Northway uses lean, cellular and batch manufacturing to produce high-quality components and finished goods.

Northway specializes in manufacturing laminated and veneered components, as well as finished goods.

Flexibility is one of the key elements in the success of contract manufacturer Northway Industries. It was approximately six years ago when, faced with increasing global and domestic competition in the flat panel components market, Northway quickly reacted by changing its business model from strictly batch manufacturing to one incorporating cell systems, and by expanding its component offerings to include assembled lines of cabinetry and commercial casework.

The change has proven very successful and today the multi-million dollar, Middleburg, PA-based manufacturer continues to implement just-in-time, lean manufacturing techniques in its cellular and batch manufacturing operations to produce not only component parts, but also assembled finished goods for residential furniture, office furniture, healthcare and cabinet industries. Currently, the product mix between components and cabinetry/casework is approximately 50/50, says Don O’Hora, president and COO. And while many of the orders are the result of ads, trade shows and referrals from existing customers, a growing number of standard cabinet and closet jobs also are coming from online orders off the company’s Web site, www.northwayind.com.

Northway began offering online cabinet ordering just two years ago and has recently upgraded its program to include new options, such as: three light rails, five melamine interiors, hang rails for wall cabinets, five drawer box styles, additional adjustable shelf quantities and white laminate and matching laminate interiors.

The ability to offer precision machined, custom and semi-custom runs of variable sizes separates Northway from many other large component manufacturers who rely solely on batch processing. What also distinguishes Northway is that it sells products only to other manufacturers and not to contractors or direct to consumers. “We’re an extension of our customers’ businesses,” O’Hora says.

“We’re a full-service, integrated company...we will make one of anything, up to [runs with] no limits. We offer custom programming and fabricating to customer specifications, sub-assembly through to assembly and packaging,” he continues.

“We consider what we do ‘mass customization,’” adds Betty Pisano, vice president of sales.

According to O’Hora, Northway is looking to further expand its services and capabilities, through “more complex work, being even more responsive to customers on a custom basis, turning quotes more quickly and generating additional speed to market.

“In general, lead times have become shorter and our customers are challenged. Our goal is to make it quicker and faster,” he adds.

Inside the 93,000-square-foot Northway facility, the manufacturing area is divided into three work cells and an area for batch processing of
components.

Increasing Production

Northway is succeeding in its goal. Already in 2008, the company has increased capacity and improved throughput in the 93,000-square-foot plant through equipment upgrades and the addition of a second shift to Cell 3, says Robert Portzline, vice president of manufacturing.

Cell 3 is used to manufacture commercial casework and some components, with the majority of components being machined in the batch processing line. Cells 1 and 2 are identical in machining capabilities and are dedicated to the manufacture of institutional cabinets. According to O’Hora, a fourth cell may be added in the near future as business continues to flourish.

The majority of components are made from both melamine panels, which the company purchases direct from the mills, and high-pressure laminate, which the company presses in house on particleboard and MDF using a Black Bros. open daylight press for large runs of standard sizes, and a Midwest Automation press for smaller size runs of variable sizes.

Quality control dictates that every sheet of laminate gets run through a Wandres cleaner and is inspected before pressing.

“Our philosophy is that everybody [in every phase] is involved with quality control,” Portzline says. Although quality control checks are performed at each station within the operation, Northway has a lead person assigned for a final quality control check in each cell and for the batch processing line.

As part of its lean manufacturing initiative, before each shift the necessary tooling for the day’s jobs in the work cells is grouped by order, awaiting pickup by the operators. According to Portzline, this simplifies the process by eliminating unnecessary tooling at the machine site. However, because the batch processing line has different requirements, tool boards are located at every machine.

Panel saws are used to cut the composite panel to size before additional processing on the machines. Northway uses bar coding to track product through the shop and to ensure all machining operations are followed.

The machining operations begin with panels cut to size on Schelling and Holzma panel saws. For batch processing, the sized panels are transferred to an IMA double-sided edgebander or the newly purchased Homag BAZ “4.5-axis” CNC machining center for nested-based routing and banding of contour shapes. Also in the batch processing area are: two Heian CNC routers with 5-foot-by-5-foot tables; a Heian machining center with an automatic tool changer and V-grooving head; a Komo CNC router: Accu-Systems drilling and dowel inserters; and a Torwegge double-end tenoner.

Within the manufacturing cells, in addition to Weeke and Northwood nested-based CNC machining centers with automatic tool changers, also used are IMA and Homag single-sided edgebanders with automatic setup for applying thin and thick PVC, HPL strips, veneer tape and wood edging. JC Uhling clamps are used in the case assembly process.

“We purchased our first CNC router back in 1988,” Portzline says. “Today, we have 11 CNC routers and machining centers for routing, boring, drilling, V-grooving and edgebanding.”

A full-service manufacturer, other added-value capabilities include: miter folding, slatwall, T-moulding, profiling, beveling, complete assembly and packaging. “Our biggest request in added-value services is for assembly,” says Pisano.

“By manufacturing just-in-time,” Portzline adds, “we can offer very quick turnaround.” The time needed to process and ship, he adds, will vary based on the size of the run and its complexity.

With a commitment to continuous improvement, Northway reinvests its profits into technology. O’Hora says the company is looking to purchase additional material handling equipment and a new straightline edgebander, while continuing to upgrade other machines as warranted. “We’re replacing the older machines with new technology.”

Also aiding throughput and improving efficiency is the extensive use of bar codes for the large number of jobs running through the plant, Portzline says. “Bar coding is integral for downstream manufacturing,” O’Hora says. “We have had it in place approximately six years at the machine level.”

The company uses 2-D and 3-D design and manufacturing software, including Router CIM, Macro, AutoCAD and Cabinet Vision, in its operations. Northway has seven programmers on staff to aid in designing projects.

Green Initiatives

Like many manufacturers, Northway is starting to see more requests for green-certified products, says Pisano.

“The demand is definitely growing in the market for environmentally friendly products,” O’Hora adds.

While the company is in the process of putting LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] compliant procedures in place, it promotes the fact that it uses composite panels, which are made from recyclable material, as well as other environmentally friendly materials, including ABS edgebanding.

“Two of the hottest things in the industry today are the use of polypropylene and ABS, more environmentally friendly edgebanding, and the CARB [California Air Resources Board] chain of custody [for formaldehyde emissions],” Portzline says.

In addition to its recycling efforts, Northway has two furnaces in which it burns offal for heat in the winter. A third furnace burns sawdust year round to generate biomass energy for fuel.

To help further reduce its carbon footprint and save energy, Northway is in the process of installing Ecogate systems on its dust collectors. The systems are triggered to open when the machine is turned on. Using a variable speed drive, the Ecogate system is designed to maintain minimum airflow in the dust collector. According to Portzline, the company anticipates at least 40 percent savings in energy from this system.

Northway is also working with PENTAP [Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program] to find additional methods in which to reduce its carbon footprint. “The [ultimate] goal is to take nothing to the landfill,” Portzline adds.

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