Woodworking innovations: Looking back toward the future
By Stephan Waltman

After a career that has spanned almost 50 years in woodworking manufacturing, I’m still amazed at the progress we’ve made without the impact of a world war, as was the case with significant developments in technology and material usage in the 1940s and 50s, particularly in the cabinet industry.  After a period of “prosperity” that almost ruined the wood products industries forever in the 1960s, our collective industries eventually woke up to the necessity to compete globally using the tools and materials available worldwide.

I was a plant manager at a large office furniture manufacturer in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the 70s when we began to experiment with several introductions that have become commonplace today; flakeboard (composite panels), edgebanders, and widebelt sanders, among others. 

In the 80s, I witnessed the introduction of CNC for woodworking along with flat line finishing, European hardware and MDF.  And for the last 25 years, I’ve had the privilege of being engaged in practically every significant new development in our industry.  And here is my point: These developments have been generally incremental!

Looking back I’m in awe of the incredible creativity of industry pioneers with their vision of truly inventing a new material, hardware and process.  But with some exception, the majority of “inventions” today have been merely the improvements on a recognized process or the adaptation of new technology on an existing product.  It’s not my intent to devalue a bigger, better, faster projector, but where’s the next disruptive breakthrough?

Leading-edge developments

For all kinds of reasons, I predict that material handling devices will lead the way in the discussion of trends: from simple storage and retrieval systems to intelligent systems that significantly improve inventory control and production management in coordination with other machines in the process.

Photo: Homag

Machines coordinating with and talking to other machines is at the heart of Industry 4.0 . The fully automated and integrated production process – from customer order and scheduling, through machining and into delivery – works with little to no operator interface. We are still in the first stages of this revolutionary development, which was introduced to woodworking just a few years ago.

Another development is the next generation of edgebanders, which eliminate glue pots and provide a practically invisible glue line.  In its early formats, this was very expensive and out of reach to the average production shop. This is no longer the case,  with a number of affordable, smaller machines providing these advantages.

Other recent innovations include the ability of panel saws to make bevel cuts on composite panels.

And what about new materials?  Here again we see opportunities.  Designers are clamoring for cost-effective, sustainable, replacements for traditional heavy materials and it’s obvious there are lightweight alternatives entering the marketplace.

Overall,  the trend in technology is to bring solutions to every size shop, with suppliers continuing to create cost-effective materials, hardware, software and equipment. Looking back toward the future can be helpful when we embrace our past, but let’s also celebrate the many opportunities before us.

My hope is that within the next few years, many of the mainstays will be eclipsed by the introduction of new materials, hardware and processes that aren’t on our radar today. Will you be ready?

Source: Longtime industry veteran Stephan Waltman is the former vice president of Communications for Stiles Machinery. Recently retired,  he is a volunteer at the Grand Rapids Veterans Home woodworking program and is active with the Wounded Warriors Project. He can be reached at swaltman0026@ gmail.com.

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