Industry Calls for Widebelt Sanders to Be Wider, Bigger, Faster

Widebelt sanding technology looks to keep up with the ever-growing advancements found in shops throughout the industry.

By Andy Jenkins
Increased automation and versatility are just a few of the hottest trends in widebelt sanding technology.

 With technology throughout the industry changing at a feverish pace, growing demands for higher-yield production, mixed with shrinking (and more costly) supplies, have made the sanding process even more crucial in keeping the cost of production down.

Wood & Wood Products sought the expertise of several leaders in widebelt sanding technology and asked them to spell out some of the more prominent trends they've seen within the industry. All seem to agree that the sanding process is as important as ever.

"The sanding process is one of the most costly and labor intensive processes in the shop," says Dan Bashaw, president of Overland Machinery Group (OMG). "It's also one of the most ignored. You have people who add CNC routers in their shop to save a bunch of money on cutting parts. But then they'll spend millions of hours with hand sanders trying to make the product acceptable to go out to the market. In cases like that, people are completely missing that a good quality sander investment can make a huge difference on the return on profits."

Bashaw and others agree that recent advancements in widebelt sanding technology give woodworkers increased productivity and added versatility with their sanding lines.

Keeping Up

Tim Mueller of Timesavers has witnessed the push for widebelt sanders that can keep up with the demands of today's production schedules. In the larger shops, Mueller says, the more heads on the machines, the better.

"Over the last two or three years, the big push has been to go to higher, multiple-head machines," Mueller says. "We're selling more four- and five-head machines."

Mueller says that in the past, people would buy a three-head machine and run a grit sequence, but they would skip one or two grits throughout the sequence. By using a four- and five-head machine, Mueller says, and not skipping any grit sequences, woodworkers are finding that their finishes are improved, and their belt life is even longer.

The overall size of widebelt sanders is another issue. Traditional sizes typically max out at 52 inches wide, allowing users to run sheets of material up to 4 feet by 8 feet. However, Eric Johnston of Stiles Machinery says that he has heard of people looking for even larger machines - 5 feet wide and up. The possible advantage of a larger machine, Johnston says, is the ability to better utilize product in 5-foot sheets.

Today's widebelt sanders include more and more features that provide users with added versatility and sanding options. This machine features automatic head locking that is activated and deactivated by door opening and closure. Other machines are combining more sanding heads with greater automation and control.

Photo Courtesy of Stiles Machinery.

 "Larger machines are certainly something that is coming," Johnston says. "Utilization is obviously a key, and like veneers, we have shrinking supplies of wood and we have to utilize it better. One of the ways to do that is to utilize wider sheets."

Mike Fogel of SCM's Sander Division, says he sees a different trend as the biggest change in sanding technology: the addition of Windows-based PCs to larger widebelt sanders. While automation has been a part of sanding machines for awhile, Fogel says that sanders are needing computerization to keep up with new technology throughout the industry.

Bashaw also notes the importance of computer technology. "Sanders can be equipped with color touch screen controls that control multiple elements of the machine," he says. "There are also capabilities to tell how long belts are going to last, how much material has been run through and where on the belt has most of the material gone through."

Going beyond a single machine, Johnston says that more shops are looking to create entire sanding systems and lines, with computer programs controlling the sanding and finishing process.

"We've been very heavily involved with systems as of late," Johnston says. "In the past, we've built individual machines to sand, but it seems that a lot of people, especially those in the kitchen cabinet industry whose business is kind of going bananas, are looking for systems. So we're putting together a complete line with electrical line control and tying everything together to make it one complete system."

Fogel says there have been more calls for complete sanding lines as well. "What I see, especially for cabinet door manufacturers, is customers buying more of a complete sanding line," he says. "Maybe like a four-head top machine, and then an orbital machine and a bottom machine in front of that."

These larger purchases seem to be coming more from larger customers, compared to small and medium shops, Fogel says. It was the opposite last year, he adds.

Something for the Smaller Guys

While larger manufacturers are looking to bigger machines and complete sanding systems, smaller to mid-size shops are eager for something different in their widebelt sanders.

"In the smaller to medium-sized plants, which really comprise the biggest part of the industry, there have been more calls for greater automation and setup," Mueller says. "We're intermixing a lot more segmented-type platens into standard machines now. Where it used to be that people would buy a segmented machine just for veneer, now we're putting them into more and more standardized pieces of equipment because it makes the machine more versatile."

Versatility is a key word for sanding equipment in smaller operations where shop space is often at a premium, according to Keith Paxton of Holz-Her U.S. Inc. He cites architectural millwork companies as a perfect example of this. One of their jobs may require sanding thickly banded veneer panels, while another may call for sanding S4S lumber to remove millmarks from a moulder or planer. Entry door sanding and lacquer sanding flat panels may be needed later in the day as well, Paxton says.

"All this can be accomplished in one well-thought-out sander," Paxton says. "However, the owner must think about what's required in his operation. He can't limit his planning to only today's requirements, but what his operation will do in later years."

Widebelt Sanding Gains Productivity

A new form of sanding, more commonly found in Europe, appears to be gaining popularity in the United States. Brush sanding and denibbing equipment allow users to hit more profile surfaces and interior parts of doors, says Eric Johnston of Stiles Machinery.

"Brush machines are used in sanding where you have a door with many different levels and areas to sand," Johnston says. "You can't do that with a widebelt sander because it will only hit the flat surfaces. This aids the customer in his ability to process a door much quicker and improves the process, both in time and quality."

Brushes like this one are being used more and more during the sanding process. Some machines are offering brushes as optional head configurations.

Photo Courtesy of Stiles Machinery.

This new technology offers a more productive alternative to hand-sanding, says Tim Mueller of Timesavers. He has noticed more machines offering brushes as an optional head configuration - another example of increased automation, he says.

"The use of denibbing and brush sanding equipment is something that has been going on over in Europe for years and years," says Mueller. We're just starting to see a lot of our customers understand the benefits of denibbing and edge radiusing panels before going into finish lines, rather than doing it by hand."

Dan Bashaw of Overland Machinery Group says he has seen an influx of interest for brush sanding as well, but more so as an initial step in the whole finishing process.

"We're starting to see a trend toward brush sanding in addition to the preparatory surface sanding. It is not an elimination of surface sanding," Bashaw says. "Brush sanding alone does not have the aggressiveness that is capable of preparing a wood surface for the proper scratch before going into the finishing routines."

Mike Fogel of SCM says he has heard of more and more people using brush sanding technology in between sealer coat applications.

 The ability to combine various options within one widebelt sander, Fogel says, has been an advancement in technology that he too has seen help small to mid-size shops. For Fogel, sanding is all about different applications, and the versatility that newer machines offer can be a great advantage. While many of his machines are typically custom-built for large manufacturers, Fogel says that he will have 21 standard models, offering many different sanding abilities in one machine, for shops that may want to run solid wood for awhile, and then sand veneers later. Larger shops will simply purchase individual machines for individual sanding applications, Fogel says.

Added automation has also translated into added versatility, says Fogel. While he has been adding full-blown PCs to his large machines, he says the mid-range widebelt sanders have become more automated as well with the addition of more and more PLCs (programmable logic controllers).

"The advantages with the PLC and PC additions really are in setup and changeover," Fogel says. "You get in some small shops now where they are running solid wood one minute and veneer the next, and maybe even sealer sanding. Now, with the controller, you can control programs and call them up for different things. Maybe run two heads instead of three. Run different feed speeds for different species - things like that."

Paxton says he also has seen PLC controls become easier to use, where in the past they often provided problems for sanders - along with other machines in the shop.

"Today, we use more PLC controls than ever. They can simplify some processes and manufacturing is simplified by their use," Paxton says. "One item much appreciated about the newer PLC is the simplified programming. The operator no longer has to program each element of a sanding formula. Today we sand to a high degree of performance and, with one simple operation, memorize a very workable sanding formula for a specific operation."

Bill Sargent, national sales manager for OMG, has also seen shops looking for more versatile widebelt sanders.

"With finishing, depending on the types of finishes and types of veneer operations, there is a tremendous amount of additional variables that create a situation where we are almost providing more custom solutions, depending on the application," Sargent says.

It's All in the Pads

Johnston adds it may not be what's on the outside of the widebelt sander, but what's on the inside that really counts. He has noticed the veneers throughout the industry getting thinner and thinner, and for sanding, that brings up the distinct problem of sand-through.

"Our resources are not growing, they're getting smaller," Johnston says. "So, we're having to utilize the resources that we have much better."

These thinner veneers have essentially eliminated the hand-sanding of veneered panels, Johnston says. Additionally, with precise sanding needed for products that match veneers, many of the more traditional pads from older widebelt sanders won't cut it in today's veneer environment. Now, Johnston says, segmented pads are where it is at.

"In a lot of cases, you might have a machine that was 10, 15 or 20 years old that had a solid fixed, or solid air pad running along the width of the machine that might have worked with thicker veneers and solid wood. But today, it will not," Johnston says. "Today, in order to sand veneers without cutting through, you have to have a segmented pad. It's almost mandatory to use these pads if you are going to make a product and make it well."

The push toward more segmented pads has been prevalent in Europe in the past, where Johnston says shops have been dealing with thinner veneers for years. Now that U.S. shops are beginning to feel the effect of thinner veneers, Johnston says he has been replacing more and more older sanders that are cutting through.

Mueller adds that he has not only seen more segmented pads (or platens) on machines, but he has actually seen the pads' technology improving as well.

"The segments on the machines are getting narrower and have a little more control," Mueller says. "We've made some changes to the design of our segmented platens to be able to sand the thinner veneers without sand-through issues. And we're seeing a lot of the small- to mid-size shops wanting to have that capability."

With the smaller shops' demand for segmented machines going up, Mueller says he has seen the costs of those machines going down. Smaller segmented machines can be found in the $25,000 to $35,000 range, where in the past, Mueller says, "You couldn't touch a veneer-sanding machine for under $150,000."

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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