September 2005

Panel Sizing Goes on a 'Lean' Diet

CNC panel saw suppliers preach investments in optimization and material handling as two keys to increased productivity.

By J.D. Piland
Though material handling equipment is hard to sell in America, Andreas Schwarz, vice president of Schelling America, says there will be a time that companies will have to invest in order to keep pace with market demands.

Lean manufacturing is the buzzword for this age of woodworking.

More and more wood products companies are implementing the principles of lean and continuous improvements to rid their operations of waste. Even the suppliers of woodworking machinery consider lean principles when building their machines. In fact, they feel it is their responsibility to provide their customers with a machine that can accommodate said principles.

Since panel saws are a workhorse of many woodworking shops, their manufacturers must continue to tweak their products and educate their customers on the benefits of going lean - and how their machines will help them do that.

Andreas Schwarz, vice president of Schelling America, says many of his company's customers are going lean. "The thing that we see typically is that customers are producing more, but smaller, batch sizes. People are finding that they have a lot of work, but not 5,000 at a time anymore, just lots of smaller batch sizes," he says.

With so many changeovers and shorter lead times as a byproduct of lean manufacturing, panel saw manufacturers have had to focus on all aspects of panel sizing in order to keep pace with their customers' demands for lean manufacturing. Wood & Wood Products talked with a handful of panel saw suppliers about how software and material handling help increase productivity and make lean manufacturing a reality for some companies.

Opting for More

As mentioned, lean manufacturing results in shorter product runs, meaning more changeover.

Selling Points

Wood & Wood Products asked each panel sizing expert to name the big selling points when a customer is in the market for panel sizing equipment. Here are their responses:

Renato Moresi, Selco national product manager, Biesse America: "One of the selling features is the Windows-based interface, as well as a quick disconnect of the blades."

David Lillard, Fravol product manager, Delmac Machinery Group: "The most important areas are system integration, panel optimization, label printing and faster cutting cycles."

Andrew Jowett, Gabbiani product manager, SCM Group USA: "It really is a combination. Quality of cut, speed of operation, type of operator interface and ease of use of the interface."

Andreas Schwarz, vice president, Schelling America: "The biggest thing is the front-end organizational software that makes it work."

Scott Cruickshank, Southeast regional sales manager, Holzma U.S., a division of Stiles Machinery: "Reliability and service ... Panel saws do the most physical work in a wood shop. They are just machines, and when they are down, it is important to get them up and running quickly."

With this in mind, panel saw manufacturers have improved connectivity and optimization software, and have made it widely accessible. Today, a woodworker would be hard-pressed to find a CNC panel saw that does not come with some sort of optimizing software - or at the very least, one that can accommodate software or upgrades.

"I believe the software is the cement that pulls together the tremendous flexibility and power these machines have available these days," says Andrew Jowett, Gabbiani product manager at SCM Group USA.

Schwarz agrees. "The biggest thing is the front-end organizational software that makes it work," he says.

The software holds so much power because it is the driving force behind the machine. It creates cutting patterns to optimize the yield from a given panel, creates cutlists and plots the production path of the panel after it is sized, Schwarz says.

Also, optimization software can take one panel sizing variable, such as throughput, and even out the remaining variables to get the most out of the panel, Jowett adds. For instance, if maximum throughput is desired, the cutting patterns are simplified and yield is increased.

Optimization has become so important to lean manufacturing that aspects like feed speed, which was once a heralded feature of panel saws, have taken a backseat.

"It's more internal optimization of the machine's functions," Schwarz adds. "Now, those things are more of an advantage than a machine that cuts two more feet per minute, I think."

Despite what optimization is meant to do, human error can negate the software's purpose of streamlining and increasing production. All too often, the remnants of a full panel that was cut to size for a run of smaller pieces is set aside and forgotten. Software for cataloging offal has been developed since lean manufacturing practices seek to eliminate all forms of manufacturing waste, not just materials.

This software assigns numbers and creates labels for the parts that are processed on the saw. Remnant panels are set aside in a filing system or rack to be retrieved later, when the program reminds the operator that some panels have not been maximized, Schwarz explains. The program goes through that process until each panel is completely gone, or as close to being maximized as possible.

All types of labeling and printing have become a large part of optimization and lean manufacturing. Renato Moresi, Selco national product manager at Biesse America, says labeling is a big turn-on for his customers. In fact, he says it is one of his big selling points for his company. There is so much information provided on the label, the piece can move quickly through production virtually without question, regardless of the batch size.

Computer interfaces have become essential when implementing lean manufacturing. They can be used to network with other areas of the facility or to signal problems during the production cycle.

"Just by looking at a label, [users] will know what the piece is, what it is for and what the next operation will be," he says.

Scott Cruickshank, Southeast regional sales manager of Holzma U.S., a division of Stiles Machinery, adds, "Labeling of parts as they come from the saw ties the saw to the other machines" and saves time.

With so many features incorporated into optimization, "customers need to consider growth when purchasing optimization software," says David Lillard, Fravol product manager at Delmac Machinery Group. "Today, they may be using brand 'X' to generate parts and next year brand 'Y,' or they may need to import data from a spreadsheet or database. Having flexible optimization software allows production data to be imported from different sources. A good optimizer can increase productivity 15 to 20 percent."

Though the benefits of optimization could reach that level, Cruickshank says it is a frequently underused tool.

"Because many companies are using manual cutting tools, it is easy for the operator to follow a cutting list," he says. "I have spoken with many people who feel their operators can beat many of the low-cost optimizers for yield."

Cruickshank also says many users do not take advantage of advanced training offered beyond the initial training when a new saw is installed. Many users change software because they did not know they already had what they were looking for in the software that came with the saw.

Software that functions as a cataloging system for offal helps eliminate waste by assigning numbers and labels to offal from the panel saw. This rack is used to separate the offal for easy access later in the production cycle, when the software recalls the unused panels.

Get Connected

Optimization could be all for naught if the plant is not connected via Internet or a network, which Schwarz says is the best alternative.

The networking of optimization software to a saw to an edgebander, and so on, is essential. Just as the labels help move the piece through production quickly, so does networking. A panel saw's computer interface, most often a Windows-based program, can search the network for cutlists, specification charts and any other file on the network. This allows for remote access to and from the saw; no longer is time lost asking for specs or having to go to the front office for more information.

"No machine is an island in today's plant," Cruickshank says. "The information flow from the office to the machines in the plant is commonplace. More and more companies are looking to tie multiple processes together, such as linking the saw directly to the edgebander to edge strips before cross cutting. This helps the end user by reducing set ups and eliminating handling."

Panel Sizing Tips

With regards to optimization software, take advantage of advanced training programs offered after the initial training. If the end user keeps up with the upgrades and takes some of these classes, then the advances are just that: advancements. Many users focus so much on getting new software, they do not realize they already have the certain features they were looking for in the upgrades.

- Scott Cruickshank,

Southeast regional sales manager

Holzma U.S., a division of Stiles Machinery

Don't always concentrate on maximizing yield. When you consistently maximize your yield, you increase the complexity of the cutting patterns; this sacrifices throughput. You will want to determine how to maximize all three (yield, cutting patterns and throughput) to best suit your company.

- Andrew Jowett,

Gabbiani product manager

SCM Group

"Focus on the optimization of the saw itself, not just of the panels."

The PC interface often has a troubleshooting program that signals the operator when a problem is in progress or when one may be soon to come. Consult the manufacturing company's technical support division if problems persist.

- Renato Moresi,

Selco national product manager

Biesse America

For those with minimal or no material handling equipment: Invest in a scissor lift; or if you have one, invest in another. They can help reduce the likelihood of injury to the operator(s). If production is such that there are far too many repetitive actions, such as bending and lifting, which could cause long-term health issues, then investing in a semi-automatic system may be the next step.

- Andreas Schwarz,

Vice president

Schelling America

"Customers should only buy software from reputable companies that provide support and upgrades yearly maintenance agreements." Only buy optimizing software that can accept different data platforms. For instance, if a client provides specs in Excel, your optimizing software should be able to accept it by just copying the information and pasting it into the program. "The old adage, 'You get what you pay for,' definitely applies here."

- David Lillard,

Fravol product manager

Delmac Machinery Group

Another of the attractions to connectivity is how it helps with diagnostics. Many interface platforms include programs that detect problems, whether potential or in-progress. Digital signals have been incorporated into some controllers and notify the operator of such problems quicker than the analog signals of the past, Moresi says.

The controller knows how long each operation is supposed to last. When the timing is off - because extra lubrication is needed or there is water in the cylinders - the operator is notified, Moresi adds. Then, the controller brings up photos, and sometimes videos, of the setback in question so the operator knows exactly where to look for a solution.

"Ninety percent is understanding what the problem is," Jowett says. "Then, you can learn how to fix it."

In cases where an operator cannot fix the problem on his own, troubleshooting can be accomplished via modem by the manufacturing company. The technical support team may be able to correct the problem off-site, saving the end user an expensive service call.

Handle This

In terms of lean manufacturing, material handling is a tough panel-sizing feature to sell.

First, Lillard says, if each panel is going to be cut differently, material handling equipment can be expensive compared to the increased productivity. While reducing potential injury to the operator is of utmost importance, the cost for the equipment can be hard to justify; a scissors lift or two should be sufficient.

For companies that run larger batches with larger panels, quick changeover possibilities of material handling come into play. Schwarz says that with loading and unloading equipment, a book of panels can be cut and discharged while the next is prepared and entered into the saw; there is little downtime this way.

Cruickshank says that a company practicing lean manufacturing "can improve the output of a process up to 80 percent" with unloading equipment alone.

So, why has material handling equipment become so hard to sell to American companies while Europeans find it so essential? Simply put, the cost.

For example, Schwarz says a panel saw could cost $150,000. Sometimes material handling equipment can be twice that and the payback, which in America is based on a two-year return, does not justify the investment.

"The payback calculations are still based on how much an operator costs," he adds. "You multiply that by two, and, in most cases, that is $60,000 or less. Based on that calculation, it is tough to justify material handling equipment because you spend a lot more than [$60,000] on automated material handling."

Not that there isn't a desire from the smaller or medium-sized companies. They simply cannot justify the expense as easily as large woodworking companies. The time will come, however, when they will have to look beyond the price tag, Schwarz says.

"Once people get beyond the spending, I think more will start to invest in material handling because they will have to keep up with demands [of customers and lean manufacturing]," he says. "It will come that more and more the ergonomics and reduction of injury will force people to look past the two-year payback."


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