Stickley Meets the Challenge

L. & J.G. Stickley has invested in many automated machines, three of which were IWF Challengers Award winners, to meet the rigors of increased production demands.

By Bernadette Freund

The Challengers Award winner Pade Prima 5-axis tenoner makes different tenons on either end of a part at the same time for Stickley.  

Of the 75 products entered in the 2000 IWF Challengers Award competition, only seven were singled out by the judges for outstanding technological achievement. As chance would have it, three of the seven Challengers Award winners can be found helping L. & J.G. Stickley Inc. of Manlius, NY, be more productive and more competitive.

The 102-year-old furniture company's complement of Challengers-Award-winning machines includes:

  • two Raimann optimizing ripsaws;
  • a Pade Prima CNC tenoning center from Koch Machinery Systems Ltd; and
  • a Michael Weinig Unimat 3000 CNC moulder.

Paul Terwilliger, vice president and general manager of manufacturing, says the fact that the machines won Challengers Awards is nice, but had little to do with Stickley’s ultimate decision to purchase them. “These pieces of equipment are the ones that could best service the types of needs we have,” Terwilliger says. “In other words, we were not just taking a look at them because they were Challengers Award Winners. We had actually ordered them prior to the show.”

Stickley’s investment in automated technology has been necessitated not only by the company’s growth but by the need to become a more efficient operation. Since the company moved to Manlius in 1985, it has added onto the original 50,000-square-foot plant seven times. Today, the plant totals 400,000 square feet, produces 3,800 different products and employs 1,300 employees total with 733 of them being factory workers. Terwilliger says the company has had to increase production nearly 60 percent over the last five years to keep pace with its growth.

Stickley’s first Raimann optimizing ripsaw was received after IWF 2000. Operators position the lasers over the board, push a button and the ripping solution goes into memory and takes effect.  

“We are constantly trying to evolve and add more production,” Terwilliger says. “In order to do this, we are constantly considering optimization and upgrades in technology.”

Optimization in the woodworking world is typically thought of as obtaining the most yield out of a piece of lumber. For Stickley, optimization also involves the pursuit of improving overall product quality, increasing efficiency, reducing lead times, combining multiple machine operations in one machine and reducing changeover downtime.

Stickley has met these challenges and the demands of its customers by replacing out-dated machines with the Challengers Award winners, and other automated equipment and machinery.

Using the Latest in Ripsaws

Stickley received its first Raimann ripsaw immediately after the International Woodworking Machinery & Supply Fair concluded its four-day run in Atlanta, and its second was ordered six months later. The machines have addressed the company's long-standing need to increase lumber yields without sacrificing quality and throughput.

“We are constantly trying to increase yield and look for an increased degree of accuracy and closer tolerances,” says Terwilliger. “The cost of lumber is constantly going up and is therefore a major cost for our business. We are always looking at how the operation is run and how to increase yields because it allows us to increase our profits.”

Stickley’s third Challengers Award winner, the Weinig Unimat 3000 moulder, has reduced tool changeover times from 20 minutes to 5 minutes. This one moulder turns out 70 to 80 jobs a day. The company has made this a one-man operation with the use of a return conveyor.  

“We had eight Mattison ripsaws running 18 hours a day,” says Jim Christman, plant manager. “We knew looking at our growth that that just was not going to get us where we wanted to go. It takes three or four passes on an inline ripsaw to do what the Raimanns do in one pass.”

The ripsaws obtain the best yield out of a board with the aid of four positioning lasers. Each laser represents one of the machines’ four saw blades. After the operator has positioned the lasers onto the board, he pushes a button and the ripping solution is memorized. The board, guided by a fence, moves the saw blades, which are positioned to rip each board as entered by the operator.

Christman says the ripsaws have allowed the company to produce three to four times what the older inlines produce and to process short stock down to as little as 14 inches.

Tenoning and Moulding Solutions

Stickley has also found ways to optimize its fine milling operations in the last five years. After the increase of its offerings made the company’s product line jump to 40,000 unique parts, the company has been faced with the challenge of reducing set-up times and material handling.

One answer to this pressing need has been the Pade Prima 5-axis tenon machine, the company’s second Challengers Award winning machine, installed at the end of 2000. This CNC machine allows Stickley to automatically switch from making one type and size of tenon to another — round, square, camber, etc. The Pade can also machine different tenons on either end of the part at the same time, which has eliminated setups. Multiple machine operations and part handling have been eliminated.

“Without this machine we had to run our tenons on a tenon machine and then relish them on a separate machine,” says Christman. “If we had a tenon that was on the full end of a part at any angle, we would have had to make it manually on a frame saw. Now if we have a round-end tenon that will be hidden into a post or rail and a square camper tenon that will be exposed on one piece, we can do it on the same machine.”

The company’s third Challengers Award winner, the Weinig Unimat 3000 CNC moulder has also reduced material handling and dramatically decreased changeover times, while increasing production. Stickley has also reduced the Unimat 3000 to a one-man operation by equipping it with a return conveyor. The operator simply feeds blanks in the front end of the machine and offloads the moulded pieces from the return conveyor.

“The Unimat has completely addressed our changeover time problems, especially from a tooling standpoint,” says Christman. “We went from an average of a 20-minute changeover to less than five minutes. The operator just enters the program number and the moulder tells him what tools to get for the run. Then he pushes a button, pulls out the old tool and puts in the new one. He does not have to use wrenches, spacers and nuts to put in or take out tooling.”

The Unimat's faster rotations per minute have addressed Stickley’s need for speed. According to Christman, the machine has proven effective for both short and long runs. “We are getting at least two-to-one productivity over our older Weinig moulders,” says Christman. “The new Weinig is turning out 70 to 80 jobs a day, whereas with each of the older models, we are lucky to get 35 or 40 jobs a day. Any problems on this machine can be fixed via modem by Weinig from Germany, which creates even less downtime. It is running almost 100 percent of the time,” Christian adds.

Meeting More Challenges

While the Challengers-Award-winning machines take the spotlight at Stickley’s operation, the company has added several other technologically advanced pieces of equipment.

“Our runs get smaller and smaller and, with all the products we offer, it becomes a challenge to service the customer often enough,” Christman says. “Larger runs mean you are only cutting things every four to six months, but we are cutting things every two months. We really have to rethink everything we do in order to maintain good lead times and adding technology is part of the solution.”

Finishing in Factory 2

After parts go through the rough mill and fine mill processes at L. & J.G. Stickley, pieces pass from high-tech machines to sets of hands. Pieces enter what the company refers to as Factory 2 where they are assembled and/or hand carved as well as finished.

“Along with all of the automation and CNC equipment there is still an incredible amount of hand work that goes into our product,” says Jim Christman, plant manager. “We have master carvers to add the final finer details on some pieces, like tabletops, because there is just no machine that can create the same degree of accuracy.”

Furniture pieces are also hand sanded and assembled to make sure they are flawless for the finishing process. After furniture is assembled it goes into what the company calls white stock where full orders are pulled together and wait for the customer to choose hardware and from many different finishes. Then the whole order goes to finish sanding and finishing.

Stickley offers 20 different finishes. The company also does all of its own color work and finish development. It buys raw materials for colors and mixes and blends each finish to create its unique finishes.

“Finishing is the most labor intensive part of our operation with nearly a 1/3 of our employees in finishing,” says Christman. “Each employee in finishing knows all of the different finishes and all of the different processes that are involved in each piece. They even hand lacquer inlays and rub the surface of every piece.

"We have no conveyors here because it is all hand work in this department," continues Christman. "We want to give our employees the time they need to work on a finish until the piece is perfect.”

In the last couple of years the company has added an automated lumber racking system and has computerized its lumber inventory system. These improvements help employees to maximize the cut list for the week for yield and quality.

High-grade solids are crosscut manually, allowing workers to examine each board for grain pattern and decide how to best use the solids for items such drawer fronts, door panels, headboards or tabletops. Lower-grade woods are processed on a Paul optimizing cut-off saw. “It reads the length and width of the board and the grade marks,” says Christman. “Then the Paul’s computer decides how it is going to cut that board to obtain the highest possible yield.”

Stickley also has two Taylor dual automatic clamp carriers for making edge-glued panels. Having two clamp carriers has reduced this process from a 90-second cycle to a 50-second cycle.

Christman says the company’s new Timesavers planer sanders have been providing surface accuracy of plus or minus 1/4,000 of an inch. Parts come off these sanders and then go directly to a CNC machining center or to one of three CNC-controlled Celaschi tenoners.

“The difference from the old tenoners is that with the full CNC machines we have gone from a 45-minute setup to a 30-second setup time,” says Christman. “They have allowed us to dramatically increase the volume of materials we can get through in one day. With our average lot size being only 30 pieces, changeover time becomes more critical and these machines make it happen.”

Heian or Shoda CNC machining centers process tops and other large flat-panel parts. The operators place the boards on the machines, which are held in place by vacuum pods. Terwilliger says all the operators have to do is check for quality because once the program is punched in the machine picks the tooling and maximizes the use of the board.

“For example, these operators may be working on buffet tabletops,” says Christman. “For these large pieces the operator just stands back. This part used to involve seven different setups and now the operation is done in one.”

Writing a Wish List

With IWF 2002 looming, Stickley personnel are assessing the company’s manufacturing needs.

The company's wish list includes adding a second Weeke Optimat point-to-point machine. The newer model, however, would be equipped to handle more heavy-duty routing.

The company also is looking at purchasing a second Weinig Unimat 3000 to possibly replace all of its other older moulders. Once some of the older moulders are removed, space will be freed up for adding another CNC router.

Another machine on Stickley’s wish list is a CNC double-end miter borer that will dowel in two different kinds of holes in rail stocks, so it can eliminate five or six more setups.

“To satisfy our customers today with our wide variety of product lines, we have to be able to optimize our yield, do short runs and changeover quickly,” says Terwilliger. “The reductions that we have had in many different areas by going to an automated operation has greatly enhanced our ability to meet our increased schedules.”

Stickley Meets the Import Challenge

Because its products are high-end, L. & J.G. Stickley has not been as affected by imports as many other U.S. furniture makers have.

This does not mean, however, that the company is unconcerned about protecting its markets. To that end, the Manlius, NY-based company finds itself regularly assessing its operations in an effort to become more productive and leaner.

“I think what could happen is a lot of manufacturers in the lower price range could be forced up into the higher price ranges because of foreign competition,” says Paul Terwilliger, vice president and general manager of operations. “This would, of course, create more competition for us. We also keep in mind that if foreign competitors put their minds to it, they can end up producing it, so I believe there will be more competition coming.

“They (off-shore competition) do not have to deal with as stringent of government regulations or environmental concerns, which can be costly in the United States,” Terwilliger adds. “We are prepared to address any issues that come up with foreign competition quickly and looking at our operations is part of this.”

With labor costs being lower in China, for instance, Stickley has had to become creative when upgrading to new machinery to keep skilled employees.

“We are labor intensive in our subassembly and finishing operations,” Terwilliger says. “As we continue to grow, we need more and more skilled employees that are already familiar with the Stickley product in these areas. One way we handle this is when we automate the front end of the operation with more equipment, which frees up people, we move these freed up people down into other parts of the operation.”

Terwilliger says the company has also been delivering products in shorter lead times. Stickley has been questioning every part of its operation more intensely to create a leaner environment by reducing reworks and eliminating unnecessary steps. Terwilliger also believes the company’s history and family atmosphere makes a difference.

“Our people here are unique and the owners try to create a family atmosphere,” says Terwilliger. “They are not afraid to work with new technology and are constantly here to talk to and share solutions with. They also have not been afraid to take risks and chances to advance and stay on top.”

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