Northway Charges Ahead
Northway Industries has decided that rather than wait for the economy to improve, to improve itself.
By Chad Sypkens
Wait? Wait for what? Seems to be the motto at Middleburg, PA-based component manufacturer Northway Industries during the last few years. While many wood product companies have pulled in their horns during the prolonged economic slump, Northway has charged ahead.
âWhen you are faced with the type of economy we have gone through the last few years, it is natural to tighten the belt, hunker down and wait for better times, but we have taken the opposite approach,â says Northway President/COO Donald OâHora. âIf you have the opportunity to work toward a better process, for the next influx of work, your employees are that much more prepared to handle it in a much more efficient manner.â
With cost, time and space saving ideas implemented, new principles of lean manufacturing introduced, assembly and packaging operations added and $1 million in new equipment recently put in place, Northway is prepared for whatever the future might bring.
âWe have come a long way and are excited about the operation and where we are heading,â OâHora says. âEverything we have done has been to add flexibility. Being able to adapt to whatever is going to be the next need is the key. No doubt, the economy has had an effect on our business and all businesses for that matter. But I feel good knowing that we have made the right steps in the right direction to change with the times.
âFortunately, our owners Ken Battram and Joe Callender have always been very progressive with their plans to grow the company,â he says. âTheir motivation is very much employee-based.â
A Fresh Change in Philosophy
âWe think it was probably one of the most important things that we have done here as a company, certainly in the last few years,â OâHora says. âIt opened our eyes to the changing marketplace and with the recent trend toward globalization, domestic demand is moving away from mass production to more variety and quicker lead times. It was something that we really needed to do as a company.â
The seminar helped give Northway employees a way of looking at how the company could become more efficient while saving time and money in the process. For example, Vice President of Manufacturing Bob Portzline and the operators of Northwayâs six CNC routers got together to come up with a better alternative to a centralized tool room. With the help of their tooling vendors, Northway now maintains tooling inventory at each machine so that the tools are right there when the operator needs them.
âIt is completely a paperless system,â says Portzline. âThis has probably saved our tooling manager a minimum of four hours of labor each day by having a tool cart at each station. Everything is organized so that the vendor can pull out the dull tools and replace them with new or re-sharpened ones.â
Another huge improvement has been adding tool boards at every machine. Prior to the tool boards, while operating three shifts, a hammer or screwdriver may be missing when a new shift began with valuable time being wasted as the employee searched for a tool.
âThese tool boards have saved a tremendous amount of time,â Portzline says. âJust a minor little thing like that eliminate so much wasted time.â
Speaking of waste, one of the first things that Northway needed to identify was what waste actually was.
âOnce we were able to recognize what waste was (wasted time, wasted movement, wasted paperwork, wasted communications, etc.), we were able to go through our operation and organize, clean and redevelop our processes throughout the plant,â OâHora says.
OâHora has been surprised with the quick, overall acceptance of lean manufacturing by his employees.
âEveryone has come together and we have had very few, if any, stumbling blocks along the way,â O'Hora says. âWhat I have been even more surprised by is employees that I thought would be more traditionally based and set in their ways have been coming up with the best lean ideas.â
One Stop Shop
âWe have also broadened our view in terms of the products and services that we offer including solid wood and plastic machining,â OâHora adds. âOur assembly capability ranges from putting together institutional casework to complete store fixture related items. We now have the flexibility to service all of our customers needs from large contracts to the smaller orders as well.â
Northwayâs contract manufacturing business initiated a little over a year ago has grown rapidly and continues to be one of the areas that OâHora sees in great demand. In order to service the contract manufacturing segment of the industry, Northway has had to find ways to change its business in order to accommodate the one- and two-piece jobs that come along.
âOur business has traditionally been large quantities,â OâHora says. âWe needed to become more responsive to customers who wanted a product in a variety of colors, shapes, sizes and quantities. The Center for Manufacturing Enterprise Integration at Penn State University helped us develop systems for managing this mass customization. These systems include the standardization of our processes and adapting information systems to handle the complexities associated with these projects. A lot of our existing equipment was batch-type machinery,â he says. âThat machinery has either been adapted, changed or the processes have been changed to reduce set-up times so that we can be more responsive to the small batch runs.
Work cells are now set up for nested-based component processing where the machining, edgebanding, assembly and packaging is all done in close proximity, reducing time of material handling and increasing productivity.
New Equipment Tops Off Latest Changes
Also included in the cell is a new IMA single-sided edgebander selected for its automated changeover and versatility. Its capabilities include PVC edges from 0.018mm to 3mm, self-edging and solid wood to 134 inches thick.
Portzline credits Alltech Machinery for their assistance in setting up the cell. âWe greatly appreciate their efforts and expertise in selecting the right equipment for this application,â Portzline says.
An Altendorf sliding table saw, Uhling HP 4000 case clamp and Accu-Systems HVPP horizontal/vertical drill and dowel machine make up the balance of the equipment in the cluster.
The final component of the small-batch processing equipment is a new Midwest Automation laminating line being installed this month. Northwayâs new press line will be capable of pressing anywhere from a 1-foot by 2-foot part up to a 5-foot by 12-foot panel on the same line. It will include a 5-foot by 12-foot scissors lift and automatic feeder, which will pass the core through a panel cleaner and glue spreader onto a lay-up table. Then from the lay-up table the parts will go directly through a heated pinch roller.
âThis line will allow us to run a mix of panels at once, which was the main reason we looked at this line,â OâHora says. âNot as much for full size panels, but for high-pressure laminated components and wood edgebanded particleboard parts such as table tops.â
Recently installed edgebanding technology includes an IMA double-sided machine that is used extensively for solid wood. A new Homag BAK CNC contour edgebander applies PVC, laminate and wood edges to complex shaped components.
âThe quality of the trimming, scraping and seaming of this machine is what makes it so valuable to our operationâ Portzline says.
Just as valuable to Northway, according to Portzline, is the employeesâ need for safety. âBased on recommendations from our safety committee and our employees, over the last two years we have spent over $100,000 dollars for the purchase of scissors lifts, cranes and vacuum lifts for many of our operations,â Portzline says. âThis is in addition to the existing lifts already in place at most of our large machinery.â
Helping make Northway unique is its quality of supervision. It ensures the operation of three shifts successfully as well as allowing for the purchase of necessary handling equipment that lowers employee fatigue and ensures a safer work environment for them.
With the host of new machinery in operation leading Northway to new levels of success, more ideas continue to come to the forefront. Plans for a 20,000 square-foot expansion are being discussed as Northway continues its charge ahead.
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