It’s hard to characterize Kris Kunik’s Aspen Cabinetry in Connover, N.C., as a “small” shop. The more than 10,000-square-foot facility is filled with more than $1 million of some of the latest automated woodworking equipment. But besides Kunik himself, there is only one full-time employee and a couple of part-timers as needed. That configuration has allowed Aspen to grow from a garage shop to prosper amid much larger competitors in custom residential cabinetry despite economic challenges.

“All about technology”

“My philosophy is being as efficient as we can be,” says Kunik. “I want to get as much profit as I can by taking every process, as I can afford it, I upgrade. I’m all about technology.”

That technology is on abundant display on the shop floor where machines far outnumber operators. There is a Holz-Her Dynestic CNC router with automated infeed and outfeed systems. Parts are banded on a Holz-Her Sprint 1321 edgebander. Automated dowel joinery is accomplished with a DMG Omal Insert 1300 machine, and the cabinet boxes are assembled in a DMG case clamp. An Omec 750CN CNC automatic dovetail machine leads off a three-machine station to do dovetailed drawers.

Three triple-head sanders from Kundig, Viet and Quickwood are at the ready for solid wood door production. A Biesse Rover A CNC machining center is set up to machine door panels using Planit Solutions software written especially for Aspen.

Kunik told Planit he wanted the same seamless integration for door parts as he gets from his Cabinet Vision software for cabinet parts. Initially, the company resisted, he says, noting that no one else was asking them for door parts manufacturing software. He convinced them that what he was asking for was the cutting edge of what could become standard technology as smaller manufacturers use CNC capabilities to make more products in house.

From garage to factory

Of course, Kunik wasn’t always at the helm of a high-tech production operation. When he started in woodworking 19 years ago, it was like so many others in a garage shop. His wife joined him in the operation and was both life and business partner until she died. At one point the company had grown to a dozen employees. But over time Kunik began to learn about the power of efficient machinery.

He calls his major foray into CNC automation a mistake. He had two vertical panel saws and a small point-to-point machining center operated on a floppy disk. He was convinced to upgrade to a beam saw and worked through issues of software and the CNC link. But the productivity did not meet his expectations. He talks about a big medical clinic project with lots of parts that took 58 man hours to product with the point-to-point and beam saw. “I could do that in 17 hours on the router (his current setup),” he says.

Always learning, always updating

Kunik firmly believes it is critical for his company to stay on the cutting edge of technology. To that end he is always reinvesting in his company, good times or bad. “I try to replace equipment every three years,” he says.

So, how does he decide what to buy and what the return on his investment will be? “Figuring ROI is just basic accounting math,” he says. “I’m only a high school graduate. It’s just a lot of common sense.” He adds that recent tax provisions that allow taking immediate depreciation for machine investments are important considerations and should not be ignored by even small operations.

Kunik might not have a lot of formal education, but he believes in constantly learning more on the job, including finding out how other shops do things. “Whenever I travel, I want to see a shop,” he says, explaining how while on vacation out of the area, he will cold-call shops to ask for a tour. 

And once he gets a new machine integrated into his business, Kunik wants to get maximum production out of it. “If you build a machine that prints money,” he says, “you can crank that machine slowly or you can crank it faster. Why wouldn’t you want to crank it faster?”

More production, fewer workers

But producing more at Aspen Cabinetry doesn’t mean using a lot of people to get the job done. Currently, he has only one full-time employee besides himself in the business. He makes do for the rest of his personnel needs with a couple of part-timers. “More goods come out of here now than when we had 13 employees,” says.

Part of his philosophy on staffing comes from association with a friend who works for the McDonald’s Corporation. Yes, that McDonalds. So, what do French fries have to do with cabinets?

“In this kind of economy, you need to be very flexible,” he says. “I’m trying to eliminate skilled labor as a factor. I’ve always wanted to be more efficient and use less labor. In a recession, labor is a commodity.” He says the use of smart equipment minimizes how much training he needs to do. He says he can take unskilled workers and make them productive on automated equipment very quickly. “It used to take 10 years to make a journeyman cabinetmaker,” he says.

With his current staffing and equipment, Kunik says he can produce a house full of cabinets – a kitchen and three or four bathroom vanities – in just 14 hours.

At the crossroads

With all of this technology in place and the economy poised to grow again, Kunik has set his sights on new goals. “We are at a monumental crossroads,” he says. “I’m standing there with all that it took to get there, and nobody really appreciates that. Now, I want to write a new chapter in the business with marketing. Out output capacity has soured, now we need to fill the production hours.”

He says he has two goals going forward from a manufacturing standpoint. The first is to focus on lean manufacturing, and the second is to try to be more of a Just In Time operation with material arriving as needed and jobs shipped out the door immediately. His emphasis on automated in-house production, including doors and drawers, allows him more flexibility to complete jobs on his schedule without waiting for outsource vendors.

And even with his predilection for keeping staff numbers down, he’s thinking of eventually getting to three shifts.

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