the machine again to complete the process."

Final Stop of the Tour

The final stop on the tour was at Konig, a Mengen, Germany-based store fixture company. The company has invested heavily in automation and material handling equipment to utilize limited production space, reduce the required workforce and to incorporate value-added design features such as softformed and contoured-edge components on its fixtures.

This high-level of automation includes:

  • A large storage and retrieval system from Bargstedt feeds prelaminated particleboard sheets -- in sheets as large as 6 feet by 18 feet -- to a Holzma HPL 22 panel saw.
  • A Weeke point-to-point boring machine worked without an operator. Material is stacked in front of the Weeke. A Ligmatech UniJet 2DE20 material handling device vacuums-up the part, rotates it 180 degrees to align it, and delivers it to the Weeke. After machining, Ligmatech material handling equipment off loads and stacks the finished pieces.
  • A line featuring a Weeke BP15 point-to-point boring machine and one featuring a Weeke BP 140 point-to-point boring machine.

"The company, in general, probably has a higher level of automation than most. Especially in terms of material handling and information processing," Herzog said. "Because of the lack of production space, it really has optimized material flow."

 

Trip Not All Work

Fine art, fantastic food and even an oompah band were some of the entertainment highlights of the 1997 Homag High Tech Tour.

Travelling primarily by bus through Spain, Italy, Austria and Germany, 30 American furniture executives were treated to lunches and dinners at out-of-the-way, sometimes unmarked restaurants.

In Spain, the group toured two art galleries, a small Spanish town and even attended a Flamenco show. In the audience that night was movie star Demi Moore, who arrived in the middle of the show.

The group flew from Madrid to Italy and rode a bus to the hotel. While in Italy the group stopped for lunch at alla Colombo, a small-town restaurant with 4-star food. There the group ate at least a dozen courses from beef, chicken, pork and fish.

After tour factories in Italy, the group travelled by bus over the Alpine Mountains in Austria. Austria, according to many on the trip, was the most beautiful of the countries toured. Picture-postcard like scenes of cottages and rams butting heads were seen from the bus. At the lodge, tour members were startled to see a number of cows staring back at them through the restaurant windows. The cows, tethered to polls and munching on straw, produced the milk which was turned into cheese and finally into the cheese soup consumed by many in the group that night.

In Germany, the group toured Munich and even saw an oompah band. One member of the group was called up to perform with the band.

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