CNC Router Gives Cut-to-Size Shop a New Dimension

Machining center expands job shop’s value-added capabilities.

By Hannah Miller


A CNC router that cuts out thousands of plywood caps for industrial piping each week is expected to help carve a bigger future for the North Carolina building supply center that operates it.

Smith-Phillips Lumber & Building Supply of Winston-Salem invested $135,000 last year on a Cosmec Conquest CNC router and AlphaCAM optimizing software so that its cut-to-size division could supply caps to protect the ends of Teflon-coated pipes during shipment.

       
Driven by AlphaCAM nesting software, a Cosmec Conquest 510 CNC router from Holz-Her U.S. cuts two sizes of specialty pipe caps from a sheet of plywood. Labels are placed on the parts by hand after bolt holes are bored but before the parts are routed.  
 
       

“It would be almost impossible without the router,” says Fred Barton, operations manager of the cut-to-size division.

The equipment, purchased from Holz-Her U.S. represents a big investment for the fledgling operation, admits Mickey W. Boles, chairman, president and CEO of the Boles Corp., Smith-Phillips owner. “But give it time,” Boles says.

The cut-to-size division was created in 1997 when Smith-Phillips absorbed equipment and personnel from nearby Rural Hall Veneer Co., which had closed its doors following the death of its owner. Cut-to-size jobs currently account for about 10 percent of Smith-Phillips’ annual sales. The bulk of its business is selling lumber and other building materials, plus roofing, doors, windows and engineered wood products to commercial and residential builders and homeowners.

Smith-Phillips cut-to-size division is currently focused on fabricating parts but that could change down the road, Boles says. “You’re not going to be able to keep up with the times unless you keep up with the technology. We feel like we’re doing that.”

Boles says he thinks the addition of the router is bound to help drive more business the company’s way. Recently, Smith-Phillips was named one of the 50 fastest-growing private companies in the Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point area by the local Business Journal. Smith-Phillips, founded in 1880, also has a sales location in Elkin, NC.

Getting a Head Start

Until last year the cut-to-size division’s five employees, working in 1,200 square feet of space, were limited to cutting up squares and rectangles from plywood, MDF and lauan to the sizes specified by customers making upholstered furniture, case goods and bus seats.

Then, however, Smith-Phillips signed a lucrative contract with Crane Reistoflex to make end caps in myriad sizes and shapes that the pipe manufacturer required to fill product orders for its chemical industry clients.

While waiting for the CNC router to be delivered and installed at its plant, Smith-Phillips temporarily utilized a Cosmec router at Holz-Her’s U.S. headquarters in Charlotte. Once the router was in place, the company began manufacturing caps in earnest. It now makes nearly 500,000 of them a year for Crane Resistoflex.

In addition, the company went back to its furniture customers to tout the new value-added services being made possible by the router. Some of the new component services offered by Smith-Phillips include chair seat blanks, curved sofa back rails, chair arms and “stumps,” front-frame pieces with pre-bored dowel holes.

Boles and Barton say the cut-to-size operation is a good fit for Smith-Phillips, because as a building supplier, the company has wide access to a full range of raw materials, including plywood, particleboard, MDF and lumber. The company buys most of its materials through Lumbermen’s Merchandising Corp., a national purchasing cooperative.

Precision Is Paramount

While the CNC router has provided a big productivity boost, its precision may be an even greater prize, Boles says. “Everything we’ve done thus far, we’ve done with quality in mind.”

     
 
Gorrell Price, left, and Nick Whittington operate a Porter cut-off saw.  
     

As Boles and Barton stand in their shop, the CNC router, which has an eight-tool-change system, bores holes in a nest of caps even before the caps are cut out of a plywood sheet. While observing this operation, Barton says there is no way that his company could achieve the same sort of precision of multiple parts production using hand-held equipment.

“Of course, the downside is that if the machine is setup wrong, then all of the parts are wrong,” Barton says with a laugh. That rarely happens though, he hastily adds. Many potential problems are rooted out at the programming stage by the AlphaCAM software. “It will tell us when one of the drawings won’t work,” he says.

Smith-Phillips makes some 25 to 30 cap versions for Crane Resistoflex, including diamonds, hexagons and other geometric shapes, Barton says. The caps are bolted onto the pipe flanges and measure from 1/2 inch to 2 feet in diameter. The varied shapes provide space for Crane Resistoflex to paint the pipes without having to remove the caps.

Smith-Phillips fills the orders on a just-in-time basis, receiving CAD drawings weekly via e-mail. Barton and router programmer Terry Snow merely have to download the drawings and add the tool paths or specify the tools they want to use to make the required cuts and bore the bolt holes.

The AlphaCAM software’s optimization feature surveys a 96-inch by 48-inch sheet of plywood, decides which cutting pattern will yield the most parts and then specifies smaller cuts to use what otherwise would be waste.

“It’s just unreal, the savings that we get,” Barton says. “Some of what would be unusable without the router is salvaged. We’re probably getting 25 to 30 percent more yield out of our board.”

Adding Value: Square to Shaped

Barton displays a chair blank, a piece of plywood in which the interior has been routed out to create a space for foam and webbing. In the past, the customer for this part would create the hole with a band saw. He says this is but one example of the type of value-added services Smith-Phillips now provides.

Barton says the same is true of curved rails for sofa backs, sofa arms and stumps, that when connected to the arms, form part of a front frame. Before purchasing the router, Smith-Phillips provided this same customer with simple plywood rectangles. Now the customer gets fully shaped components with holes precisely drilled for the dowels that will be used to assemble the frames. “All our customer has to do is pop it together,” Barton says.

The extra cost for these value-added services is minimal considering the customer’s savings in labor and material, Barton adds. Programming the CAD drawings based on patterns sent by the customer, the software is able to nest eight sofa rails from a single sheet of plywood. In comparison, Barton says an employee operating a band saw would likely only get six rails from the same material because the plywood has to be cut-to-size first. “Once an operator does that he loses the yield across the board,” Barton says.

Barton, Snow and the company’s three other employees still use non-computerized equipment to augment its efforts. Included are a Porter cut-off saw, an Onsrud pin router, a Tannewitz bandsaw, a Rogers panel saw and a B.M. Root boring machine.

Considering that the Conquest router now accounts for about one-third of Smith-Phillips output, its not surprising when Barton says more CNC equipment is in its future.

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