RTA Concepts Fuel Small Firm's Growth

By building its point-of-sales furniture ready-to-assemble, Penrose Mill & Case Products has carved out a niche for itself -- as well as a little floor space.


Penrose Mill & Case Products, a store fixture and case good manufacturer, is located in cotton and feed corn country, on the outskirts of the small Texas town of Hutto, about 20 miles due north of Austin. Though it only employs 10 people, this small business has big-production aspirations fueled by its conversion to ready-to-assemble manufacturing concepts.

It was a conversion that forced owner Rusty Ikerman to adapt a drastically different mindset from the one he had when he started woodworking twenty years ago. "We used to use dowels, biscuits, staples and glue," Ikerman said. "That is the way I learned to build things."

Why Change?
As orders at Penrose Mill & Case Products started to rise, available space for inventory began to fall and lead times became compressed. At first, Ikerman contemplated purchasing a case clamp, but then in 1991, he saw a demonstration of cam fastener assembly. From that moment, manufacturing at the plant was destined to change. "The first time I saw the fasteners in practical use at a factory, we were beginning to get overwhelmed by volume and we didn't have the floor space to inventory our assembled goods. We decided to tool up for the mechanical fasteners and jump over the dowel system and case clamp technology," Ikerman said.

The "change of mentality" required that products be re-engineered, and new machining and assembly techniques be implemented. It also required patience to traverse the sometimes bumpy learning curve experienced by workers relearning how to do their jobs.

The benefits are proving to be well worth the effort. Production that had been "laborious" has become automated with computer-controlled machinery. Floor space, a precious commodity in this 22,000-square-foot plant, has been gained. Damage to workpieces in progress is practically "non-existent," Ikerman said. Components can be built days or weeks in advance, and then, when the time comes to ship products, they can be quickly assembled.

"We can compress onto our pallet racks finished goods that would take up 2,500 to 3,500 square feet of shop space," said production manager Bob Storey. "This allows us to make runs of things and store products until we need them."

RTA construction concepts are considered for all of Penrose Mill's projects. They are used most extensively, and most efficiently, on the company's stock line of point-of-purchase kiosks. The kiosks are used by mall vendors in shopping mall hallways to display everything from luggage to jewelry. Because a day lost displaying their wares to mall shoppers is money out of their pockets, the retailers demand strict adherence to deadlines. They also want to receive a finished product, not a cardboard box of components that they have to assemble. Thus, when the time comes to deliver its fixtures, Penrose Mill's assembly crews are busy screwing bolts into cam locks in preparation for shipping. Indeed, even though products are made RTA, 98 percent of them are shipped assembled as opposed to flat pack. "Our customers demand that they (the kiosks) be ready to go when they get it," Ikerman said. "If that means screwing a light bulb in so all they have to do is plug it in, that is what we do. That is the nature of the beast for our industry."

The kiosks are the company's biggest selling product and are one reason the company has experienced greater sales in the last six months than in the previous year, when sales topped $1.2 million.

The RTA technique is used on more than just the flat, angular kiosk components, however. It is also used on a variety of millwork projects, including an architectural millwork job that involved several thousand individual parts and a ceiling treatment featured in the promenade of an Arkansas shopping mall. "We use it for custom work, for both our angular and circular products," Ikerman said. For intricate pieces, "we can assemble and disassemble it to ensure that our parts fit," he added.

Whether for a single case good or a large architectural piece, one of the most important steps in the process occurs in the design phase. "The lion's share of the RTA concept is in the engineering. Here, the products are fully conceived. Each and every fastener is plotted prior to fabrication. 'Misfits' and 'redos' are almost completely eliminated. And we are continually discovering new uses for RTA fasteners. Most cabinet connections are square 'butt' joins. Our use of a dado, dowel, tenon, nail or screw is almost non-existent," Ikerman said.

Making the Connection
Ikerman uses Hafele's Minifix cam systems, the fastener that won him over in 1992. The Minifix consists of two pieces, the bolt and the cam, and is mostly used in the RTA furniture industry. The furniture connector system has a spherical-shaped bolt head that screws into the cam creating a joint that is "stronger than the traditional screw and more flexible than dowels in terms of assembly," Ikerman said.

He added the cams work well with engineered wood panels. Penrose Mill uses pre-veneered Plum Creek MDF as the core for its veneered panels in non-fire-rated applications, and flame-retardant particleboard cores from Willamette for fire-rated applications.

The cam fasteners are more costly than dowels, but Ikerman said that this cost is recovered by the increased production efficiency derived from the ability to use high-tech, CNC-controlled machinery. "Time saved, innovative assembly techniques and on-time deliveries translate into dollars saved, new products and satisfied customers," Ikerman said.

RTA Leads to CNC
When tooling up to convert to RTA assembly, the company looked for computerized machinery that could deliver on two requirements; the machinery had to be accurate and it had to be fast, especially in terms of set-up time. "Without accuracy you have lost the effectiveness of the system," Ikerman said. Set-up times are critical because typical runs for the company are between 60 and 200, Storey added.

CNC was the answer to these two needs, Ikerman said. One of the first pieces of CNC equipment purchased was a Tech 100 drilling and routing center from SCMI Corp. The Tech 100, purchased in 1994, features 14 vertical spindles, six horizontal spindles, two high-speed router spindles and a grooving saw. The Tech 100 drills the edge and post holes, does custom routing and other machining. "We can use the whole table, we can operate in different fields or we can do a mirror image for left and right -- an important function in RTA production," Storey said.

The machine has been a workhorse for the company, running 8-hours a day during particularly busy production cycles. Capacity has outstripped this one machine, however, and the company recently purchased a second computerized point-to-point boring machine, a Weeke BP150, that is used in tandem with the Tech 100. The Weeke, available from Stiles Machinery, is CNC programmable and allows for mirror imaging, 32mm system construction, feed speeds of up to 80 meters per minute and workpieces up to 4,250mm by 1,300mm.

The engineered board is cut-to-size on a Holzma HPP81 panel saw with a 10 1/2-foot cutting length and a high-speed program fence equipped with clamps which hold the workpiece under control through the cutting cycle. The saw is programmed from the office using Holzma's Cut-Rite software. Used for both ripping and cross cutting, the company relies on the saw for precision sizing of its parts.

Continued Automation
As production increased at the computer-controlled panel saw and boring machines, Ikerman realized that additional capital investments had to be made to match this increased output. Specifically, work flow needed to be improved and edgebanding and finishing capacities increased.

Recently, the company purchased a Homag edgebander from Stiles which will replace an edgebander in use since 1990. The Homag SE9400 features the QA-34 quick melt adhesive system, which allows for change in a matter of minutes and a purge button for color change at the operator console.

An upgrade is also planned for the company's finishing area. Currently, components are finished using catalyzed varnishes and other materials applied by high-volume-low-pressure spray guns from Binks and AccuSpray in a 10-foot by 20-foot enclosed Kayco spray booth. While providing an adequate finish, Ikerman said the company's next big purchase will be a roll coater "which will increase our finishing speed and quality."

As the equipment comes into place, Storey is looking to reconfigure the shop floor into a work cell where components would flow from the saw to the boring machines, edgebander and flat panel finishing system. "Until now, the equipment has been installed piecemeal," he said.

Over the last five years there has been many changes at Penrose Mill. New equipment has been purchased, new assembly techniques have been explored and adopted and employees' jobs have been altered, all because of two small pieces of metal -- cams and bolts.

"The RTA system has changed our workers' lives and my life in no small way," Ikerman said. "With the RTA system and CNC machinery, we can emphasize other things, instead of doing the tedious, laborious tasks such as glue-up. It has worked out for us; it may not for others. The thing is, if you do it, you have to dedicate yourself to it. We will never change from it."

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.