When brothers Allen and Brad Birmingham started their millwork business in 2001, they expected to become a successful two-man shop. Eight years later, Birmingham Specialty Woodwork has grown to eight employees and 14,000 square feet of space, with annual sales of $1.5 million, and most recently a move to automated production.

The shop specializes in custom commercial casework for facilities ranging from medical and law offices to financial institutions and hospitality lobbies. Ninety percent of its product is melamine casework. Its customers are general contractors who solicit bids for projects in Memphis, which is 30 minutes west of the company's  Somerville, Tenn., location.

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Growth leads to CNC

Initially located in a 2,500-square-foot barn behind Allen's house, the business moved to an industrial park in 2004. "After our first year here, we had to add on," Allen says. "It just kind of snowballed." The company has experienced 20 to 35 percent annual growth, he says.

Production efficiency becomes paramount when a company grows that fast. In 2007 it replaced its edgebander with a Brandt Optimat KDN 340 and its widebelt sander with a Butfering Optimat SBO 109. In February 2008, it also purchased a Weeke Vantage 34M CNC router. It bought all three from  Stiles Machinery.

"We'd been thinking about the CNC for years, but could never justify it," Allen says. The machine's potential benefits, and the right supplier, eventually won out. "We've known the name Stiles forever. I feel comfortable with them and with the local distributor. They struck me as a company that would help us with problems along the way."

Stiles representatives came to the shop and explained the difference between routers and machining centers. The company chose the Weeke Vantage, which Allen says is the perfect size for them. It fits their needs and allows plenty of room to grow.

Before delivery, Brad and an employee who does the programming traveled to the Stiles home office in Grand Rapids, Mich., for a week's training. After delivery, Stiles reps came to the shop for additional training. "We're still learning every day what that CNC will do," Allen says. "It's far superior to what we were doing."

They use AutoCAD for shop drawings and RouterCAD for CNC programming. A Schmalz JumboErgo 85 vacuum lift moves panels to the CNC. Product flows from the CNC to the edgebander, to the sander, to fabrication, then out the door.

CNC benefits, challenges

The move to CNC was not just about production numbers. "While the CNC has made machining parts much quicker," Allen says, "it also makes the parts exact every time." Allen, the president, brings in the business while Brad, the vice president, oversees production.

The immediate benefit of CNC production was equipment consolidation. The company set aside its two hinge press machines and line boring machine.

"We use them from time to time for something oddball, but they're sitting off to the side collecting dust," Allen says. Other benefits include accuracy, consistency, speed, material savings and less material handling. The company's subcontractor installer also has benefited.

"He says the cabinets go together much more easily, much more plumb and level," Allen says.

Finding employees is the company's biggest challenge.

"It's hard to find experienced fabricators," Allen says.

"We have several really good guys who have been trained from scratch. Although this takes some time, it has really worked out well for us."

The lack of available employees factored into the company's decision to purchase the CNC.

Another challenge is adding general contractors now that the company has increased its capacity with the CNC.

"I want to be able to keep the CNC machine running all the time," Allen says.

"That's going to be a little challenge, but I believe we'll be able to do that."

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