Servicing demanding retail and commercial clients requires being able to meet tight deadlines and control your costs. For Desco Professional Builders Inc., a general contractor in Ellington, Conn., that prides itself for its on-time deliveries and high quality, that meant bringing cabinet production in house, which the company did back in 1996.

But today’s market is even more demanding, and the company’s cabinet production has become a profit center of its own. That’s why the company recently took the next step to fully automate the cabinet shop.

Robert Anderson, president, says, “Our retail customers require quick turnaround and short lead times. Our first cabinet shop was three guys with table saws and a 35-year-old edgebander. Today, we couldn’t compete without automating.”

Setting up shop

Art Foote, who is in charge of the in-house manufacturing operation, says the company chose Delmac Machinery Group as their primary automation vendor because they offered a versatile system to fit the needs of custom work. That system includes a Busellato Jet 400 RT CNC router and an Omal HBD boring and doweling machine. Another important investment, Foote says, was the Schmalz vacuum lift that allows one man to easily process heavy panels. A Holz-Her Sprint 1310 edgebander rounds out the production.

Microvellum software drives the front end of the process with shop foreman and engineer Shane Bruscoe at the controls. Both he and Foote came from bigger shops and are excited to apply high-tech automation in a smaller setting where there are only about eight workers in the shop.

Two shops, two buildings

Actually, the Desco cabinet and millwork operation is divided between two shops and two buildings. The automated section is in a 5,000-square-foot shop, while conventional equipment and assembly occupy a 10,000-square-foot area.

Equipment in the conventional area includes a Uhling case clamp and a Striebig vertical panel saw, as well as a planer and jointer for handling solid wood processing. They use Jowat Quick Set glue for short cure times in assembly.

In order, on time

One of the big competitive advantages Desco has over other operations is its reputation for meeting and beating deadlines, says John Ridzon, vice president. One of the reasons they can do that is because they take special care throughout the manufacturing and installation process to make sure each step considers how to make the next step more efficient.

For example, in the shop, Foote points out that they use a sweeper on the CNC router, so finished parts are swept off the work table as soon as they are completed. That frees the work table to be loaded with another sheet and begin cutting while the previously cut parts are processed.

Those parts are all labeled with barcodes and carefully stacked on rolling carts. “Everything stands up all upright, so it’s easier to flip through,” says Foote. “The left end is stacked with the right end, the top with the bottom, and the nailer and toe kicks separate, so everything is in the order the assembler needs.”

That carries on to how things are sent to a job site. Ridzon describes how on a big school project, they were careful to load the truck by classroom in the order the installers needed them. Foote says on one school project involving two schools and thousands of cabinets, that system allowed them to finish two weeks early.

“The more organized you are, the less stressful it is,” says Ridzon. “We try to eliminate the headaches. We’re focused and we want to make it profitable.”

Foote says automation has made it easier to do that. “We’re taking the thinking out of the shop,” he says. “It’s all up front in the office.”

Changing the outlook

When Desco first started building its own cabinets, the goal was simply to provide more logistic advantages so they didn’t have to wait on outsourced products or subcontractors. But soon the cabinet shop was doing work beyond what Desco’s general contracting required. Before the shop automated, that meant about 80 percent of the output was for Desco’s general contracting needs and 20 percent was outside. With the combination of the down economy and the addition of automation, the shop is currently producing only about 20 percent of its output for the GC and 80 percent is going outside.

That’s what has allowed the company to expand beyond retail and commercial work into institutional projects such as schools and libraries. “If we had not automated when we did,” says Anderson, “we would not have had the ability to compete against guys doing that work. This has opened new doors that we hadn’t played in.”

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