W&WP April 2004
Information now moves quicker and more efficiently between the company's front office computer software system and manufacturing cells.
By Rich Christianson
The Teutopolis, IL-based company produces a broad array of products for an even more diverse client list. It manufactures and sells laminated panels, fabricated components, CaseMaster institutional case goods, Tot-Mate early learning school furniture, ID Systems storage units and its newest addition, a line of melamine organization products targeted at the industrial market.
Making all of these products possible is a fully charged arsenal of high-tech woodworking equipment. Included in the 450,000-square-foot plant, which employs about 500 people, are a B++rkle and two Wemhoner melamine presses, as well as a B++rkle cold press for laying up high-pressure laminated panels. Stevens has the capability to lay up 100 million square feet of particleboard and MDF panels annually from 3 to 5 feet wide, 6 to10 feet long, and 1/2 inch to 1-1/2 inches thick.
The plant also houses a vast array of panel processing equipment including some 13 CNC machining centers, seven computerized panel saws, 10 straight line edgebanders, two contour edgebanders, two postformers, plus multiple lines for many other processes including clamping and packaging.
To better manage the flow of information for its CaseMaster product line, and thus improve process flow from order entry through shipping, Stevens has made major investments in computer software. The company's case goods production software system, which utilizes products from TradeSoft, Pattern Systems and CADCode Systems, helps improve scheduling, reduce errors and make product design changes on the fly. It also helps the case goods division squeeze more production out of its computerized equipment, according to Keith Comer, engineering project manager for Stevens.
"A few years ago we re-evaluated our software systems and the way our information flows through the plant to keep up with the technology changes," says Comer, who before joining Stevens two years ago worked as an engineer in the metalworking industry. "In the '80s and '90s, we had programmers on staff who custom tailored CNC programs using a pen-and-paper-type of thought process. What we came up with, though, were island solutions. In this kind of closed system the engineering software didn't talk to the drafting package and it didn't talk to our MRP system."
To bridge this communication gap, Comer said data had to be retyped and the resulting programs had to be checked and double-checked for errors.
"We knew that if we didn't have to re-keystroke data, then we would be less redundant and more efficient," Comer says. "We started looking at software packages that would encompass everything we do. Some of the packages we looked at were not robust enough for our department's needs and others were too complicated. We ultimately decided to go with Pattern Systems because we liked the modular solution it offered and its ability to interface with other programs.
"With this software system everything flows together. When we pump something into it, everything comes out as the same paperwork on the other end," Comer adds. "It takes someone with a bit of programming savvy but you don't have to have a product engineer with an IS degree as you would with some of the other packages we looked at."
"It really comes in handy for re-engineering," Comer says. "We can instantly recalculate a price based on specification changes of different laminating materials or hardware."
Once a quote is accepted, the project is fed into Pattern Systems software. Modules used by Stevens include RapidEngineer, which works on an AutoCAD platform to integrate both design and manufacturing, Cut Planner, which automatically develops and optimizes cutlists, and Drill-Mate, which generates the .DXF files that are fed to CADCode in order to produce CNC machine code for Stevens' numerous CNC machining centers. The data generated by the Pattern Systems software is fed into the CADCode software to be translated into G-code.
Comer says the benefits of the software system are multiple. "First, when we put something in the computer the first time and it's right, then we don't have to mess with it again. It's also very flexible because we can change things on the fly. So if we're ready to start a big job and the project manager calls in a change of spec from 3/4 to 5/8-inch construction, it will only take us a couple of hours to convert with our current system as opposed to four or five days spent figuring out how each cabinet went together under the old."
In a similar vein, Comer says the software's use of parametrics is a tremendous time saver. "In the old system, if we had a special request for 9-3/4-inch-wide lockers, instead of our standard 10-inch, it would require an engineer to draw everything up. Then we would double check it to make sure everything was right and then take it to the CNC programmer to generate the machine code.
"With the new system, the information just gets entered under custom parts and we can resize the unit from our catalog and the drilling pattern is automatically accommodated. That's a major advantage because now we can concentrate on more valuable things such as product enhancements and new product development."
Keeping Tabs with Bar Codes
To assist with this process, bar codes are assigned to batches of like parts after they are cut on the Anthon or Holzma saws. Comer says while greater reporting accuracy could be achieved by putting a bar code on each individual part, doing so would be overkill.
"If I cut 50 end panels with multiple end uses, we really don't want several different piles of the same part coming off the saw. The larger consolidated stack can be efficiently scanned as it enters various tracking points while flowing through production."
"We have five different check points for tracking parts," Comer adds. "When the parts are brought into the casework cell, we scan the bar code. We also scan at the drill stations, assembly, case clamps and packaging."
To further illustrate the use of bar codes, Comer points to the two double-headed Biesse point-to-point machines that Stevens has integrated into its assembly lines. "The drills use a work list concept. Each cabinet has a work list, which includes all of the programs needed. When the drill operator scans the bar code, it brings up the list of programs and the order in which they need to be run. All the operator has to do is push start and feed the panels in the order they need to be run."
A Dozen Work Cells
Comer likens the production floor to a "big funnel." "We start with a mountain of parts coming off the panel saws and all the parts come together in assembly to make individual cabinets," he says.
Larry Zuber, design engineering manager, notes that implementation of the work cell concept stemmed from the company's lean manufacturing program. "We've greatly reduced material handling and have eliminated bottlenecks." For example, Zuber says Stevens has gone from having "one long assembly line" to having multiple assembly lines. As a result, products that take longer to assemble are directed to a separate line so as not to clog the flow of less labor-intensive products.
Comer says the software and cells work in tandem to help keep product moving and make tracking part movement easier. "Everything is synchronized better. Time is not wasted by someone walking around looking for a particular part to assemble a cabinet," he says. He also notes that the work cells make it easier to "time" how long it takes to make custom parts. Recording this data is extremely beneficial in fine tuning estimates of future jobs.
Changes & More Changes
"We have to be open to constant improvement," Zuber says. "If there's one thing we found in going lean, there is no one solution for everything."
One of the more unique pieces of equipment Stevens recently installed is a Homag direct postforming line for melamine and high-pressure panels, which it purchased from Stiles Machinery. This machine profiles an edge of a melamine or HPL panel and then wraps it in the same pass. This direct postformer adds to Stevens custom edge decorating capabilities, which also include HPL postforming, straight line edgebanding in any color or thickness of material and custom edgebanding of contour-shaped parts with a pair of Biesse Millennium CNC edgebanders.
The most recent addition to Stevens' panel processing is a Shoda CNC router with twin 6-foot by 12-foot tables and four router heads. Each head is equipped with piggyback drills. This machine is capable of 8-axis CNC movement. Comer affectionately refers to this machine as "Hydra," the multi-headed beast from Greek mythology.
Currently on the docket is the addition of a new multi-platen press for laying up high-pressure laminate panels. It is one of several pieces of equipment moved to Teutopolis after Stevens' recent acquisition of VT Industries CaseMate division.
"If you come back in a couple of years, I'm sure you'll see a lot of new things and current equipment moved around," Comer says.
Other speakers include Andy Wilzoch, owner and president of Premier EuroCase of Denver, CO, and Frank Staltard Jr. of Domestic Kitchens, Fairfield, CT. Rich Christianson, editorial director of Wood & Wood Products, will serve as moderator.
The program will address how adopting nesting and cell manufacturing concepts can help wood products manufacturers streamline operations, reduce material handling, improve process flow and increase productivity. The panel will discuss how their own companies benefit from nesting and cellular solutions, as well as the limitations and requirements for maximizing the efficiency of these concepts.
For information, phone IWF at (770) 246-0608 or visit www.iwf2004.com.
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