Taking the Pulse of Software Usage

Industry experts rate the various woodworking sectors by usage.

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Computer software isn't magical, but it's close. It can do everything from design a kitchen or piece of furniture in a matter of minutes to run sophisticated machinery and identify and track a product from the time it's ordered until it's delivered. It can also optimize production processes and materials usage, facilitate office work, streamline product design, enhance sales and much more.

Wood & Wood Products queried industry experts as to how the various sectors of the woodworking industry - cabinetry, residential and office furniture, store fixture and millwork - are using computer software to enhance their businesses and to identify the benefits of using software to those lagging behind.

Wide Variation in Usage

"From our experience, it's tough to generalize each sector of the woodworking industry as 'ahead' or 'behind' in CAD/CAM use because different sectors have chosen to use different elements of CNC technology," says Rich Taft, Mastercam router product manager, CNC Software.

"The office and store fixture sector seems to vary widely, having adopted elements of CNC technology in some areas but not others. Since many of these companies are larger, they tend to have the capital to invest in the areas where they feel CNC technology makes the most sense for them. Because many jobs in this area are 'one-offs,' these companies are often looking for fast, accurate ways to cut, but not necessarily to automate. Also, they tend to use laminated materials like particleboard or MDF, which comes in sheets and lends itself to nested-based manufacturing," Taft adds.

"The cabinet sector, however, seems to be one of the most aggressive in adopting CNC machining, with the solid surface sector rapidly gaining momentum. These sectors tend to use sheet stock as well, but do many repetitive tasks making similar parts, so they have a lot to gain from becoming automated. However, these shops are generally smaller in size and may not have the budget to make a large purchase like a CNC router at this time," he says.

Because of the diversity of the materials and projects, Taft says the home furniture and architectural millwork sectors seem to comprise the smallest segment using CNC technology. "Although some of these companies can be large, they still do not seem to be using CNC routers for the majority of their work. They automated many years ago with complex duplicating machines that still produce high yields, although there are many benefits they could enjoy by using newer technology."

Not a 'Golden Hammer'

Jerry McCall, software product group manager, Stiles Machinery Inc., concurs with much of what Taft says.

"In the kitchen industry we have companies that are fully integrated from the order processes to the delivery process and we have some customers who have no integration whatsoever. The percentage of the people who are fully integrated is very small overall," McCall says.

"Some think software is an enhancer or a type of process, but it's really an automation of the process. People think of it as a golden hammer - we have a particular tool and we try to apply it to every need that exists. But in reality, it can't fit every need."

According to McCall, woodworking remains one of the only businesses in which mass production and highly automated production systems are applied to a very customized product. "In the end, wood products are almost always connected to 'fashion' products, with a high degree of variability. Processes change depending on the order with which you deal with a product.

"While all companies have the same problem - 'I have a product I sell to my customer, I have to manufacture and get it delivered to them' - there's no one solution that solves it all because the product is flowing in a different way.

"If I'm an office furniture manufacturer, I develop a product and prepare everything for manufacturing, then I send it to marketing; I have already worked out all the details. Then you get to custom work, where they come in and sketch a product on a napkin. You need different systems to deal with that.

"I believe the biggest trend in software will be in the high degree of specialization taking place. (Software manufacturers) which specialize are working, not just with customers, but also with other manufacturers to not just interface their products, but also integrate them. It's a response to a need that exists in the market. No one provider can say, 'I can solve all of your problems.' We have to have the ability to connect the systems together without dragging the customer through the integration process."

Proactive Businesses

Alan Fenstermacher, president of Keytrix Data Systems Inc., says he sees increased computer usage more the result of a "business mindset," rather than the type of industry.

"We are basically seeing a group of businesses that are proactive and trying to move forward. That mindset cuts across the entire woodworking industry. We see it in large and small shops, residential, store fixture, architectural millwork and custom furniture as well as RTA. We also are seeing a smarter consumer who knows what he or she wants to achieve and what pitfalls they have had in the past. I think you could describe this type of business as proactive, and I think you could describe the businesses that wait until situations force them to change as reactive."

Fenstermacher says the sectors or businesses he considers the furthest ahead with regards to software usage are those that have made a commitment to implementing a system and supporting their employees through the changes.

Maturation in All Segments

CADCode Systems President Ned Brown says he has noticed a general trend toward the maturation of software for the entire woodworking industry.

"All of the software for the woodworking industry has matured and continues to do so. For cabinet shops, it has become mainstream in terms of building casework," he says. The degree of software usage in the store fixture and furniture industry is not as well-defined, Brown adds.

"The store fixture people have the toughest challenge of creating custom work in volume and on schedule. They are similar to the high-end cabinet shop, although the cabinet shop doesn't have the demand for the scale and the deadlines the fixture people do. They (store fixture) do one-of-a-kind things and it's there the software needs to grow. If you asked a lot of cabinet shops whether they are happy with their software, the answer would probably be 'yes.' If you asked the same question of the fixture people, you would get widely different answers. Most of them say they make too special of product and there isn't any software out there for them.

"I think there is software that addresses much of their needs but it is still lacking in the one-of-a-kind project from an automation perspective. There's plenty of software to draw an individual part and get it to the machine, but to be able to draw a store interior the way you draw a kitchen and push a button and get the machines to go - it's not there yet," Brown says.

Unlike the store fixture industry, large scale furniture producers rely on software more for manufacturing than for design, Brown says. "What distinguishes them from fixture people is fixture people have mature software for running the machines, but it is still lacking at the design end. Given that the production furniture people are typically volume people producing their own designs, they don't have that critical need."

Specialization a Key

Michael Grohs, CEO of MBI Software Inc., notes that many of the large woodworking manufacturers, particularly in the office furniture industry, adapted their early computerization practices from the auto industry. Changes, however, were necessary.

"We have a lot of configuration requirements that far exceed the requirements of other industries. We have a very vertical industry, starting with simple materials like panels and solid timber. These raw materials are very inconsistent in their qualities - they are products of nature. It's hard to predict the composition of those materials, so it's hard to be able to predict the input for the output.

"(But) out of those building blocks you can build a universe of possibilities, which you most likely don't have in other industries. For example, if you go to buy a car and say, 'I would like to have this car 2-1/2 inches wider with a few cutouts at the door, but I don't like the handles on them, and build up a seventh door,' nobody would do it. But this is what we do in our industry."

When used correctly, software helps woodworking manufacturers face these types of challenges, Grohs says. "Just because you buy a double-end tenoner, it doesn't mean you will make great furniture. You need the right tools and understanding of how to use the machines and software."

Grohs says he also sees a trend toward software companies evolving as specialists for the wood processing industries. "It is a niche market that's evolved. It offers an interesting alternative for a lot of companies who spent a lot of time and money developing their own products."

One-Size-Fits Doesn't Fit All

Software usage by the woodworking industry is difficult to gauge because it is a broad industry and a one-size-fits-all approach won't work, says Bob Gowen, owner of Pattern Systems International.

"There's a lot of difference between cabinet building and furniture building or store fixtures and millwork. The size of the company matters as does whether they are custom versus production oriented," he says.

Overall, however, there are many areas where software is making a difference in woodworking, in the optimization and production processes, to working as a sales tool. "Today, kitchen cabinet manufacturers can show a customer what a kitchen will look like with a detailed floor plan," Gowen says. Software in the production arena is streamlining processes, "however, the more custom a product is, the harder it is to automate."

However, CNC machinery has provided a valuable tool to both custom and production manufacturers, he adds. "Software for woodworking is letting customers do cutlists, estimate pricing, prepare manufacturing information, perform panel optimization, machining, labeling and much more. Some of the industry is just using a fraction of what's available, say just the design driven software, while others are making use of much more, using integrated solutions to realize the greatest benefits. The best reason for making use of software is to remain competitive," Gowen says.

A Competitive Edge

Cabinetmakers oftentimes use software to give their shops a competitive edge, says John Murphy, president of KCDw.

"From my viewpoint, for the small- to medium-sized cabinet shop, the state of computer usage is improving. Not all cabinetmakers are using software to the extent they could be, but that's changing every day.

Murphy says a cabinetmaker's first priority becomes a design/drawing program, followed by production software, including cutlists. "I would say cabinetmakers first use a design program. They are confronted with the problem of Mr. and Mrs. Jones coming into the showroom with a plan from the local lumber companies done using 3-D software.

"Custom people who aren't employing design software are losing sales to lumber companies. Presentation software that does the design work and shows 3-D photo realistic drawings to the customer helps them understand what the cabinetmaker is going to do for them," he says.

Murphy estimates that less than 50 percent of custom cabinetmakers use software today. "But once they get into it, they realize the benefits are great. They then start looking at CNC machinery.

"CNC machinery, to a non-computer person, is generally a scary thing. But once they get over the hump and feel comfortable doing design, cutlists and pricing, they are ready to run the CNC machinery and use software to do nesting and more."

A Look at Niche Markets

Steven McLendon, president of Nester Software Technologies, notes a trend in the upholstered furniture industry toward using software to control inventory as well as streamline production.

"There's a great advantage in reducing inventory on the manufacturing and selling floor. Reducing inventory increases one's ability to refresh and address seasonality. There's a risk with a lot of inventory - it's like a head of lettuce - it is perishable. We have to remember that furniture is part of a fashion industry and is therefore perishable. Technology allows manufacturers to decrease their turnaround time and deliver what is selling in a timely manner."

Software can also be used to optimize material usage, which also results in savings. According to McLendon, optimization software for upholstered furniture fabric dates to the early 1980s. "It became popular because manufacturers saw an immediate materials savings," and that led other woodworking segments to also turn to optimization. "They saw and understood the benefits of optimizing the total process."


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