Windquest Companies' Road to Improvement Never Ends

Among other things, this Holland, MI-based company has reorganized its panel processing operations into workcells to more efficiently handle the growth fostered by a diversified product line.

By Rich Christianson

Neocon '99 proved to be especially rewarding for Windquest Companies Inc. The Holland, MI-based company won a Silver Best of Show Award at the Chicago-based contract furnishings show for Datel Caseworks, a line of modular healthcare storage cabinets that can be easily moved and reconfigured. In addition, Windquest introduced its first line of home office furniture, including a wall bed that pulls out of an armoire.

On the one hand, this brand of innovative product development and diversity has helped propel the five-year-old company's growth. On the other hand, it has challenged Windquest's managers to seek out more efficient machinery and manufacturing methods to keep up with the breakneck pace of business.

The need to rethink manufacturing operations became increasingly apparent entering 1997. With three distinct and expanding business divisions -- consumer, healthcare and laminated specialty products -- sharing much of the same equipment, production scheduling and workflow were beginning to suffer under the stress of increased order volumes.

"Two years ago we ran this plant grouped by processes, many of them shared by all three divisions," says Mark Bo

Windquest hopes to find its niche in the hot home office furniture market with its line of Home Office and Wall Bed Solutions, introduced at NeoCon '99.

uwman, vice president of operations. To illustrate his point, Bouwman says the panel saw operator had to juggle the large-volume cutlists for the company's ready-to-assemble closet organizer products with the much smaller lot requirements of its the custom closet products line and healthcare caseworks.

As these strains became more complex and work in progress piled up, Bouwman says, manufacturing decisions were frequently dictated by "whichever division applied the most personal pressure on the production department to get its products out the door first."

Bouwman says he and other Windquest managers were further jolted into action by the results of a time study that partially involved tracking work in progress by employees following parts around with a video camera. In an extreme case, Bouwman says the study revealed that some parts were traveling up to 1.5 miles throughout the 190,000-square-foot plant via forklift, conveyor and handcart before eventually being utilized. "It was a real eye opener," Bouwman says. "If there were any lingering doubts that there was serious room for improvement, this eliminated them."

Changing for the Better

The inspiration for conducting the time study came from Windquest's involvement in the West Michigan Kaizen Group. Windquest is one of eight diverse manufacturers involved in the group that borrows its name from a Japanese manufacturing philosophy preaching continuous improvement. (See sidebar on page 57.) To this end, Bouwman and other members of the WMKG meet regularly to discuss ideas and strategies for improving manufacturing quality, reducing production costs and eliminating waste.



Windquest Facts & Figures

Windquest's manufacturing and office complex dates back to 1988. That is when Laminations Inc., which Windquest acquired in 1994, moved its laminating and fabricating operations from Grand Rapids to Holland, MI.

Barry Walburg, vice president/general manager of Consumer Products and Specialty Products, says the company added 60,000 square feet to the original 45,000-square-foot facility in the early 1990s when it "evolved from strictly an OEM serving the contract furniture and store fixture industries into a company that also manufactures closet organization products sold to consumers."

A second expansion of 85,000 square feet became necessary in 1995, when Windquest consolidated its Datel health care storage products division into the Holland plant.

Today, the 190,000-square-foot complex has a workforce comprised of about 80 hourly and 30 salaried employees split among three distinct business divisions. They include:

* Consumer Products: In addition to the new home office furniture line, this operating group includes the Easy Track retail line of RTA closet and and storage organizing products. Also included is Closet Classics, a line of custom closet and storage organizing systems sold through and installed by a dealer network. All consumer products are sold on a national basis.

* Healthcare Storage Products: Datel cabinets are designed to meet the specific needs of individual departments in the hospital, including radiology, endoscopy, central supply, and operating and emergency rooms. In addition, the new Datel caseworks line expands the healthcare division's reach into the hospital and professional buildings.

* Specialty Products: Laminated panels and machined components are offered to manufacturers of office furniture, RTA furniture, kitchen cabinets, store fixtures and other OEM products. Laminating is performed on either a Harlan melamine foil and vinyl laminator or a Black Bros. cold press for high-pressure laminates. Among the fabricating equipment are two Komo CNC routers and a Heian CNC router. Other available services include T-molding, edgebanding, drilling, assembly and packaging.

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-- Rich Christianson

"We've picked up many good ideas by being involved in this group, especially through visiting each other's plants," says Bouwman. "Having manufacturing managers of different industries visit our plant has been a great benefit. They ask a lot of detailed questions that force us to think about whether we are doing certain things because they are the best method or simply because this is the way we have always been doing them."

In ferreting out the good from the bad, Windquest managers came to a dramatic conclusion. They decided to give up trying to make the process flow system effectively support the three business divisions. In its place, they began to look at redeploying equipment into three distinct workcells, each dedicated to one of the divisions or "mini companies," as Bouwman calls them.

Creating Workcells that Work

In drawing up plans for the workcells, Bouwman says Windquest performed a Prado Analysis to help determine the equipment needs of each mini company. "We decided to deploy a piece of equipment with the product in which it was used at least 80 percent of the time. We used Kaizen principles with the goal of achieving one-piece flow and becoming a lean manufacturer. Now, if a workpiece travels more than several hundred feet, it's gone too far."

Streamlining operations not only entailed moving around about one-third of Windquest's existing equipment, but re-routing electrical conduits and adding ductwork. In addition, the company has made a substantial investment in additional equipment to round out or enhance each one of the workcells.


For example, two new CNC panel saws were added since the plant was reorganized. A Holzma beam saw with a 5-foot by 12-foot capacity and automated infeed and outfeed cuts parts from up to six sheets of particleboard or MDF at a time, 20 hours a day, for use by the Consumer Products division's Easy Track and Closet Classics closet organizer lines. Meanwhile, a Giben Prismatic panel saw, also featuring automated material handling for one-man operation and real-time optimization, splits its time between custom sizing parts for the Consumer Products and Specialty Products divisions.

In the case of Consumer Products, sized parts are funneled directly to one of two areas for further processing. Cabinet parts are fed through one of two identical panel processing lines consisting of a Homag SE 9500 edgebander and a Biesse Technologic feed-through drill. Shelving products, meanwhile, are fed by a Bargstedt feeder into an automated line that incorporates four Homag tenoner/edgebanders, each equipped with multiple edgebanding cartridges for fast color change. A device that automatically turns panels 90 degrees so that all four sides can be sized and banded in one pass, bridges the two sets of combination machines.

After all of the parts for a unit are machined, they are packaged for shipment as soon as possible. The off-the-shelf RTA products come with Titus and Hafele connectors for assembly by the consumer.

In contrast to the heavily-armed Consumer Products workcell, the type of equipment used in the Healthcare Storage Products group reflects the custom nature of the Datel healthcare caseworks and carts that are produced. Whereas the Consumer Products workcell features multiple panel saws, edgebanders and feed-through drills, the Healthcare Storage Products workcell has an Altendorf sliding table saw, a new Brandt edgebander, a new Weeke BP 140 point-to-point boring machine and a Comil case clamp.

Benefits of Change

As different as the Consumer Products and Healthcare Storage Products workcells are, each aims for the same goals, namely eliminating scheduling conflicts, reducing work in progress and increasing quality and productivity.

The advantages of the workcell approach are many. Some of the more dramatic improvements Windquest has realized include:

  • Increased throughput: Work in progress has been reduced by 80 percent at the same time production volumes have increased some 35 percent. "Having stacks of parts might look impressive, but they are no good to us until they're in a box and ready to ship," notes Barry Walburg, vice president/general manager of the Consumer Products and Speciality Products divisions.
  • Improved quality consistency: "We have reduced our scrap rates measured by dollars as a percentage of sales by 50 percent compared to two years ago," Bouwman says.
  • Shortened lead times: "The time it takes to process an order for most healthcare products has been cut in half from four weeks to two weeks allowing us to better meet customer needs," says Nelson Sanchez, vice president/general manager of Healthcare Products.
  • Greater flexibility: "One of the things we like about workcells is we no longer have all of our eggs in one basket. If one of the divisions gets bogged down with work, it doesn't tie up all of the divisions," Bouwman says.
  • Better utilization of space: In addition to greatly reducing the clutter of work in progress, Windquest has phased out many conveyors. As a result, the company has freed up 40,000 square feet of space, part of which is earning income as warehousing space leased to another company.

Staying Focused

Bouwman is quick to point out that these improvements did not happen overnight and that the changes were not readily accepted by all employees.

"It took us about six to nine months and a lot of team huddles to work out some of the bugs," Bouwman says. "Not everyone was sold on these concepts at first, but over time most of them have come to realize that this is a better way. The real key now is staying focused on what we are doing so that we don't fall back on some of our former bad habits. We also need to stay open-minded to new opportunities for doing things better. One of the things we constantly have to remind ourselves of is that there is no finish line. That's why they call it continuous improvement."

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