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.
Northway president Donald O’Hora and Vice President of Manufacturing Bob Portzline show an example of a finished red oak veneered cabinet with 3mm PVC edges.  

“When 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,” says Northway President/COO Donald O’Hora. “If 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.”

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.

“We have come a long way and are excited about the operation and where we are heading,” O’Hora says. “Everything 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.

“Fortunately, our owners Ken Battram and Joe Callender have always been very progressive with their plans to grow the company,” he says. “Their motivation is very much employee-based.”

A Fresh Change in Philosophy
Northway embarked on a lean manufacturing program two years ago at the company’s 93,000-square-foot plant with a full-day seminar titled, “Lean 101.” The basis for the day was to educate 110-plus employees of the company’s three shifts about lean manufacturing principles.

“We think it was probably one of the most important things that we have done here as a company, certainly in the last few years,” O’Hora says. “It 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.”

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 Northway’s 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.

Relationships Make the Difference

An additional factor for Northway’s success has been its relationships and flexibility with many of its suppliers, including laminate suppliers Nevamar and Wilsonart.

“A greater demand for just-in-time delivery goes all the way down the supply chain,” Betty Pisano, vice president of sales at Northway Industries Inc. “It requires a real good working relationship from the manufacturer of the raw materials all the way through an OEM manufacturer like ourselves down to the end user. It has to be a tight knit thing and we have been really thrilled with the way people have embraced that. The world is becoming more understanding and open to the kinds of things that need to happen with timely deliveries.

“In an effort to reduce the lead times we have set up a self-stocking program with both Wilsonart and Nevamar,” says Pisano. “They will hold material until we need it, which can be as often as a couple of times a week.”

Upon delivery, Northway is able to put the materials through the press, get them into the system and out the door. Materials will come in on Monday and sometimes be gone by the end of the week, Pisano says.

“We have also established some relationships with some of our board manufacturers, PVC and melamine suppliers, including GVK who has also been great with our stocking program,” says Pisano. “For many years we have used a product from them that we have had on a nine-day turnaround consistently going out the door and they have helped us make it happen. You can’t do it alone. Not having a ton of materials sitting around waiting to be used frees up manufacturing space to buy more equipment and ultimately allows us to buy more board and laminate as well.”


“It is completely a paperless system,” says Portzline. “This 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.”

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.

“These tool boards have saved a tremendous amount of time,” Portzline says. “Just a minor little thing like that eliminate so much wasted time.”

Speaking of waste, one of the first things that Northway needed to identify was what waste actually was.

“Once 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,” O’Hora says.

O’Hora has been surprised with the quick, overall acceptance of lean manufacturing by his employees.

“Everyone has come together and we have had very few, if any, stumbling blocks along the way,” O'Hora says. “What 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.”

One Stop Shop
“At one time, we were essentially a panel and component company,” Betty Pisano, vice president of sales says. “We would process the parts that went into someone else’s end product. But what is different about Northway today, we continue to do that but now go much further by adding value with complete contract manufacturing services. Contract manufacturing has become nearly half of the business. In addition to making the end product for a customer, we are now also providing packaging and shipping services.”

“We have also broadened our view in terms of the products and services that we offer including solid wood and plastic machining,” O’Hora adds. “Our 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.”

Northway’s contract manufacturing business initiated a little over a year ago has grown rapidly and continues to be one of the areas that O’Hora 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.

“Our business has traditionally been large quantities,” O’Hora says. “We 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,” he says. “That 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.

The nested-based Northwood router is the first step for this red oak veneer cabinet in the work cell.  

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
Northway’s new Northwood CNC router with 12-position automatic tool changer, 19-position boring block and X and Y axis 10-inch grooving saw was installed last month. It is at the heart of Northway’s nested-based manufacturing cell. The big advantage to this machine is the reduced set-up time required to run each job. It also has been an important addition to Northway’s miter folding operation, according to O’Hora.

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. “We greatly appreciate their efforts and expertise in selecting the right equipment for this application,” 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. Northway’s 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.

“This line will allow us to run a mix of panels at once, which was the main reason we looked at this line,” O’Hora says. “Not as much for full size panels, but for high-pressure laminated components and wood edgebanded particleboard parts such as table tops.”

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.

“The quality of the trimming, scraping and seaming of this machine is what makes it so valuable to our operation” Portzline says.

Just as valuable to Northway, according to Portzline, is the employees’ need for safety. “Based 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,” Portzline says. “This is in addition to the existing lifts already in place at most of our large machinery.”

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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