Automation multiplies productivity
May 31, 2014 | 7:00 pm CDT

Small shops with a dozen employees these days typically hover on one side or the other of the million-dollar mark in sales. But that's far from the case at the Millwork division of A. Secondino & Son Inc. in Branford, Conn. The company's shop runs between nine and 12 men and is on track to do $4 million in case work this year. The difference is automation.

"Before (automation), we produced a few hundred thousand (dollars) per year," says Shawn Scalora, vice president in charge of the millwork operation. "We did a lot of work with conventional manufacturing but not like this."

And what's even more remarkable is that the change from conventional to automated production has taken less than nine months.

Ticket to transform

Scalora was charged with making the millwork operation an efficient and self-sufficient part of the larger Secondino general-construction operation by owner Al Secondino. At the time the shop was completely conventional, with a standard cabinet-style table saw at the center of production. Scalora knew that major changes were in order if the shop was going to effectively compete.

"We didn't know what to buy but we knew what we wanted to be," he says.

He did extensive research and ended up talking with the folks at Delmac in search of an automation solution.

"We wanted a system to suit our needs, and basically we purchased a lean manufacturing system," Scalora says, lauding all the support he got from Delmac to make the project work smoothly. He also applauded the commitment made by the company owner, Secondino.

New tools for new work

The new production system centers on a  Busellato JET Optima RT CNC router. The nested-based machine is also equipped with a full-size outfeed table and sweep function, so finished parts can be offloaded by the operator while the machine starts on the next sheet.

Parts are edgebanded in a  Casadei ALA 23 edgebander which can do up to ½-inch banding. The third leg of the system is the OMAL HBD 1300 bore and dowel machine, which automates joinery and makes for efficient assembly in a case clamp.

Proof of the success of the system is in the productivity. Scalora says the shop can produce as many as 72 cabinets in just five hours. That capacity is essential for the shop as its primary work is large school projects.

"We're able to do projects now that we were not capable of doing before," Scalora says. That goes beyond boxes, too, as the shop also uses its CNC capabilities to do curved and other non-standard work.

AWI Premium certification

Lest you get the idea that this huge increase in productivity has come from a sacrifice in quality, Scalora is quick to emphasize the role of the  Architectural Woodwork Institute in the shop's transformation.

"AWI was a great help," says Scalora, noting the extensive level of detail required to meet AWI Premium standards that the shop achieves. Scalora maintains that with the precision and repeatability of the shop's new automated system, it really doesn't cost that much to achieve the higher quality standard.

Getting the staff on board

Scalora applauds the team effort put in by the employees to make the transformation of the shop work. With the exception of Marc Migiano, the production foreman, the shop workers had no previous computer experience. Now they are all using computers to run their machines.

One strategy Scalora used was to give primary responsibility for particular machines to individual employees. Migiano takes the lead on the CNC router, which was natural because he had some prior CNC experience. But Jimmy Rustic, who is in charge of the new edgebander, and Sebastiano Lantieri, who is in charge of the boring and dowel machine, had no prior automation experience.

While the lead person for each machine has primary responsibility and becomes the shop expert in that area, Scalora also emphasizes cross-training so there is always backup.

Training for everyone in the shop was intense.

"I don't think the guys really know what they've done in the time they have," says Scalora. "We just started this in September."

Scalora says another thing going for the shop is a commitment to keeping the employees working despite economic pressures. "Al remembers how it felt to get laid off," says Scalora, speaking of the company owner. Employees work a steady 40-hour week.

Tackling the big job

Scalora says Secondino is fond of saying, "There's no job too big," and many of the projects the shop takes on are large school casework orders that would present serious challenges to other shops of similar size.

Scalora says the shop makes big jobs more manageable by breaking the job down into smaller parts. Some jobs are divided into three phases.

Parts are drawn in  AutoCAD and then the project is broken up by elevation, with the shop working on one elevation at a time.

"When we finish the first one we have 18 more just like it to do," says Scalora.

"That makes the job much easier to handle."

Whenever possible, the shop also tries to take a proactive approach, sometimes going so far as ordering material prior to final approvals. This way there is no delay in getting started.

Of course, that also means there is some risk in case something doesn't go quite right.

But Scalora says even when things go wrong that's a measure of the shop's success.

"You have to give people that sense of confidence," he says.

"Everyone remembers the things you did wrong. We're only as good as how we can fix our own mistakes."

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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.