W&WP December 2002
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.
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.
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.
New Equipment Leads to New Products
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
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
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
“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
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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