December 2005

Cabinet Company Expands Its Line With New CNC

When customers asked for more complex decorative styles, Thompson Cabinets added equipment to increase its capabilities.

By Hannah Miller
This residential kitchen is a good example of the high-end decorative elements requested today by Thompson Cabinet customers, such as the stained cherry stove hood and curved light bridge over the island.

The custom-built kitchen cabinets that were Thompson Cabinet Shop's forte during its first several decades of operation have given way to a broad mixture of cabinetry and millwork manufactured in a production shop atmosphere.

That mixture adds up to approximately $4.5 million in annual sales, split evenly between cabinets and millwork, at the 45-year-old Raleigh, NC, company. The millwork includes paneling, mouldings, coffered ceilings, entertainment centers, windows and doors, and other architectural items.

The change in production came about when management, in response to its customers' demands for more complex, elaborate cabinetry, bought a CNC machining center in 1999.

Items like hood units with curved ribs that slope over state-of-the-art stoves called for a high-speed, precise method of cutting radiuses, company President Jimmy Thompson says.

"I knew we had to become more of a one-stop shop," Thompson says. He joined his father, founder Thurman Thompson, in the business in 1984. Thurman Thompson has since retired. Now, Jimmy Thompson says, the company outfits the $1 million-plus homes that are its niche "from the sheetrock out."

"A typical job," he says, "is in the $150,000 to $200,000 range."

Changing market spurs a change in production

The CNC machine that sped the move into millwork is a Morbidelli Author 600K from SCM. It followed several other new machines into the shop, after the advent of frameless cabinets in the 1980s caused management to rethink its production processes.

"The new way was just to build kind of a box and hang doors on it," Thompson recalls. But the company soon realized it had to offer more than just a box; customers preferred something more decorative and unique. So it found itself faced with adding traditional curves and design touches to its frameless cabinets - a drawn-out, labor-intensive process that presented new challenges in a high-volume production facility.

Thompson says he sat down to figure out, "How do we move the product faster and more efficiently?" He initially bought a Holz-Her Sprint 1416 edgebander and a Wadkin K23 moulder. "[But] when you speed up one area, you expose another (to scrutiny)," he found. "I knew the CNC machine had to be brought into the puzzle to keep us competitive."

The CNC machining center, used as a multi-purpose tool, could fill all the company's needs for high-volume, precise routing and drilling, Thompson decided. After it arrived, the boring and dado machines were taken out, and "we eliminated the joiner and all that good stuff," he says. Manual processes were replaced by the precision of the CNC machining center.

"The CNC is the heart of this plant," says General Manager Mitch Holloway.

"Everything in the plant goes through that machine," adds Thompson.

The speed of the CNC machine is also making an impact on Thompson's production. For example, a recent project had 36 arched windows that required casings. With the CNC machine, "we can kick out 30 or 40 arched window casings in short order," says Holloway.

For a built-in bookcase awaiting final touches in the shop the day CWB visited, an arched facing cut by the CNC machine was decorated with arched fluting, also done by the CNC machine. Inside the bookcase, holes drilled by the CNC machine were used for shelf supports.

The computerization also gives the company a backstop in case there is on-site damage, Holloway says. The houses the company works in are big and complicated, he says. Typically, there is a multitude of tradespeople tramping in and out, so accidents can happen.

Thompson's new CNC equipment helps the company fabricate decorative elements for high-end jobs, such as this residential kitchen.

"If something happens to one of our cabinets, we go right to the computer and pull it up (for a replacement)," says Holloway.

What Holloway especially prizes about the CNC machine is that "it gives us consistency on our products, and that equals quality." That means a good deal at Thompson, a longtime Architectural Woodwork Institute member and adherent to AWI standards. The company motto is: "Quality and Pride since 1960."

In assuring quality, Thompson utilizes a strict regimen of procedures. The foreman, operations manager and field supervisor inspect all products prior to delivery.

What is the accepted tolerance for defects in construction? "In Thompson's mind, none," says Holloway. "If the product is not up to our quality standards, we fix it."

This hands-on approach illustrates what Jimmy Thompson says is the company's greatest asset, its experienced staff of 55 employees. "Many of our employees have been with us for more than 20 years. Low employee turnover shows Thompson Cabinet Shop to be an outstanding place to work, and with qualified labor, top-quality products are produced," says Lora Toney, chief financial officer.

"To survive today, it takes everyone involved, from the man who sells it, to the man who engineers it, to the man that drives the nails, to the man who installs it," says Thompson.

The role of machines at Thompson, including the CNC machine, is to enhance the efforts of all employees.

"Machines have made it easier for us to reach the level of excellence that our company pride and our customers expect," says Holloway.



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