Advancements in panel saws give greater flexibility to manufacturers striving to be lean.

What's the latest buzz in panel saws? Wood & Wood Products asked some of the top industry experts to identify the new trends, particularly as they pertain to lean manufacturing, small batches and the need for flexibility.

“The trend toward lean manufacturing has resulted in fewer people cutting for stock, which means runs are shorter as people cut for immediate demand,” says Bill Pitt, Stiles Machinery vice president/general manager of Holzma. “It also means the emphasis is not so much on book height, but on speed. When you are simply cutting for immediate need you have the whole topic of velocity of production.

“Velocity means that time between order entry and order shipment,” Pitt explains. “There's more emphasis on it today than ever before, because one way U.S. manufacturers can differentiate from offshore manufacturers is that they are closer to the customers and can deliver much faster.”

In order to remain competitive with lower cost imports, many manufacturers rely on cost-effective customization options to draw in sales. Mark Craig, sales manager for Giben America, says customization is of interest to all manufacturers today.

“The domestic furniture manufacturers are trying to compete with imports and our biggest assets are that we have flexibility and we are closer,” he says. However, Craig cautions, flexibility can cost North American manufacturers in output. “We have to come up with a solution to allow them to compete while having a similar footprint, the same number of operators, etc. It gives everyone the edge they need to be able to do lean manufacturing without having to add a multitude of saws and operators.”

Increased productivity has to come from other sources, Craig says. “One solution is a moving clamp technology that offers flexibility in lean manufacturing while giving the output of traditional older types of book height or speed. In the system, the pushing point, measuring devices, and clamps are on X and Y axis, offering clients full flexibility using one pass stroke to cut more than one part size.”

Another development to speed production and improve flexibility is twin pushers, which allow for the cutting of several groups of strips at the same time. “Extremely complex cutting schemes become easier and cycle times are greatly reduced, because the two pushers work simultaneously and share the various phases of the cutting operation in a logical manner,” says Randy Jamison, North American Selco product manager for Biesse America.

According to Andreas Schwarz, executive vice president, Schelling America Inc., the trend toward smaller batches and more diversified material mix, as well as shorter cycle times, “has led to a scrutinizing of every movement of the machine involved in the cutting process. The result is increased speeds and harmonized movements of all components.”

Dan Hershberger, sales and training distribution manager for Holz-Her U.S. Inc., agrees. He notes that physical improvements, such as in saw carriage design, “in addition to the ability to program angle cuts have all enhanced and improved the efficiency of the panel saws.” The increased efficiency and improved software capabilities of the new saws, he adds, “allows panel saws to mesh nicely with the lean manufacturing concept that is so prevalent in our market today.”

Software Optimization

“Developments in optimization, cutlists and label printing have all made panel saw cutting operations extremely quick and efficient for any size project,” says Hershberger.

David Lillard, product manager for Delmac Machinery Group, agrees that optimization software and networking with the office is a key ingredient, especially with lean manufacturing. “Typically in lean manufacturing, the customer is going to be optimizing in the office with a design package and cut pattern. The operator out in the shop just goes to a folder and does the job set in the PC.“

“Just about every manufacturer now utilizes some sort of design software package,” Schwarz says. “This not only allows for a superb presentation to the client, typically in 3-D, but also provides all the machining code needed.”

Schwarz says this trend has required panel saw manufacturers to develop Windows-based controllers, so that all available data from the design software package can be printed onto a label as the part is being produced. “This label usually contains bar codes for further machining, such as drilling and edgebanding, plus pictures of the part as well as customer information such as part number and product name,” he says.

Craig sees customers relying more on software to prepare their jobs, file data and do cutting. “When lot sizes are down, you end up with large quantities of small volume cuts, so people have to look for ways to gain productivity. In the past, they went for speed or book height. All the machines are fast now and book height doesn't save you anything because you are typically cutting one, two or three sheets.”

Andrew Jowett, key account manager for SCM Group USA, Inc., agrees. “The embedded algorithms have been modified so that these small quantities can be optimized and material yields are maintained at acceptable levels. Combined with these optimization software changes, many panel saws these days are designed to process small book heights or even single sheets with very short cycle times.”

Jowett says this is achieved by minimizing or eliminating inherent delays within the PLC program and functioning of the saw, and by operating the pusher and saw carriage in speeds up to 300 and 500 feet per minute respectively.

“[We also are] looking beyond optimization software and extending the control and management systems into areas such as panel storage, logistics, efficient transport of panels to the saw, waste and re-usable offcuts and labelling for parts recognition, to mention a few of the areas on which we are focusing,” says Jamison.

As runs get smaller, Pitt adds, he also sees the need for synchronized label printing growing. “The synchronized label printing system is an increasingly important factor in a just-in-time, short run environment. No longer are you tracking pallet loads of 300 to 500 quantities through a manufacturing operation, but instead are tracking quantities of one, five or 10. With the labels, each part or group of parts is clearly identified,” thereby reducing significantly errors downstream from the saw, he adds. “It takes the guess work out of manufacturing even in a very short run, small quantity, custom environment.”

Improved software integration, says Paul Hix, marketing director and product manager/cutting solutions for Altendorf America, has given manufacturers “the ability to control manufacturing, from creation of the product through the value added aspect of the saw. It means cutting the material with label printing and making it available for the next step. It is the integration of software to what we call the printers, which is the work cell, modular manufacturing or nesting based solutions.

“We consider the machines to be large printers,” Hix adds. “The software is creating the instructions...the machine prints or creates the components. When someone makes a decision to move into a CNC environment, in this case a beam saw, the key is how it will integrate with the software. Your ramp-up time to move into the new manufacturing or additional capacity is as minimal — and as easy — as possible.”

Faster and Friendlier

Erik Delaney, sales manager for Felder, agrees that the many features and capabilities of today's saws, along with the CNC programs, are helping make panel saws much more user friendly. “The ability to add upgrades and add accessories makes the machinery more tailored to each client's unique needs, while still offering ease of use,” he says.

“What the new technology on beam saws has most affected is that the controller has become an active and integral part of the machine — the actual machine is controlled by the computer itself instead of the other way around,” says Renato Moresi, regional product manager for Selco, Biesse America.

For example, Moresi adds, just a few years ago, it would have taken several minutes before a blade could be changed because the “machine wouldn't recognize if the blades were on 10 minutes ago, and already stopped, or just on. Now, the computer knows the machine hasn't been working, knows the blade is already stopped, and it allows you to get into the machine faster.” This capability, Moresi says, cuts unnecessary delays, resulting in 20 to 30 percent more productivity from the machine.

Improved productivity is key, concurs Hix. “People who were early adapters of nesting solutions are moving into beam saws to help remove production from their routers and also improve throughput. Improving throughput reduces the cost per part.”

People now are viewing the saws as part of an integrated solution, rather than an isolated component, Hix adds. “We call the integration modular manufacturing, rather than a nest vs. cell. We think the trend is a hybrid of the two because of the strengths associated with both of the solutions for this segment of the market.”

Improving material flow to the saw is another growing area of interest, says Pitt. “Some customers have told us that they lose from two to four hours a day when the saw operator is retrieving material and bringing it to the saw. While operators used to bring 50 to 100 pieces to the saw, cut them, and move to the next group of 50 to 100, the quantities have changed. Operators are cutting much smaller quantities for just-in-time requirements, so they have many more material changeovers per day than before,” Pitt says. One solution, he says, is a CNC vacuum bridge crane retrieval system that brings sheets of material to the saw in accordance with the production plan. While the saw is cutting one book, the retrieval system is going to a pre-designated pile and bringing material to the staging area just ahead of the saw, giving transparent changeover time from one material to the next.

“Customers [also] like the front-load panel saw because they can easily bring material to the front and change quickly without having to do a rear loading system,” Lillard says.

David Rakauskas, vice president of Colonial Saw, notes some companies purchase machines with smaller footprints to save floor space. “We see the lean trend forcing larger companies to think about ‘right sizing' machines and placing more weight on floor space and energy consumption. Companies are less likely to go for the biggest, best machine with all the bells and whistles these days. Instead, they are looking for the machine that does the best job, for the lowest price, while taking up the least amount of space.”

This, he adds, has many large companies rethinking vertical panel saws because “even though verticals are relatively low-tech compared to a beam saw, they can do specific jobs in a big plant very well while consuming minimal energy and floor space.”

Other Selling Points

Those interviewed agree woodworkers also should look for value and service in a panel saw. The first step is to research before buying. “If you are a shop in need of a panel saw, do your homework before buying a machine,” says Michael Della Polla, president of Saw Trax Mfg. “There is lots of information on the Web, including videos. All panel saws may look the same, but ease-of-use issues, capabilities and standard features can vary greatly with manufacturers. Make sure you compare apples to apples.”

“With global competition becoming more and more fierce, and the dollar values involved in capital equipment purchases high, companies can't afford to take a chance on an unproven brand of equipment,” adds Rakauskas. “They want to know there are satisfied users. It is relatively easy for a buyer to find candid user opinions on internet blogs and in chat rooms, so an equipment manufacturer's true reputation is more transparent these days and can't be masked as easily with slick marketing campaigns. If you don't provide a good quality machine backed with great support, people will eventually figure it out,” he adds.

“You have two types of clients,” says Delaney. “One is familiar with machines and is very easy to sell. The new buyer needs an education on the benefits and efficiencies the machinery offers. We basically show them how the machine will make their life better. The feedback is never why did I buy this, but why did I wait so long?”

According to Jowett, new panel saw users also should look for high operating speeds and chip-free cut quality, plus easy-to-use operator interface and “comprehensive diagnostics that include pictures, diagrams, and written solutions, plus online troubleshooting with the factory.”

Another item to look for, says Schwarz, is “state-of-the-art technology combined with a solid product and the support structure to back it up — with a competitive price. Also, being able to get good, qualified and fast support is just as important as the product itself.”

For more information on panel saw suppliers, consult the Red Book at

Troubleshooting Tips:

If the edgebander is not getting good adhesion on panels, or the holes from the line-boring machine are not consistent, it may be because the panel is not straight and/or square due to internal stress in the original panel. A simple way to determine whether the panel has stress is to cut it in half lengthwise, then put the two pieces together along the same cut line. If there is a gap between the two pieces in the middle, there is stress in that panel. (Gaps of 1/16 inch on a 4-foot by 8-foot part are common.) The solutions: Either determine that the sheets contain too much stress and call the supplier, or you can cut the panels, then trim each of the pieces that have now been stress-relieved, so that you are starting with a reliably straight edge. — David Rakauskas, Colonial Saw

If you are only going to do one thing in the way of routine maintenance, keep it clean. We suggest companies get a 10-inch flexible hose that can be attached to the dust collection system and vacuum the saw carriage area once a week or, ideally, once a day. — Bill Pitt, Stiles Machinery/Holzma U.S.

The better the blade, the better the cut. Buy two of the same good saw blades so one can be sharpened while the other is in use. — Michael Della Polla, Saw Trax

To get back to a baseline for cutting, set aside a set of blades always used for setup and testing. People sometimes get a different cut quality after they have blades resharpened. By keeping a set, you have a known set of blades you can use for testing cut quality. — David Lillard, DMG

Confirm that your machine has the correct input voltage. Proper voltage is critical for new machines. Also, check the condition of your tooling to be sure it is the proper tooling for your application. — Dan Hershberger, Holz-Her U.S.

In order to minimize downtime and maintain high cut quality, the two very simple and obvious tips are to clean all areas in and around the saw daily and maintain and sharpen the saw blades in the correct way and frequency. — Andrew Jowett, SCM GROUP

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