Commercial Interiors of DePere, WI, combines the best of new technology and an old-fashioned manufacturing technique in building its successful custom woodworking business.

 

The recent advances in CNC woodworking technology have opened up a new and expanded universe of design possibilities throughout the woodworking industry. Complex architectural forms, including arcs, curves and unusual shapes, were always possible but required excessive time, specialized machines and tools, and skilled craftsmen, and were often fraught with pitfalls that could waylay even the most seasoned woodworker. With new computer-based technology available, the human factor can be taken out of the equation during the all-important cutting and drilling part of the process, leaving assemblers and installers free to simply connect the parts and put them in their proper place. This exciting new work methodology is also beginning to re-invent the custom woodworking business model, as in the example of DePere, WI-based Commercial Interiors Inc.

Started in Green Bay, WI, about 20 years ago, Commercial Interiors has focused on providing specialty casework for a wide range of commercial clients located from the Fox Valley in Wisconsin to Michigan. Its project portfolio includes reception desks and cabinetry for medical offices; teller lines for banks; casework for restaurants, cancer clinics, convenience stores and colleges; banquet seating for Brookfield Square in Milwaukee, intricate woodwork for casinos and work for Lambeau Field — home stadium of the Green Bay Packers football team. Company President Michael Bonk takes pride in his company’s ability to build specialty custom requests that standard cabinet manufacturers are unable or unwilling to tackle.

“Lots of architects call us,” he explains, “and we are willing to work with them to design a project and lay it out, making sure it’s functional and will work. Once we explain to them what we can build with our equipment and what we can do, they are happy to see it come together like that.”

Commercial Interiors specializes in custom casework for a variety of customers. This teller line was done for a bank in Florence, WI.

Taking the CNC Plunge

Over the last couple of years, Commercial Interiors has completely revised how it produces its products. As a result, it has realized savings in time, space, manpower, waste and even energy, while at the same time improving the overall quality of its work.

Replacing nearly the entire plant’s machinery, including a line-borer, shaper, overhead router and more (now stored in a semi-trailer next to the shop) with a Weeke BHP 200 nested-based CNC flat-table machining center, Commercial has completely revolutionized the way it manufactures. Ironically, the addition of the new equipment enabled the company to adopt an “Old School” construction method, which made assembly and installation easier while making the products stronger and better quality, Bonk says.

CNC programmer and lead draftsman Dan LaPlant, an experienced cabinetmaker himself, starts the process. “I put all the parts into WoodWOP and create our own basic library of parts,” he says. “Then I use E-nest and load it into Job Manager to create a job with all the cabinets and nest it.”

The job is sent to the Weeke operator, who doublechecks LaPlant’s work and carefully selects the tool sizes and measurements before performing all of the precision cutting and boring on the machine.

Cutting the Process Down

“The process used to be that we had one guy cutting parts, and then we would take our cabinetmakers and send them to the back of the shop to do the machining,” LaPlant says, shaking his head. “You’d have three guys – one cutting and the other two boring, construction boring and doing the line boring for the shelves and for the drawer tracks and locating for the rails. Now our builders stay at this end of the building, while we have one guy doing all the machining and one guy doing the banding.”

“Everything is done on the machine and then it goes out to the guys who put it together,” adds Bonk. “The radiuses are all done. Dan has it so he can write something like ‘A-A,’ ‘B-B,’ and they can take the parts and match them up. The guy doesn’t even have to mark it anymore. We use a Zebraprinter and the Building Blocks program to create barcode labels. We can print out all the labels for the parts as they are cut, and they just stick them on, throw them in a cart and it goes down the line.

“We can do a lot more radius angled jobs,” Bonk continues, “bigger curves and arcs. Where our layout time before would kill us, now, our layout time is nothing. Whatever Dan can punch into the computer, it’s ready to roll. And even though the machine can only go to 12-foot maximum, if we have a project that is 55 feet long, we just make all our sections and put it together like a puzzle. It speeds everything up a lot.”

Additionally, a new Schmalz vacuum lift allows one man to lift the panels onto the flat bed by himself, saving considerable manpower.

“We aren’t pulling two people off other work to help him,” says Bonk, “and we’re not tying up the forklift. We do 80 sheets a day. Before, we were starting up the forklift 80 times a day to move them. We were going to have to replace the starter this year.” The vacuum lift exhaust also provides heat for the entire back half of the shop.

In Commercial Interiors’ shop, one worker does all of the cutting on the new Weeke machining center, while another edgebands on a Brandt edgebander, leaving the cabinetmakers free to concentrate on assembling the products.

Thinking Ahead

However, it is the way Commercial Interiors has adjusted its work process that may be the most interesting aspect of this story. “We redesigned our whole product line to help our assemblers and installers,” explains Bonk. “We said ‘why don’t we pre-drill the holes so that all the workers have to do is put a top on it and screw it, instead of having to drill and screw it? Let’s let the machine do everything we can and try to make it as easy as possible for everybody.’

“Complex curved structures often require more sophisticated measuring and cutting than it is reasonable to expect humans to do error-free. Hand-cutting on a bandsaw with such precision calls for extraordinary skill and accuracy and takes considerable time and effort. Getting to such small tolerances often requires sanding to size and may still not be as accurate as desired. By pre-cutting these shapes and pre-boring screw holes, we simplify the process for our workers, while ensuring optimum accuracy,” Bonk adds.

Simplicity is the Key

This desire to make things as simple as possible also led to a return to an “old-fashioned” construction method — the use of dadoes instead of dowels. LaPlant says: “Even the simplest cabinetry can be much more complex than you think because of all the screw holes and dowels. Lining up was a real nightmare before we installed the machining center, especially with parts moving and going every which way on us. Mike asked me what I thought about dadoing, and I said I’ve always used dadoes on cabinets and I prefer to dado them. We started having the machine cut the dadoes for us, and that’s when things started really coming together. Parts started fitting. It has worked out tremendously for us. It’s easier to line up and assemble the cabinets.”

“The old-fashioned way, tongue-and-groove, results in a stronger cabinet,” says Bonk. “They’re better quality and easier to put together, and we didn’t have to buy a horizontal boring unit.”

Was the transition to the new methods smooth? “There are always challenges in updating a shop, going from old to updated machinery, changing ways and using new technology,” says Bonk. “There was a bit of a struggle at first, but with help from our suppliers, it’s been getting easier day by day.”

And how did the employees take to the change? After some initial resistance, they now say they would never go back to doing all of the cutting and drilling by hand. “It’s actually made their lives even easier,” Bonk explains, “because the tolerances from the machinery for fitting are even tighter now. So it’s easier for them to put things together and do installations.”

“We eliminated a step by doing it with dadoes, and the guys like it better because it’s easier to work with and things line up better,” LaPlant says. “If we went back to horizontal boring now, these guys would shoot me."

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