W&WP August 2004


Keeping Up-to-Date on Panel Saw Technology

Improvements in saws and software enable faster, smoother more efficient cuts.

By Scott Bury


Last December, Steve Schoenacker tripled the productivity of his three-man cabinet shop, Custom Cabinets of Scottsville, NY, by installing a Homag CHF 320 Optimat horizontal beam saw.

"I wanted a complete flow from the computer to the saw to the machining center," he explains.

It was a big step for a three-year-old business that up until then relied on a sliding table saw. But the shop was getting busier every month and Schoenacker knew he would have to drive up his productivity in order to keep up and continue to grow his business. Besides, he says he is the type of person who likes to stay on the leading edge of technological innovation in his field. An automated panel sizing system seemed like the right answer for his business.

"I wanted a system that could move material from the saw to the machining center with as little human intervention as possible," he says. In Custom Cabinets' workflow, sheet material is cut on the horizontal panel saw and the resulting parts are moved directly to an edgebander or to the finishing room, and then on to assembly.

The saw is completely programmed and controlled by Schoenacker at his desktop computer. He designs products, including entire kitchens, using Cabinet Vision design software, and uses the Holzma CutRite program to optimize sizing operations. "I also had to buy a CNC machining center and some other links for a complete flow, but it was worth it," he says.

The Trend to Automate

Across the entire industry, manufacturers not only of cabinets but also of furniture, fixtures and other wood products are reaping the benefits of new horizontal beam saw technology. The automated systems combined with improved, easier-to-use software, and a wider assortment of loading and unloading options, allow for higher productivity and greater yields with reduced waste in less time.

Automated beam saws of various sizes "are tremendous labor-savers and extremely efficient," agrees Key Lafy, vice president of manufacturing at American Woodmark, one of the nation's largest manufacturers of kitchen cabinets and vanities.

Manufacturers are adding many new features to their horizontal saws in order to make them faster, more productive and more efficient for their customers. Many involve automating tasks - that is, taking them outside the direct control of human operators - including not only set up but also loading and unloading and stacking functions. Other improvements include smoother saw and material guides; higher saw blade projections; automated lift tables and other material handling options; and user-friendly software.

With the economy finally picking up after being in the doldrums for a few years, more wood product manufacturers are again either buying or looking to buy equipment that will boost their shop's productivity and profits.

The economic recovery has not come a minute too soon - the federal government's tax write-off law on new equipment will expire Dec. 31. In addition, interest rates are still low, though they are starting to edge upward again. In short, now is a good time for woodworkers to invest in capital equipment.

IWF: The Ultimate Panel Saw Shop

Later this month - Aug. 26-29, woodworkers will flock by the thousands to Atlanta, GA, for the International Woodworking Machinery & Furniture Supply Fair. The biennial show is the perfect place to see the full gamut of technology that is currently available, including panel saws.

IWF visitors will see a host of more automated machines from all the major manufacturers than they saw two years ago.

They will see even faster, automatic setup of guides, transport, saw blades and other parameters directly from the controller software program. Software optimization - calculating the most efficient cutting pattern from sheets of material - also will be displayed.

Holz-Her's Cut 85 saw, for instance, features a programmable automatic pusher with rear clamping and Windows-based control software. Biesse's Selco line also has automatic side guides and Windows-based control software.

The Gabiani Galaxy 125 panel saw available from SCM Group USA features automatic raising and lowering of the pressure beam, optimized for the stack height. Holzma's new HPP 250 panel saw has motorized lateral guides and height adjustment, optimized for the cutting pattern, and the company offers an Econo-lift system for loading sheets.

The wood manufacturing industry is looking for more automation, says Paul Hicks of Altendorf America, which sells Homag Espana panel saws. "People want flexibility and speed" throughout the process, from design to optimizing to every stack of the manufacturing process, Hicks says.

"They want to reduce labor costs and remove bottlenecks, like moving from cutting to label-printing, machining and edgebanding," he adds.

That is why manufacturers also are adding automated material handling or moving systems, such as automatic loading, lifting and lowering systems. Among its wide variety of woodworking equipment, SCM Group sells Mahros material-handling machines that can, for example, automatically lift stacks of sheets of wood onto panel saws. This can increase not only productivity - provided that users have enough volume to justify the investment - but also worker safety.

Similarly, automated material handling is offered by Stiles Machinery, Ligmatech; Biesse, RBO; and Delmac Machinery Group, Stemac.

While some of the newest features may seem small, even trivial, they add up and are significant in reducing not only set-up time but also human error, which usually leads to wasted material.

The addition of THK linear guide rails to many new panel saws has become almost routine. This high-tech innovation reduces vibration when moving the saw carriage or the material. The result is a higher-quality, smoother cut, requiring less work, less time in finishing or edgebanding and less spoilage. All this translates into more sellable material at the end of a shift - which means higher profits for the wood product manufacturer.

Large, high-volume saws from Schelling also have added new automation features, such as automated loading and unloading, automated guide setting and automatic setup. The company's newest entry-level machine, the FXH, has automated features that previously were seen only on larger systems. This represents a trend that is repeated on new models from most manufacturers.

Manufacturers across the board are adding horsepower to their saw motors, too, and increasing speed. Schelling's biggest panel saws have 105-hp motors for multi-line cutting. More power translates into faster cutting speed and the possibility to use narrower saw blades for a finer, higher-quality cut and a smoother finish, says Andreas Schwarz, president of Schelling America. It also increases throughput, he adds.

"The best thing about the automation is the amount of productivity it results in versus the productivity with the non-automated system I had before," Schoenacker says. "The quality of the cut is also better and it's straighter and more square, too."

Higher Saw Heights More for Show than Use?

For some years now, saw manufacturers have been offering models with greater saw projections, allowing cutting of higher stacks of materials. Biesse's Selco WNA 600 cuts stacks up to 730mm, Scheer's PA700 cuts up to 5 inches high and the Gabbiani Galaxy 125 cuts up to 4-1/2 inches.

These heights allow the user to cut stacks or "books" of material. Theoretically, this multiplies productivity by a factor equivalent to the number of sheets in the stack. While this seems impressive, several vendors point out that this feature is not used that often by secondary wood products manufacturers, particularly in smaller shops, even though it's a "must-have."

"The odd thing about optimization is that often sheet one and sheet two are not the same," says Rick Hannigan of Holz-Her U.S. Stacking does not really pay off, he adds, until the volume is high enough to justify cutting larger quantities of sheets, several at a time.

Andrew Jowett, product manager for panel saws at SCM Group USA, agrees. "Saws with high stack heights are like big SUVs. People like a high cut even though they may not have the use for it." Still, it's a must-have feature for saws today, even though the increase in variety of parts and models would seem to point to less standard cuts.

Schelling America's Schwartz points out that, industry-wide, book heights seem to be getting smaller, not larger.

On the other hand, "stack cutting is the only way we run our panel saws," says Lafy of American Woodmark, which uses Schelling's high-volume Evolution saws. The key, he says, is volume, which American Woodmark clearly has.

Lafy says having a high volume of similarly sized parts aids optimization and allows the company to efficiently stack or batch jobs for greater efficiency and throughput - and that means higher profits. But without the volume, it makes no difference and only leads to machine downtime. "You would not make the investment in a system like this if you were cutting only one or two sheets," he says.

Advances in Control Software

One of the most obvious advances in panel saws - in fact, in shop equipment in just about any industry - is the move of controlling software to standard, Windows-based desktop computers, and away from proprietary hardware.

There are a lot of good reasons for this. First of all, standard PCs are cheaper than proprietary systems. Secondly, they are much more familiar to a wide market, and thus easier to learn. Thirdly, PCs are easier to maintain and repair and, if necessary, cheaper to replace than proprietary systems.

Perhaps most importantly, Windows is so widely installed today that it is much simpler to integrate new systems and new machines into computer networks. As a result, control, or at least set up, of shop floor machines from the front office is becoming common in the more advanced woodworking shops across America.

"High-tech controls are being added to smaller as well as larger machines," says Schwartz of Schelling, which has been well-known for its big systems for high-volume manufacturing but has, in recent years, introduced saws for use by custom shops.

Using the Windows operating system also makes it simpler to develop programs that are easy to understand and use. "Our new control systems make it easier for operators to use the features of the saw," says Hannigan. "You can program cutting without entering X and Y dimensions. All you have to enter is the size of the panels." This makes programming cutting patterns faster, and makes the whole workflow that much more efficient, he adds.

Return on Investment

All of this automation costs money, of course. Automatic setup, loading and unloading, guides and other equipment require servomotors and other pricey hardware. Optimization software, like all software, has become cheaper over the years, but it still requires a substantial investment in cost and training time to learn how to use it efficiently.

What every wood manufacturer has to determine is the potential return on the investment at his or her shop. For most innovations, the increase in speed, and therefore throughput, makes it easy to justify the additional cost because users can process much more material in the same amount of time.

The conundrum is: Will you always have enough demand? Do you have a steady stream of work to keep that expensive machine running, or will the added capacity translate into added overhead?

Answers to those questions vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. But these questions not only have to be asked continually - they also must be answered and, when the time is right, acted on.

So, don't forget your notebook - or your checkbook - when you head to IWF.


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