W&WP December 2002 

 

 

     
Helikon
Division of ICF Group
Taftville, CT

Helikon produces high-end office furniture. The company has 50 employees and about $5.5 million in annual sales.

Three Keys
1. Previous owners had allowed manufacturing methods to fall out of date. When ICF bought Helikon, it began making some much-needed upgrades.

2. To get full benefit from the new equipment, Helikon developed the P3 line to take full advantage of the new equipment’s capabilities. The company has since developed Mystic and Andante, collections similarly based on flat panel production.

3. The new product lines allow Helikon to reach new price points.

 
   
     

The last two decades have not been kind to Helikon. The Taftville, CT-based office furniture maker was a power in the ultra-high-end executive desk market until the mid-1980s, when sales peaked around $25 million annually.

Helikon had been family-owned since its founding in 1959, but the family sold the company in the mid-1980s, which proved problematic.

Helikon languished, but now it is ready to thrive again. A new owner, ICF Group, bought Helikon in 1996 and has started making long-overdue upgrades. The company has also broadened its product range, developing new lines to match its new machining capabilities and reach new price points.

Modernizing Machining
The first equipment improvements, installed nearly four years ago, were a Weeke machining center from Stiles Machinery and IMOS CAD software from Virtual Systems.

     
 
Helikon installed a Holzma HPP 82 Optimat panel saw with a bar code printer about three years ago. The company has since installed an automatic loader to help further boost productivity.
 
     

The software made an immediate impact on optimization and cutlists. “Prior to the system we were doing drawings on AutoCAD, and we would then have to hand-cutlist those drawings,” says Director of Operations Chris Paulhus. “We would either optimize sheets by hand out on the floor or use a very simple optimizing program, but then we had to re-enter all the data.The machining center also helped production, but its effectiveness was hampered by deficiencies in other pieces of equipment. “Because we only had the machining center, we would cut sheets off on an old panel saw which was not quite accurate enough to produce a final cut,” Paulhus says. “We would actually format it first on the machining center so we would square up that panel, and then do the machining.”

Within a year, Helikon bought a Holzma panel saw and a customized Homag edgebander, both from Stiles. “That gave us a complete system where we could cut sheets to their final size, they could then be banded, and they’d go to the machining center for all the machining. The whole process has been improved tremendously,” Paulhus says. Plus, the machining center can now function solely as a machining center.

IMOS CAD generates cutlists for each, which feed into Holzma Cut Rite software for optimizing and generating machine programs. That information is sent from the office to the machines through a network. Parts are also bar coded at the panel saw. “We have pretty much minimized the amount of documentation that goes out to the floor,” Paulhus says.

Growing Pains
As with any new process, it took time to incorporate the new equipment into the day-to-day operation of the plant. Paulhus says the company identified some key people that would be able to grasp the new processes and champion the upgrading project. “I think they probably took a lot of abuse during the process, with comments and feedback and so forth, but they stuck with the project,” Paulhus says.

Further complicating matters was the fact that Helikon was developing a new product while upgrading, a particular challenge from a software standpoint. Paulhus says, “It was a moving target for our Virtual Systems technician — what was a standard one week we would suddenly change three weeks later.”

Laying out the plant to incorporate the new equipment was also a tougher challenge than most face. Helikon’s factory has personality — with wood floors, a long, narrow shape and support poles spaced 8 feet apart in two lines down the building’s length — that Paulhus says is a challenge from a manufacturing standpoint. “Installation is not simply bringing the machine in and dropping it on the floor. Very often I have to do some extensive foundation work just to be able to set it in this building,” he says.

     
 
The P3 line represents a turning point for Helikon. The company developed it to take advantage of new computerized panel processing equipment. P3 also expands the company’s price point offerings.
 
     

New Equipment Leads to New Products
Traditionally, Helikon’s market was expensive, high-end office furniture, with features like hand-rubbed polyester finishes, supplied by Valspar, and mostly solid wood construction. The company still makes those products, and plans to continue to do so. “It’s a good business for us, but it’s not big enough to allow us to hit our growth targets,” says Jeff Swiggett, president.

The company’s solution was the P3 collection, a line of middle-management furniture developed specifically for the capabilities of the company’s new equipment. For example, while the company’s high-end product used mortise-and-tenon construction for boxes, the machining center allowed Helikon to develop P3 using dowel construction.

Helikon has since redesigned its high-end products for dowel construction as well, but in general, production of the company’s older lines will not change. They are unlikely to incorporate the use of K-D fasteners for assembly or separate tops and modesty panels like the P3 line does, for example. “We’ve got a lot of older documentation stored in AutoCAD and so forth,” says Paulhus, “but any new products that we develop would be developed in this format.”

Helikon introduced two new lines at NeoCon in Chicago this year, Mystic and Andante. Both are based on flat panel production. Mystic is priced below the P3 line, while Andante is a high-end, contemporary collection.

New Products an Easy Sell
Incorporating the new products into the company’s existing distribution network was not difficult. Swiggett says that in contract furniture, even “low-end” casegoods are relatively high-end. “So the distribution channels that we’ve had all along for really high-end products are also distribution channels for our mid-end products. It was a function of just getting material to our sales reps,” he says.

Paulhus says timing helped, because Helikon gained access to ICF’s sales representatives when it was developing P3.

“We were at first asking them to sell our high-end product, and it was a tough sell,” he says. “Once we came out with P3, it was an ideal match for the rep network that we have.”

Employees Aid the Adjustment
“One of the problems that we have here as an employer is that we’re within about five or six miles of two casinos,” Paulhus says. “Between the two of them, they employ in the neighborhood of 20,000 people. So it’s hard to find entry-level people willing to come in and do this type of work.”

Helikon has had much better luck retaining employees, however. Paulhus says about three-fourths of the company’s staff have been with the company 15 to 20 years. “It definitely gives us an advantage. They’ve been able to adjust to the new technology even though they’ve been doing things the old craftsman way,” he adds.

The building, frequently an engineering challenge, helps with employee retention. Paulhus says the wood floors are more comfortable to work on than concrete. The building is also adjacent to a river with an 1870-built dam. (In fact, hydroelectric generators under the building produce power for the local electric company.)

The new technology has only helped to keep workers. “I think people see with the addition of equipment that there’s a commitment on the part of the owners to create a situation of long-term employment,” Paulhus says.

Experimentation Helps Veneer Yield
The company does its own veneer layup, using a Wemco press, Savi guillotine veneer trimmer and Diehl veneer splicer. Paulhus says doing the layups in house allows the company to maintain consistent quality and lead times. The company’s software upgrades have also helped it to improve veneer yield.

“We’ve been working with our cherry veneer supplier, and they’ve been guiding us in efficient uses of veneers,” Paulhus says. “After a few months of using CutRite, you can do a lot of ‘what-ifs.’” Paulhus adds that after a few months of tracking, the company has determined the most efficient panel sizes for panel and veneer yield.

Based on that information, the company has begun experimenting with cutting 5-foot panels in half to lay up veneers on 30-inch sheets. “It allows us to use shorter veneers, and a 30-inch panel gives us a lot of the pedestal parts or below-the-countertop parts we need,” Paulhus says.

The To-Do List
Despite making big steps forward, Helikon realizes that it still has production areas to upgrade. “It’s an ongoing learning process,” Swiggett says. “You can’t bring all this stuff in at once. I think we’re getting pretty good on the wood end of our business, and now we have to look at the finishing end.”

More automated sanding in particular is next on the upgrade list, Paulhus says, and the company is also looking into flatline finishing. Helikon currently hand-sprays all of its finishes in two finishing rooms. “P3 would be an ideal candidate to finish first before assembly,” Paulhus says.

A longer-term goal is material handling. Paulhus and Millroom Leadman John McQueen attended a Homag Group Tour of Technology in Europe last year. “In almost every factory we went to, we would see these roller conveyors with transfer carts,” Paulhus says.

 

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