More Space and More Technology Leads to More Business

Higley Cabinets improves production and service with a new building and high-tech machinery.

By Sam Gazdziak

 

   
     
  Higley Cabinets primarily manufactures kitchen cabinets for new homes. The company works mainly with contractors, although Rob Higley hopes the company’s new machinery will allow him to work with more private customers too.  
         

Many woodworking business owners expand their businesses to add more production space or more machinery. Few, however, accomplish the task on as large a scale as Rob Higley has done.

The owner of Higley Cabinets Inc. of North Branch, MN, started his company in 1975 and had been located in the same building for the majority of the time. Through a couple of expansions, he had increased its size to 3,600 square feet, but he says he had maxxed out the production area of that building. “We weren’t able to add any more equipment,” he says. “I needed to become more efficient and get more space. I put up this building and added a lot more equipment. I decided to bring this business up to the next level.”

The result of Higley’s expansion is a new building that is almost four times as large as the old one. His company also has added several high-tech machines and software, placing Higley Cabinets on the cutting edge of custom cabinetmaking.

Higley bought a 1-acre lot of land about five miles from his old shop. The building, which was completed in June 2000, totals 12,500 square feet. The building was built to his design, with help from architect Michael McGuire. McGuire designed the office space, while Higley worked on the production area.

“I had thought there would be some places I could look that would help me with shop layout,” he says. “I really didn’t find any help, so I thought, ‘I’ve been doing this for 25 years. I should know how things should go.’” Higley also discussed layout with the employees in his shop and drew from their experience. He says that he wouldn’t change any of the layout choices that he made.

Higley Cabinets specializes in designing and building kitchen cabinets for new homes. Higley says he works mainly with building contractors who do work in a 30- to 60-mile radius, which includes the Twin Cities area. “The new home market has been really strong the last five or six years,” Higley says.

Kitchen prices can range from $3,500 to $60,000. Higley says the quality of the cabinets is the same, but the higher-end kitchens will have some extra features, like raised-panel doors instead of routed doors. Most countertops are plastic laminate, but Higley Cabinets also offers solid surface and granite tops, though those are fabricated by subcontractors. Most of the work the company does is solid wood, especially oak, maple, hickory and some cherry. Interiors can also be done in wood but are most often white melamine.

Higley says that the company often gets inquiries from homeowners to do cabinetry, and that was one of the reasons for the expansion. “In the past few years, we had to turn down a lot of private party jobs just because we had to be able to service our contractors,” he says. “I’m hoping to do more and take care of those people by being in this building and doing more volume.”

Along with being able to service more customers, Higley says that the new machinery will be able to help keep his current customers satisfied.

“I always used to think that quality was the most important thing. It’s very important, but equally important is the service — can you get the cabinets done on time,” he says. “That was one of the big reasons for [upgrading the machinery.] We are a lot more confident that we can deliver these cabinets on time and at a higher quality.”

Higley had begun to modernize his machinery two years ago when he bought an Altendorf sliding table saw. That saw, he says, allowed the company to produce chip-free and accurate panels. The recent purchases came last year, when his new building was ready for production.

The focal point of the new machinery purchase is a Routech CNC router from SCM Group USA. Higley also bought a Sandya 10 widebelt sander from SCM Group and a Disa dust collection system. To help move panels to the router or table saw, Higley had an overhead Stamco crane with an Anver lift installed.

The purchases were made with the intention of speeding up production for Higley and his nine employees. The router has a 5-foot by 19-foot table with two working zones, so an employee can be loading a panel or unloading parts while the second zone is in action.

 

   
     
  Higley Cabinets’ new building in North Branch, MN, features a showroom with two complete sets of kitchen cabinetry.  
         

Because of the crane, Higley can order larger sheets of wood for the router or saw. He says he orders up to 5-foot by 12-foot sheets, and one employee can easily lift them onto the machines. The larger sheets allow him to get more parts from the wood.

The sander is also a labor saver. Employees previously used belt sanders and random orbital disc sanders to do the work. Some finishing is done in Higley Cabinets’ old shop; they subcontract out the rest.

The automation has improved almost every facet of the shop. Employees can rout whole countertops from one sheet instead of joining several pieces together. Higley says that when the machines were first set up, the employee who fabricated the countertops asked how he would be able to keep up with the increased workload. Higley ran the first set of countertops, which took about two minutes to complete. The employee said that he wouldn’t have even had the board to the saw using the old method.

With the employees doing the production and occasional installation work, Higley’s jobs include meeting with customers, taking field measurements and laying out the designs via Cabnetware, which he has been using for eight years. Within the last few months, he has been using the Cabnetware nesting program, called Enabler, to optimize his cutlists and send them to the router. He says that his waste has been greatly reduced with the program. Countertops are laid out using Alphacam.

Higley says that he and his employees had to pass through an initial learning curve in order to get accustomed to the machinery. “The first few sets we machined on the router, we would have done it quicker to cut it the old say,” he explains. “But once we got past that and got used to it, we were miles ahead.”

With the machinery and software in place, Higley Cabinets can jump-start its production. Contractors can ask the company to build a typical L-shaped kitchen with a peninsula and bathroom vanity 50 to 70 times a year. Higley says that the kitchens are all custom made, but they generally don’t vary that much. “I can have that drawn up in Cabnetware in 20 minutes, and I can go through Enabler and have it ready to be machined, and actually machining parts 10 minutes later,” he adds. “In the first half-hour I can go from field measurements to machining parts.” Other jobs that are more complex or involve private homeowners may require more time, approval or plans before production can begin.

Higley has spent much of his time recently getting the shop finished. The production area in the new building is completed and running at full strength. The reception area and a showroom with two completed cabinets are ready, as is Higley’s office. An employee break room and a meeting room was scheduled to be completed in March.

Higley says that it’s too soon to tell just how much the company will be able to increase production. Still, in spite of the time spent moving out of the old shop and getting all the materials and machinery set up in the new shop, Higley Cabinets did boost its volume in 2000. Sales figures last year topped $1 million, and Higley thinks that he can easily go to $1.5 million or higher in the new shop. He says he is looking forward to this year’s production once the building has been completed. “I’ll be able to focus strictly on production and not have two full-time jobs,” he says.

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