Cabinet Door Maker Presses for Maximum Flexibility

Northern Contours switches between large orders and custom runs by using multi-tasking machinery and presses.

By Larry Adams

A bank of lights illuminates the glossy white rigid thermofoil doors fresh out of the membrane press. A crew of inspectors check each of the 10 or so newly pressed cabinet doors for nicks, scratches and other flaws. The batch of doors vary in design. Some have a square-edged profile, some are raised panel and still others feature cathedral-style looks.

Nearby, another bed of doors emerges from a massive hydraulic membrane press. A second team of inspectors check these doors for quality before allowing them to be trimmed and sanded. The sameness of this bed of doors reflects the difference between the two Wemhoner RTF door pressing lines.

Therein lies the crux of what Northern Contours has strived to do since it was established seven years ago in a small, 20,000-square-foot rented facility in Fergus Falls, MN. The company, which also operates a second plant in Corbin, KY, takes a high-tech approach to produce one-piece doors for companies including Aristokraft, HomeCrest, Norcraft, Medallion, LesCare and Ultracraft. Computer-controlled machining centers allow Northern Contours to produce large runs of stock doors and drawer fronts and then quickly change tooling and machine setups to produce custom orders, specialty niche products or fast-delivery orders known as "hots." The company produces most of its parts to order so its machinery has to be fast and versatile. Typical turnaround times for custom and volume orders is seven days, with rush orders taking about four days. Some of Northern Contours' OEM customers project the amount of components they will need, so the company figures this into the weekly production scheduling. Northern Contours also offers a two-day shipment program for any damaged components.

The company's flexibility is apparent in its specialty niche products that have included chair bases for an upholstered chair manufacturer and brushed aluminum components. In addition, Northern Contours has used its membrane presses to make mirror frames laminated with drawings of children on each side and sayings on the top and bottom of the piece such as "You Look Gorgeous" for a St. Paul company called 2 GRRRLS.

Northern Contours has also made a push into the office furniture component arena. For example, it supplies components to KI (Krueger International) for its Flexible Workspace office furniture, which won the best of competition award at NeoCon G�ÿ98 in Chicago last June.

The company also offers valued-added wood services through its Hardwoods Division. Based in a 55,000-square-foot plant in Fergus Falls, the division produces solid wood doors and components.

"Some customers buy component parts while others want finished doors," said company co-founder Duaine Miranowski. "That is part of the flexibility we offer our customers. We deliver what our customers want."

Bread-and-Butter Work
Northern Contours was founded by partners Michael Rone and Miranowski in 1992. Now spanning more than three times its original size, the 73,000-square-foot plant is situated in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Otter Tail County, a rural area of rolling hills and farmland about three hours north of Minneapolis, an hour east of Fargo and just down the road from Battle Lake -- one lake in the state that boasts 10,000 of them.

Rone and Miranowski purchased a Wemhoner membrane press and a Komo router in November of 1992, and by December they had produced their first RTF doors and drawers which were sold to HomeCrest. Through the years, Northern Contours sales rose dramatically, growing from $2 million in in 1993 to more than $19 million in 1998. To keep pace, Northern Contours has expanded its Minnesota plant and added an additional membrane press and several computer-controlled routers. In 1993, Northern Contours built its first veneer press as it looked to diversify its product offerings and create a new revenue source. The company recently completed work on a 27,000-square-foot addition, its third expansion in Minnesota.

"Our company began with the conviction that there was a need in the industry for a flexible, responsive company capable or smaller production runs and shorter lead times," says company president Michael Rone.

Northern Contours' bread-and-butter work remains its rigid thermofoil doors. Only the number of options and colors have changed and expanded. The company originally offered six different looks and today that has expanded to 50 stock foils which are supplied by Gen Corp, Forbo, American Renolit and Riken.

As Northern Contours invested in more advanced high-tech machinery, it has been able to offer its customers many different looks while still keeping turnaround times to a minimum. One-kitchen-at-a-time customers can choose from more than a dozen standard inside radius and square profiles, nine outside edge options, and can also place custom-designed orders. In addition, the CNC routers can produce a whole slew of accessories including fluted fillers, valances, two types of wine racks and other products.

"Our versatility has allowed us to custom-tailor programs," says Rone. "We have had customers test market a door style, purchasing doors on a G�ÿper kitchen' basis. If the style is successful, they might decide to put the entire line in inventory. Or, if the volume is lower, they might put the high- usage doors in inventory and purchase the balance as custom doors."

Routing Door Profiles
Router operations are segregated on the shop floor. For volume production jobs, MDF, which is cut-to-size on a Giben panel saw, is machined on one of three Komo routers that are set in-line, but work independently of each other. The first router is a twin-table, four-head machine with two, eight-station tool changers. The second and third routers have single tables, multiple heads and automatic tool changers.

Custom routing is done on two versatile routers that Northern Contours purchased last year. The Komo Innova Mach One eliminates the need for the panel saw to size the parts. A 4-foot by 9-foot sheet of MDF is layed up onto the table and the
machine's optimizing computer program determines the best way to rout out the needed components. This process, called nesting, means that the board "doesn't see the saw or need extra material handling," says national sales manager Gayle Thomas.

Also on the custom side is a Komo Protec router, manufactured by Biesse. It is a four-axis router with a 12-station tool changer and a vertical/horizontal boring unit. In the fourth axis, a router head can swivel 360 degrees allowing it to cut vertically or horizontally. The 4th axis allows the company to rout certain profiles and corner details not easily machined with a 3-axis machine.

"These last two routers, especially, provide us with the flexibility to do quick change-overs of patterns and profiles to respond to short runs and rush orders," Rone says.

Most of the routers feature automatic tool changers, which are a major factor in the company's ability to switch from large to short runs in just a few seconds. "If a customer calls and says, G�ÿI need 20 more doors,' we can just call up the tools we need," says Rone. "We keep high-usage tools in the tool changer."

Northern Contours' doors are made from twice-refined medium density fiberboard supplied by Georgia-Pacific and Unibord. The 48-pound, 3/4-inch MDF, which arrives from the mill with melamine on one side, is easy to sand and helps to eliminate many telegraphing problems, Rone says.

While strong and relatively smooth, the MDF is very tough on tooling and so Northern Contours uses diamond tools on all of its routers. "Carbide and other materials wear out quickly cutting MDF," Rone says. "After three or four hours you have to stop and change the tool. Diamond is the only tooling that gives you longevity."

All machined components are fed through a QuickWood 900 orbital brush sander from SandTech that removes any MDF fuzz and burrs that were created during the routing process.

The Membrane Press Process
After machining and sanding, the parts are moved down conveyors to one of two glue booths. The parts are stacked onto a turning wheel and the adhesive is applied using Binks sprayguns. The outside edges are coated twice because this is the area most vulnerable to delamination.

The adhesive is saturated with a blue dye. By coloring the glue, the coverage area can easily be seen which helps ensure that the entire surface is coated with the adhesive and fewer delamination problems are encountered down the road. Without the dye additive, "How do you know if you get good glue coverage?" Rone says. "This way, it is very clear whether edges are covered adequately."

Unlike some membrane press laminating operations, Northern Contours' sprays the parts rather than spraying or saturating the foil itself. "We tried it the other way, putting the glue on the foil, but currently we think we get better adhesion this way," Rone says.

The parts are allowed to dry for about a half hour before they are pressed. While the adhesive supplier says that it is ok to let the adhesive stand for several hours, Northern Contours says that there is a 2 1/2- to 3-hour window before the adhesive properties start to decline. "We found that we can get up to 10 degrees greater heat resistance if we get parts through in that time frame," Thomas says.

The doors are pressed using one of two Wemhoner membrane presses. A third press from Shaw Almex was recently delivered to be used in Northern Contours' furniture component operations. Each press cycle, with loading, pre-heating, pressing, cooling and unloading, takes about two minutes. The presses operates at about 275F and 60 PSI.

The pressed parts are shuttled out of the press bed and conveyed to an inspection area. After inspection, the excess material is trimmed by hand using industrial utility knifes. The excess foil is compacted and sold to a PVC tube manufacturer.

Round and Round the Carousel Goes

Flexible machines are also to be found at Northern Contours' 40,000-square-foot Corbin, KY, plant.

The plant which is located on the outskirts of the Daniel Boone National Forest, underwent a major expansion last year. The expansion included a 10,000-square foot addition and a host new machines including a Wemhoner membrane press with a three-tray carousel shuttle system, a new Giben panel saw, a dust collection system and two routers which were shipped to the plant from the company's Fergus Falls, MN, facility.

Northern Contours opened the Corbin, KY, plant in 1995 with a Wemhoner membrane press, CMS CNC router, a panel saw and dust collection. The first doors were produced in July 1995 with initial shipments to UltraCraft and LesCare Kitchens. Although slightly smaller in square footage then the Minnesota plant, the Corbin facility produces as many or more RTF doors than are processed in Minnesota. "The Corbin plant has taken a lot of the load off of Fergus Falls," says company president Michael Rone. "If we had to do that extra volume, it would be impossible to meet demand."

In Corbin, large and short runs of RTF doors are produced with the help of four CMS routers, three of which feature automatic tool changers, and two Wemhoner membrane presses. Also, the facility supplies several frameless cabinet companies that are "extremely aggressive in their custom offerings," Rone says. To meet this demand for custom parts, a Komo Innova Mach One router with nesting capabilities was installed in March.

The original Wemhoner features a front loading, back unloading system that may even be faster than the t-shuttle system in Fergus Falls. The new Wemhoner carousel membrane press features three trays, each approximately 6 feet by 9 feet, that allow for fast loading and unloading of pressed parts.

"The carousel membrane press helps us meet the small run and rapid response requirement," says company co-founder Duaine Miranowski, "because with the extra trays, we have more time to load small or custom runs while running the press efficiently."

Perhaps the most important component at the plant though is its employees, led by plant manager Bob Haarsma and assistant plant manager Darrin Cox.

"The employees in Kentucky take a lot of pride and ownership in the company," Miranowski says. "I only get down there about once a month so it is important that they look at it as if it was their own." -- Larry Adams


Performance Testing
As much trouble as Northern Contours goes through to try and ensure that there are no delamination problems with its components, it goes through at least that much trouble to test the material and make sure it meets ANSI/KCMA performance standards.

Each lot of rolled material (made up of about 50 rolls) is hand checked for color and gloss and compared to an original standard by inspector Ron Bach so that the components are consistent from part to part. The material passes the test if the variation deviates less than 1 percent from the norm. This slight variance is not discernible to the naked eye.

New foil materials are subjected to even more stringent testing. The material is weather tested using a QUV Accelerated Weathering Tester, in which foils are exposed to more than 400 hours of UVA 351 ultraviolet lamps and humidity. This accelerating testing procedure simulates the light in a kitchen.

"The first thing we do is run the material through the QUV so aging problems are checked," Bach says. "If it can stand up to that, we know it will get more than five years without signs of aging."

Continuing Growth
The expanded router and pressing operations give the company added capacity which it has used to develop new products and styles. In 1997, for instance, Northern Contours began marketing computer keyboard trays.

The mirror frames it produces as a specialty niche product for 2 GRRRLS is another good example. Northern Contours has contracted with Technoflex, an England-based company that can photograph and reproduce any image onto a foil. The foils come in vinyl sheets only slightly bigger the product to be laminated. The difficulty with this is placing the vinyl sheet in the correction position. If it is layed up incorrectly, a portion of the image may be cut off from the component and laminated instead to the spoil board in the press. This could be disconcerting to a child if the image is of a little boy or girl with their head cut off, Rone says. To solve this problem, the company uses a simple machine to index the sheet correctly. Once on the press, the process is the same.

Veneering Sales Set to Rise
Another area of growth is in the company's veneer division. While Northern Contours is generally thought of as a foil-door company, about 20 percent of its business is derived from sales of veneered doors and other components.

"It used to be that there was a question of foil doors being a fad, but now we are a lot more confident that the styles and technology is here to stay. The industry is more mature," Rone says. "The market for veneered products is on the rise. More and more furniture companies, as well as cabinet companies, are offering a veneered product."

The veneer part of its business has grown considerably, judging by veneer usage. When Northern Contours started its veneer operation in 1993, it ran about 1,500 feet of veneer per day. Today that figure is about 6,500, says Steve Lommel, who oversees the veneer operation.

The veneer is stored in a climate-controlled room. Prior to use it is moisture tested. "We try to maintain a pre-determined moisture content," Lommel says. "Anything lower and the veneer becomes brittle. Above that, we can have expansion problems."

If splicing is needed, the veneer pieces are glued together on a Diehl splicer.

Prior to pressing, a water mist is applied to the veneer, this allows it to relax, and then it is pressed for about 160 seconds. The company has two presses and when a hot order comes in, both presses are put into action.

The most popular species are red and white oak, and maple. Other species used include: hickory, cherry, mahogany and walnut. The veneer is bought in flitch stock or clipped and bundled. When buying the veneer, the important things to look for are color, the quality of the slice and the moisture content, says Delayne Kugler, Northern Contours' veneer buyer.

"Color is especially important for red oaks," Kugler says.

One reason for the surge in veneer orders is its affordability factor. "You can use more expensive species when you work with veneers," Thomas says. "Let's say you go from oak to maple. With solid wood that would be a 30 percent price increase, but with veneer it is just 6 to 7 percent."

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